How many presentations have you been to in conferences, seminars, student assessments, where even 5 minutes afterwards, you struggle to remember anything interesting? Perhaps even anything at all? For me the answer is: far too many. What’s worse perhaps, is not leaving a presentation with nothing, but leaving with a negative impression of the research or researcher. Such impressions tend to be quite sticky and hard to dislodge (they leap back into life when you see something written by that person, or see their name in the conference program again and think: avoid like the plague!).
There’s plenty of stuff out there on presentations. I’m not claiming anything particularly original here: just my way of getting stuff off my chest in a way I hope is useful.
1. Don’t rehearse your presentation, just assume it will all run to time
A perfect way to give your audience nothing valuable to remember you by, or to irritate them, is to get to 2 minutes before the end of your allotted speaking time, and then to reach the point (slide, usually), where you say: “So my aims / research questions are…”. Well done. You’ve spent 90% of the time telling me about the background, what other people have done. I don’t care. I want to know what you have done. Sure a bit of ‘why is this important’ is useful. But don’t assume I share your passion for knowing everything that’s been done before in your field. If I’m in your field, chances are I know that already. If I’m not, I’m interested in you and your ideas more than all that context, existing research stuff. I’ve come to your session on the promise I will hear something new. Don’t cheat me by spending the whole time on stuff that is already out there. I want my money back.
2. Allow your talk to take up all the time for discussion
After all, we came to hear and watch you, right? Well, to the extent that I want to hear you say something new, yes. But not to the extent where I think you have the right to intrude onto interactive discussion time, just because your time keeping is so poor (or your preparation was so awful) that you’ve only just started talking about the interesting things. Tough! You’ve had your time (and you wasted it), it’s my time now. The impression this leaves me with (apart from your woeful timeliness), is that you don’t actually respect me or the rest of your audience: what you have to say is too important to give time and space to those poor people who’ve just suffered your endless presentation.
3. Design too many slides
You’ve got 80 slides for a 20 minute presentation. Ooh! You’ve been working hard. WRONG. You’ve been working poorly, and without due thought for your presentation and accompanying visual material. As you keep adding new slides, because there’s another point that you simply have to make, consider me in your audience: when you load up your presentation, I see ‘slide 1 of 57’ and my stomach sinks. I’m getting an ulcer already. I’m thinking ‘this loser doesn’t care one iota for my wellbeing. S/he is actively out to destroy my enjoyment of this session’. You’ve put me on the wrong footing before you’ve even started. I’m sat there plotting the nastiest possible question or comment I could make, on the (seemingly improbable) off-chance there is any time for discussion left after you’ve finished your marathon of what I’m now expecting will be verbal diarrhoea. With any luck the reasonable and ethical academic in me will hold back from giving you what you deserve. But do you really want to be on such thin ice?
4. Design boring slides
You’re not a techno-wiz, so you let PowerPoint seduce you into thinking we all love slides full of black text on a white page. After all, you’re so busy, and good visuals are really for arty types: your job is to think and write. NO! If you’re using visual aids, then make them visual. Ask yourself: what are the images I can remember from presentations I have seen? I’m guessing the most useful, informative and memorable ones are not those with 100s of words, or (worse, see below), bullet points. If all your text is the same size, it says to me all the words and sentences are of equal importance. This may be the case sometimes. But in EVERY slide? Come on.
5. Use bullet lists when they are not appropriate
Did people use so many bullet points when we used overhead projectors and acetate? I’ve suffered death by bullet-point hundreds of times. And it only gets more painful with the repetition. They tend to come hand-in-hand with the sins of multitudinous slides and boring visuals. A bullet list says to me: these are a bunch of things that are related under a single topic, but they are in no particular hierarchical order, and they are all as important as each other. I’m assuming, if you’ve used a bullet list, that there’s no possible alternative way of illustrating the relationship between those things. So either, they all get the same treatment from you in terms of talk time (in which case this is going to be a loooooong slide, with no visual variation to help me through it), or you’re going to talk at length about one, and then rush through or ignore the rest, which isn’t consistent with the message that they’re all equally important.
6. Treat your audience like they are not worthy of what you know to be decent practice
“I know there’s too much on this slide and it’s impossible to read but…”. I’ve heard this dozens of times. From people who are telling me they know better. My thoughts when this happens are: if you know this is a bad slide, why are you showing it? The answers I come up with are:
You were too lazy to do a better one
You didn’t think this presentation was important enough to warrant more time in preparation; by extension this means you don’t really value me as an audience member
You know it’s bad but don’t know how to make it better; fine, we’re not all born knowing everything, but if we’re going to inflict ourselves on an audience, and we don’t know what we’re doing, we have an obligation to ask for assistance, learn, or stick to modes of address we are competent in
You haven’t done enough (or the right kind of) hard graft in terms of thinking through what you need to say, and what your audience wants to know; crappy slides full of too much information reek of ‘it’s all too important to miss out’, which reflects sloppy thinking at best
You think it’s fine for those up near the front to read what is on screen, but for those at the back to miss out. Presumably this is because the information isn’t that important. Or you don’t care about all of your audience, only the ones with sharp eyes and a tendency to sit near the screen.
