Improving Conference Presentations

On Wednesday, I wrote about the "accidents" that led to one of the livelier panels I've been to at a general conference. Today, I'm writing about an accident that led to a surprisingly good presentation.

A panelist could not get his carefully prepared PowerPoint presentation to work. He had no other notes. There were a lot of people in the audience. At first, he was clearly frazzled by the idea of not having slides or notes. But he just started talking to the audience about his research. It was one of the more engaging talks that I've seen at a conference.

Even though he had prepared graphs for the audience, the presentation went really well without graphs. I love and expect graphs, but they were not necessary.

I think the lesson for presenters is this. Talk to your audience. If you want to design slides that supplement what you're saying, that's fine. But don't let talking to the audience become reading slides.

Improving Conference Panels

The typical panel at a general political science conference goes something like this.

  1. Each presenter talks. No questions or discussion. The begins audience to lose interest.
  2. The discussant talks for a minute or two about the general themes of the panel, trying in vain to connect the unrelated papers. The audience is not aroused.
  3. The discussant directs a series of technical suggestions to each presenter, boring the audience to sleep.
  4. Now the bored, sleeping audience is asked to discuss the papers.

It doesn't have to be that way. A recent "series of unfortunate events" imposed a different structure on a panel I attended and it worked much better.

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Labeling the Vertical Axis in R Plots

In response to a recent post (Getting Control of Axes in R Plots), a reader suggests labeling the vertical axis slightly different than normal. Rather than label the axis with vertical text positioned outside the plot area and centered along the axis (as I usually do), Kate suggests placing the label at the top of the axis. In this post, I discuss how to orient the label horizontally at the top of the axis. (Click here to continue reading.)

How Much Text on Presentation Slides?

I've been working on my presentations lately. While I've spent most of my time thinking about the content and the style of the talk itself, I've also been changing my thinking about the content of the presentation slides. Garr Reynolds, in his excellent book Presentation Zen, makes the following observation:

Over the years, a primary reason so many presentations given with the aid of slides or other multimedia have failed is that the visual displays served as nothing more than containers for reams of text. According to John Sweller, who developed the cognitive load theory in the 1980s, it is more difficult to process information if it is coming at us both verbally and in written form at the same time. Since people cannot read and listen well at the same time, displays filled with lots of text must be avoided. On the other hand, multimedia that displays visual information, including visualizations of quantitative information, can be processed while listening to someone speak about the visual content.

Most of us know intuitively that when given 20 minutes to present, using screens full of text does not work. Research supports the concept that it is indeed more difficult for audiences to process information when it is presented in spoken and written form at the same time. So perhaps it would be better to just remain silent and let people read the slides. But this raises the issue: Why are you there? A good oral presentation is different from a well-written document, and attempts to merge them result in poor presentations and poor documents.

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Presentation Tips from Garr Reynolds

Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen, has a fantastic website and blog that anyone giving a presentation (academic or otherwise) should be reading. I've given a lot of bad presentations and I want to improve, so I've been reading in this area lately. I wanted to point my readers to three specific resources on Garr's website.

Tips for Presentations

I hope you find these helpful. I certainly did.

For more posts, see the Archives.