Some things to think about for your next open day subject talk

Having reached the age where my kids are now looking at university options, I’m now getting to see the admissions process from the third perspective (having been a student and a staff member), which is raising some reflections.

While this is going to draw on the UK experience, I hope it’s got some things of use for the rest of the world, mainly because we all do some selling of ourselves to others at various points.

For those who don’t know what it’s all about, British universities compete to get students, using open days as a key way of getting people on campus and selling the vision. A big part of that selling comes in the talks that programmes give, since you sign up to one when you apply (so none of this broad educational base/learn more once you get here nonsense*).

In my time I’ve given a bunch of these talks, but as much as I’ve tried to empathise with my audience, it’s still not quite the same as being the audience. Which is probably a useful learning point in itself.

Any way, those things to think about:

Think about what your audience needs to know

This is really tricky, mainly because your audience isn’t a random group of people. Instead, they are people who have already seen enough of you and your institution to invest the time and effort to get to your open day and attend your talk.

Most of them are actively interested in your programme, so use that to help them understand better what it is you do. Specifically.

That means cutting back on the generics about why your university is in an excellent location or the sports facilities (unless you’re programme is sport-related), and tying everything back to what the student might experience as a student on your programme.

The easiest way to do this is if you have a clear ethos or driving idea that you can trace into your programme and all the supporting activity. That might be about your focus on developing students’ engagement in their society, or the community that you build through the relative compactness of the department.

But if you don’t have this, then still think about what students might care about. The classic question is “how many contact hours will I get?”, and yet many subject talks don’t mention that without being asked, and even fewer try to explain why it’s that amount. Same for types of assessment.

You’ll also get some people attending who haven’t decided on your subject, but who like the university: if you’re doing all the things above, then you’ll also be drawing them into something quite compelling.

Don’t bullshit

This is actually just the corollary of the previous point. If you’re clear about what you’re trying to do, then you’ll be less tempted to make specious claims.

To be very clear, this isn’t about lying – which is simultaneously unethical, counterproductive, illegal, and extremely rare – but about the hand-waving misdirection.

Two examples spring to mind, entirely randomly.

First, if your student evaluations in the NSS haven’t been great, then it’s simpler not to mention it, rather than give averages over an extended time period or to talk about your university’s general reputation. Anyone who is interested will have seen the figures already, and the rest will only have been driven to them by your obliqueness.

Of course, if you don’t mention it, then you’ll need to have an answer ready in case someone asks.

Second, ground the quality of your programme in the quality of your teaching staff’s teaching. Yes, talk about how that teaching is led by research expertise, but that doesn’t mean the teaching is any good: I leave to think back to people who taught you who were experts in their field, but sucked at running a class.

Likewise, just because your university is part of some elite group of universities, that says nothing about what it’s like to be a student on your programme.

Think about your PowerPoint

This one actually occurred to me during something that wasn’t an open day and it’s a too-common failing among academics.

Again, it is a logical extension of the first point: if you need to use PowerPoint to communicate something to the audience, then make sure they can access that.

Pro tip: if you reflexively say “you probably can’t read this at the back” or “this is a really complicated slide, sorry”, then you’ve gone wrong.

In this context, it’s usually programme structures or lists of modules that the problems appear. So think about what the student needs to know: is it the range? or the sub-areas of your field? is it about how each year builds up? In most cases, you don’t really need to give them a long list (especially since it’ll have changed by the time the student gets to actually study any of them).

And remember, if you put text on a slide, the audience will read it. So you don’t have to read it out to them again.

Use your students

You are probably a very nice person. You’ve been picked to give the talk because you come across well, hopefully (if not, then talk to your boss about how counterproductive it is to be the face of the programme).

However, you are still a member of staff.

As such, anything you say suffers from the Mandy Rice-Davies problem.

Bringing your students into the presentation and getting them to talk gets around a lot of that, because even if they’re obviously been specially chosen to say good things, at least they still have more claim to know what it’s like being a student.

This works best if you have them talk in general terms about what they’ve liked about the programme and how it fits into their future plans, rather than just talking through the options they chose. The very best is if you have enough time to sit your audience down in smaller groups with a student to have a chat, although I appreciate that timings might be tight for this.

Don’t be defensive

Maybe because open days are pretty obviously consequential, it sometimes happens that we dig in.

Having attended some open day talks for subjects that currently get some grief in the media for offering poor value-for-money, it was a bit disheartening to see a lot of protesting about how actually they did a great job of setting you up for life.

Remember again that your audience has probably already had this discussion and made up its mind: if they thought getting a well-paid job off the back of a degree was the be-all, then they’re probably not sat in front of you.

So embrace your passion for the subject. Show them how you are excited to be taking them into fantastic and intriguing debates, helping them find their own understanding and insight.

It also means not just talking about employability. Just a job matters, but it’s not the only reason people study. So why not embed employability within a bigger frame of achieving potential and being a more rounded person for the experience of spending time studying?

In short, show your audience how being here, on this programme, is an enriching choice, whatever their future. And show them that you and your colleagues are engaged and committed to making that happen and have thought hard about how best to achieve that.

* – obviously not nonsense.