7. Stand and read out the content on your slides
It’s fair to assume your audience is illiterate, so you’re doing them a great favour by reading the text that is in front of them. OR… your audience can read, but the text is so small (see above) that they’ve no chance of seeing it, unless they brought a telescope with them. So you’re doing those who forgot their telescopes a great service by reading it out. Given the text is so small, this is going to take some time. Yawn (with feelings of irritation and boredom now reaching critically acute levels). Either give me some time (and remember: silence is golden; see below) to read it myself, or give me something else worth looking at on screen.
8. Spend the first 10 minutes telling me what you’re about to say and other irrelevant rubbish / lies
It’s 10 minutes in, I’ve heard about your love of dogs, the history of your professional career including the paper-round you did as a teenager, and then you’ve talked through a bullet list of what you’re going to say. Unless this kind of signposting is really needed because you’ve got some complex structural things going on, my feeling is don’t bother. When I think of the times I’ve sat through this rigmarole, I realise most of it is lies anyway:
You don’t start by saying “I’ll start this presentation with an irrelevant and endless aside and then bore you with telling you about the structure of the talk” – you pretend that hasn’t just happened.
You don’t then say “While there are lots of important things I’d like to tell you about what I’ve been doing and thinking, I’m actually going to spend 90% of the time telling you what others have done” – even though this is seeming rather likely.
You don’t then say “Although discussion is central to academic work, and I respect you as my audience and want to hear from you, I’m going to ignore the time limits, and the chair, and keep talking until all the time is used”. Or, “I’m terrified of harsh questions so will avoid the chance by talking my way through the discussion time”.
If you have to give a structural overview (and think carefully about why this might be necessary), do it quickly. And don’t use bullets. If all your points come in no logical order and are of equal weight then you’ve no need to tell us what the structure is. This kind of structural overview reflects the need to communicate something more complex: by definition a bullet list is inappropriate.
9. Make a sloppy, half-hearted attempt to jazz up your slides
Irritating animations. Unexplained acronyms. Graphs I can’t read. Pointless clipart. Ugh! Just because you’ve now put a picture on your otherwise bland, over-full, and boring slide (usually next to an irrelevant bullet list) doesn’t make it a visual stunner. It says: I know slides are supposed to be visually interesting, but I can’t be bothered to do it properly, so here’s a picture of [insert random semi-related image here]. You think your wonderful animations tell me: I’ve been learning powerpoint, give me a medal! I can make the text come in letter by letter! No. Your ridiculous animations tell me: I have no idea how to approach effective use of technology and am duping myself that by learning some functions and automatically putting them into my presentation, I’m doing a great job.
10. You forget that your words are important, and that silence is golden
Not a contradiction, but I’m running out of slots in my top 10. Crap visual aids can encourage laziness in your audience (oh yes, I’m no paragon of an academic listener. I need all the help I can get to actually pay attention to what you’re saying). If your slides are full of text then I start reading and stop listening. Deliberately playing around with these things can be fun and effective: putting a bunch of unexplained acronyms on a screen and pretending everyone knows what they mean can give your sleepy audience a wake-up call, and make them listen to what you have to say. Absence of words on slides can help attune your audiences’ ears to you. Not a bad thing perhaps.
What of silence? How could you possibly have time to stop talking, given you’ve so much to say in such a short time. No! Silence is golden. It gives weight to what you just said (see: no contradiction with the idea that your words are important). It says [in silence]: just let that last comment land, have a think, it’s important. It also allows you to breathe, and (surprise!) check the time to see how you’re doing. You can also make eye contact with your audience, see who’s asleep, who’s grinding their teeth or putting their intellectual knuckle-dusters on / loading the shotgun full of nasty-question bullets (one for every bullet in your presentation, maybe). It gives your audience a chance to actually look at what’s on the screen, and then makes your voice (when you start speaking again), give them a change of focus. And anyway, a respite from your monotonous, hard-to-hear drawl is probably a relief.
That’s it. I could probably do a top 100 and still have things to comment on that have irritated, bored and exasperated me in the past. This is not fiction: this is borne of what I experience time and again from people who should, and do, know better. Final take-home rules that I use (by no means rules for everyone):
- 3 slides for 10 minute talk (and keep similar ratio as talk time gets longer)
- No bullets
- Max 30 words per slide
- No bullets
- No bullets
- Plan to say less than you want to. Accept it.
- Did I mention no bullets?
- Don’t read out text verbatim: it’s very hard for listeners to follow speech from written text (tends to have lots of subclauses, no erms, ums etc, which give listeners a pause); I know this is common in philosophy and other humanities, but I find I drift off and learn almost nothing, and ask myself: why not just give me the paper and be done with it?
- No bullets (unless there really is no other or better way to express the relationship between several ideas).
As usual, I’ve been a bit flippant and black-and-white here. Do you agree with what I’ve said? Have you had similar experiences?