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Visual Presentations: They Aren’t Papers August 23, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, papers, science.
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If you read this blog regularly, you probably know that I am anything but succinct. It may surprise you to know that in my technical writing and presentations, I go too far the other way in many cases: I tend to make the assumption that people have a pretty good idea of what I’m saying. This has, on more than one occasion, left me with someone giving me the deer-in-the-headlights stare. I really don’t mind going back and explaining some of the information necessary to grasp what I am discussing, but I often don’t realize it’s not something that people are familiar with. As time has gone on, however, I’ve gotten better at gauging and addressing areas where my audience may be need extra knowledge.

When I’m doing slides or a presentation, my version of being succinct is to create slides that have only a brief outline (2-5 bullet points with a few words) or a plot or two. The reason I’m doing this is because there is almost always a report that goes along with such a presentation. The report, in my opinion, is the place for the details. Talks are for the ‘big picture’ with enough evidence included to make the point.

My frustration with presentations usually comes when people turn them into report or papers. Yes, one often wants to give data in their presentations, but I get frustrated with those who want to include everything plus the kitchen sink. I had a great discussion with someone at a conference (who was giving me feedback on one of my talks), and he was of the same opinion: people are only going to remember 2-3 main points from a talk. You should only give the data you need to make those points and no more. One should also make sure to keep that data easily digestible.

A couple years ago, I attended a talk by a well-known and respected geologist. This researcher had a very interesting talk, but I became lost very quickly. She had tons of plots in her presentation comparing concentrations of various minerals (around 8 different minerals) at between six and 8 field sites. She would decide to discuss a mineral, say molybdenum, and show a bar graph of that mineral for each site. She did this for each mineral. That would have been alright, except that she kept referencing back to previous minerals, and after the third, I had lost track of how the concentrations appeared with the field sites. I found myself thinking that, with a little Excel wizardry, it would have been nice if she had just shown a plot for each mineral with a trace for each field site. Failing that, a spreadsheet with the numbers would have been nice. It is just too difficult to compare 8 or more sets of data when they cannot easily be referenced because that data is three slides back!

Another frustrating talk I attended was probably the epitome of everything wrong I have ever seen in a presentation. The speaker not only didn’t have a powerpoint ready, but they literally put the PDF of their paper on the projector and talked through it. (He also spoke in the most monotonous voice I have ever heard. It was comparable to my seventh grade math teacher.) I had already read the paper and was expecting an animated overview of the highlights. I think that is the only time I’ve walked out in the middle of a talk. What a waste.

I am becoming increasingly frustrated with having to sit through bad talks and busy, confusing, or cluttered power-points. One need not condense information to soundbites to effectively deliver information, but it seems like the tendency is to go too far the other way. I am also becoming frustrated with papers that fail to communicate information necessary to proceed with research. And I am mostly frustrated because these are the kinds of things one learns in first year English and speech classes.

The next time I hear a student say that they don’t need to worry about English or grammar because they’re going into engineering, I think I’m going to force them to read and attempt to use an incomplete journal paper. And the same goes for complaining about speech class.

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Comments»

1. Chris Gammell - August 23, 2010

Everytime I hear the word powerpoint, I immediately point people back to Seth Godin’s post about it (it was an eBook too apparently).

http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2007/01/really_bad_powe.html

Basically the idea is to evoke an emotional response using your slides and you memorize everything else you want to say. When I get the technique right I end up feeling like I’m giving a TED talk. Of course I’m not, but it feels like it. And if you watch TED talks, this is how they present. It’s pretty brilliant.

I’ve tried getting others to do this when they present, especially if I know they have a tendency to read bullets off the screen (ick). But for some people it’s just more natural to want to outline and show data. I think you have the right idea about presenting the data graphically in a stimulating way. Because at the end of the day, why bother presenting at all if your audience won’t remember a darn thing? Just send out the slides and save everyone an uncomfortable nap in conference room chairs.

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mareserinitatis - August 23, 2010

I think it depends on the context. Godin is talking about trying to sell something. I guess you’re trying to ‘sell’ your research when giving a technical talk or presenting the results of your work, but for many scientists and engineers, buying in means having convincing data. TED talks are a bit too hand-wavy for most of the stuff I’m doing…but I have to admit that they are far more compelling, as well. It would be nice if most talks were a bit more visceral and less stultifying.

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FrauTech - August 24, 2010

Oh I don’t know, I think Godin’s still got a point for engineers. Powerpoints I’ve been involved with are usually selling something. Selling a test we want to run to the higher ups, or selling a product or future product to a customer to get some funding.

But then, his “no more than six words on a slide” rule would never work in my world. If ppts are too empty around here, it’s like you said they assume it’s all fluff and no data. So either it’s a whole lot of bullets or it’s some nice graphs, charts, or photos of our sleak new product. I can’t include any dead birds in my presentation to get people emotional, but you do want them to get as emotional as somebody can get over running a new test to get some new data or over a fancy new box we’ve designed and would like funding for.

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