Note to conference presenters

Do not read your slides aloud. Most of your audience is literate.

Slides should supplement your verbal presentation, not duplicate it.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

17 thoughts on “Note to conference presenters”

  1. Ed Tufte ( claims that PowerPoint (and its clones) actively harms most presenters. The top 10% or so it doesn’t harm much because they ignore the straitjacket it tries to impose. The bottom 10% it might actually help, because crappy organization is better than no organization. The rest of us are actively harmed by it.

    The eyes are a high-bandwidth channel. Powerpoint text is decidedly low-bandwidth. Tufte claims that the appropriate use of Powerpoint is as a projector-operating systems. Presentations should be (mostly) tables and especially graphics: put the text in a handout paper that accompanies the presentation.

    That said, very little annoys me more than a speaker who is reading the slides to me. I’ve been able to read for most of my life, thank you very much. Put the main idea up there, and use your time to explain to us why the main idea is important.

  2. Perhaps presenters might ask first if any of the audience have impaired sight. But I suppose that should really be found out in advance, so the handout can be Brailled.

    No thread on PowerPoint is complete without this priceless specimen slide from the US Army in Afghanistan:

    No wonder the Taliban, spared such self-inflicted information overload, are not defeated.

  3. The other problem with these sorts of graphics (besides just overload) is that they never do anythng to try to demonstrate with of those features are the most powerful, the most long-lasting, the most intransigent, etc etc.

  4. If your audience is all American, I’ll agree with you. At international conferences, though, the audience is mostly people who read a lot more English than they hear, and they’re grateful for the redundancy.

  5. I was taught that the key points should be comprehensible to the audience if they only read the slides or if they only hear the speaker. This philosophy would not be consistent with the slides being a “supplement” to the oral presentation. This doesn’t mean you should read off your slides: I find a relaxed pace and a conversational tone talking through the material on the slide and only using the slide for pictures, diagrams, and tables works well. If you’ve got so much text on the slide that you can just read it to the audience, you’re doing it wrong – the slides should be fairly spare so they can rapidly be assimilated. But it would be a mistake to try actively to avoid redundancy between your talk and your slides.

  6. Examples of how judicious use of Powerpoint can enhance presentations :

    and those two examples don’t even use animated transitions!
    (I’m sure my readers can imagine just how much more effective these presentations would be if the text faded in, or marched in from offscreen, or if each slide “spun” offscreen left before its successor “spun” in from offscreen right to replace it.)

    and remember

  7. AMEN, BROTHER! In my government & military careers I’ve sat thru endless PPT briefings where reading of the slides was about all the verbal content we got. Slides should contain a main point or two you wish to make, which you use as a point of departure for examples or expansion. We need PowerPoint, but we need it done right.

  8. “Most of your audience is literate.”

    I always thought a collective noun takes a plural verb when the individuals of the group are considered separately. For example, most of the audience have been seated while the audience has been seated.

    My next post will be on pedantry. Stay tuned.

    1. I disagree. Most can refer to a group as a set, so Mark’s usage is OK.
      Most grammar peeves are (pl.) uninformed. It would be helpful if readers objecting to a usage of one of us eminent RBC bloggers could cite either a reputable academic grammar (e.g. Cambridge Grammar of the English Language), a reputable style guide (Oxford, Chicago), or if they are professionals the statistics from a decent-sized language corpus.
      BTW, Google returns 8.6m for “most is”, 8.8m for “most are”. I can’t believe many of these are mentions in discussions of this sort rather than uses, so usage appears to endorse liberalism.

  9. Don’t sweat the small stuff. What about the presenters who read their manuscripts verbatim? I’ve even heard presenters who read the cites: “As has been noted Schmendrick 1989 Gavone and Pazzo 2003 collinearity becomes problematical when . . . .”

    1. Based on my experience listening to many a talk from iTunes U, this is a very severe problem with English departments, a severe problem with social science departments, something of a problem with history, and not much of a problem with science or engineering departments.
      I’ve heard one theory that this is because, as one moves along these departments in the order I listed, people become less convinced that their words are beauties to be treasured forever, and so more interested in the actual ideas being presented rather than the exact language used to present them.

      As I’ve said before, I believe that, in time, those departments that allow this sort of behavior will pay a price. Entities like iTunesU are, at the margin, modifying society, and creating a new group of citizens grateful for these talks and supportive of the institutions that provide them. When the English department finds that there’s no-one much grateful for their contribution to this corpus, as opposed to the History department, budget cutting will follow accordingly…

  10. PowerPoint and Keynote don’t kill presentations, people kill presentations.

    Slides with lots of text are for losers.

    Title, graphics, helpful animations, and a light sprinkling of key words to drive home your point are all you need.

    If you can’t give a presentation without writing it on slides, stay home and publish it in a print journal.

  11. The quote I use (without knowing the source), especially when I have not bothered to make slides, is ‘power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely’. But well used, slides can remind the audience of your framework and where you are in your progress through it, while you tell them the good stuff orally. In some contexts it’s useful to hand out the slides ahead of time, so people can make notes on them if they wish.

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