Saturday, April 18, 2009

Are You Putting Your Audiences to Sleep?

I’m in the midst of preparing my presentation for the upcoming SWS meeting in Madison (June 21-25). It is something of a departure for me; the title is, “Rise to the Occasion: How to Prepare, Design, and Deliver Outstanding Presentations”.

Coincidentally, there is a discussion at another blog about presentations. It started as a discussion of whether it’s appropriate for members of the audience at scientific conferences to take photos of people’s slides (both the disruption and the taking of information without permission). That discussion has evolved into one that touches on some of the information that I plan to present in Madison.

In particular, some bloggers think that presentations (or lectures) are like written documents that can be posted on websites for people to look at and download if they wish. Aside from the permission and copyright aspects, there is another view that I think is worthy of further discussion.

Why bother to deliver a presentation if the audience is not paying attention to what you are saying? People roaming around the room taking photos are not listening (and they are distracting others so that they are also not paying attention to the speaker). Students who know that the lecture (or information in it) will be available later are probably reading their email instead of paying attention to the lecturer.

Why should anyone waste time attending an oral presentation that they can read later at their leisure? Why not just post your presentation on a website and not even bother to appear in person?

Think of all the famous speeches given in history. We can read the text of (some) speeches long after the speakers are dead, but imagine what it was like to hear Patrick Henry (Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death), Abraham Lincoln (Gettysburg Address), Sojourner Truth (Ain’t I a Woman?), Susan B. Anthony (Women’s Right to Vote), Winston Churchill (We Shall Fight on the Beaches), Mahatma Gandhi (Quit India) and many others deliver those famous speeches in person?

Is it the same just reading the words they spoke? No. (See the next post about Sojourner Truth for an example)

I’m not suggesting that we all should be (or can be) famous orators. Most of the people listed above delivered a speech in order to motivate people. Sometimes that might be our goal, but mostly it’s to transmit information about new findings in our research to our peers or to teach students. How we perform this task, however, influences our colleagues’ and students’ view of us as scientists and teachers. I know which colleagues in my field are excellent speakers, and make a point to attend their talks, even if the subject is not of special interest to me. I’ve made job offers to students whose presentations at conferences impressed me.

What is a presentation? Is it meant to be a stand-alone document crammed with information—like a written article? Or is it an exposition in which the speaker is central to the message being delivered?

The problem with PowerPoint and similar applications is that people using it seem to be forgetting the art of oratory (and rhetoric) and instead produce a Frankenstein creation, which is neither oratory nor document. They stand and talk to the screen, looking at their slides (usually reading what’s written) with their backs to the audience. I attended a seminar yesterday, for example, and the speaker stood for almost the entire time with his back to the audience, occasionally glancing over his shoulder (but he missed seeing the people who were sneaking out of the room throughout his talk).

It’s fine to create a summary of your work with PowerPoint and post it on your website, but I would not recommend using it to deliver the information orally (at least not the version crammed with data and verbiage). An audience cannot take in a lot of information (there is no opportunity to reread or stop to ponder the data), so the speaker must take this into account in developing a talk.

I think it’s important to make a distinction between these two purposes: 1) a PowerPoint summary that transmits detailed information and that can serve this purpose without our participation (e.g., posted on a website) and 2) a presentation. Trying to do both (create a document and a presentation) yields something that is unsuccessful for either purpose.

I'll add more information to this topic as I develop my presentation.

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