Thoughts on Giving a Great Conference Presentation

Political science conference presentations are typically boring. The presenter mumbles past their time limit about some vague experiment, the audience asks off-topic questions, and I'm engaging in the interesting discussion (that's happening simultaneously on Twitter and is unrelated to the panel). I care about efficiency more than most people. If I believe you are wasting my time, I will tune you out so fast. I carry all my stuff around in my pocket, so I can work. I am hardly a captive audience. Because I usually sit in the back and can see a number of laptop screens, I assure you that others feel similarly.

So, just in time for APSA, below are a list of suggestions to help you jump out of this tiresome, terrible mold, presented roughly in order of importance.

  1. Make your point early and often. I think a great way to start a presentation is "Today, I'm going to try to convince you that..." Be simple and direct from the very beginning. At no point after the first 30 seconds of the talk should anyone need to ask you what your point is.
  2. Never go over your allotted time. If the chair allots 12 minutes, finish in ten. Going over your allotted time is disrespectful to the audience and the other panelists.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. Own it. I think practicing about 10 times is a minimum. The first 30 seconds is the most important.
  4. Start with some sort of hook. You have 30 seconds to earn your audience's attention for 12 minutes. You can find plenty of suggestions for this using Google.
  5. Include little text on your presentation slides. You must recognize that your audience cannot read and listen at the same time. If you put a large chuck of text on the slides, you must give your audience time to read it, before talking. If you put all your thoughts in the slides, you might as well simply email them around and skip the talk--it is not doing anyone any good. Instead, use the slides for short statement to orient your audience in the direction of your talk and graphs. As an example, have a look at some slides I've used in the past.
  6. Pause, often, throughout the talk. Give your audience a chance to catchup. Periods, paragraphs, section heading, and chapters all signal readers that a transition is happening. You need to pause at the end of thoughts and give your audience a chance to digest the point, gather themselves, and get ready for the next point. What seems like an eternity to you as a presenter is like a cool summer breeze to your audience. Pauses are incredibly powerful. It sometimes takes people a while to wrap their head around something and collect their thoughts.
  7. Give pointers often throughout the talk. "Before jumping into why I think that [your point], let me explain why this is an import point to make." "Now that I've explained why I think that [your point] from a theoretical perspective, I'd like to show you some data that support my point as well." This goes along nicely with the pauses above.
  8. Have notes. Look at them--not your slides. No one will freak out if you stop talking and look at your notes. In fact, they'll appreciate the breather.
  9. Choose carefully what goes into your talk. Your job is not to go through everything in the paper. It is to state the main point of the paper and a brief argument for it. This might mean that you talk about only one of the twelve hypotheses. I might mean you talk only about the theoretical model or empirical results. It might mean that you skimp on one or the other.  For example, here's a 12 mintute presentation I'm giving about this paper at APSA. The paper has a formal model and an empirical analysis. I don't feel like 12 minutes is enough time for both, so the presentation only makes a passing mention of the formal model. Instead, I focus on (1) the theoretical intuition and (2) plots of the data.
  10. Never apologize to start a presentation--own it. Never start with administrative stuff, own it. Make your point. If you need to say something like please interrupt with questions, do it after getting the audience's attention. If you want people to hold questions until the end, at least don't tell them that.
  11. Connect with people. Look them in the eye. I struggle with this more than anything.

I have strong views on a lot of things. Feel free to take my views seriously or not. I hope, however, that you'll find them useful.

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.

(Click here to continue reading.)

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.

(Click here to continue reading.)

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