Note to presenters at academic conferences

Your audience can read. So don’t read out your slides.

1. Most of the audience either has a Ph.D. or is about to get one.
2. It is extremely hard to get a doctorate without finishing college.
3. Colleges rarely accept students without high school diplomas.
4. Before graduating from high school it is necessary to pass the third grade.
5. Passing the third grade requires being able to read.
6. Therefore, almost all of your audience knows how to read.
7. That makes it completely unnecessary – not to say outrageously annoying – to read your f*cking slides out loud. Slides should complement, not duplicate, your verbal presentation.

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:

34 thoughts on “Note to presenters at academic conferences”

  1. I might quibble a bit about “complement” – I was trained to construct my talk so that an audience member could understand the important points without looking at the slides or without listening to a word I said, and the use of “complement” suggests that they’d miss important points if they didn’t pay attention to both the script and the slides – but your frustration with bad (and lazy!) speakers is well taken.

  2. These points also could be used for presenters at business conferences/meetings. Just change point one to “most of your audience has completed an MBA”, and change point two appropriately, or combine points one and two into “your audience has finished college”. In my working days it would drive me up the freaking wall when someone (whether an employee of our company or a consultant we were paying big bucks for) would just read the bullet points off the PowerPoint.

  3. IMHO, Powerpoint transition effects such as fade-out/fade-in, marquee marching text, bullet points that are not visible until mentioned, and flips and spins between slides are at best distractions, and at worst constitute a vain attempt to prevent the audience from noticing the weakness of the content.

    Once the form is adequate, additional time is best spent improving the content.

    1. I disagree with your third point. If you have five bullet points that all appear at once, leading people from one to the next to the next is more awkward than if you can bring up one, then bring up the next, then bring up the next. Also it’s not good to spend a minute or whatever talking about the first bullet point while there are people who know what you’re going to talk about next and are waiting impatiently for you to get to it.

  4. Bravo. Personally, I blame Microsoft. Who says every presentation should include lots and lots of bullet points? Slides should probably be mostly pictures – you can speak the words.

    1. Yes. Ideally a slide should have no more than 10-15 words, and two bullet points, if you have to have text at all. I have had to have this conversation over and over with people in my workplace, who sometimes have slides with more than 100 words on them, which they proceed to read verbatim during sales presentations.

  5. Technology may make this worse, but lousy talks are as old as academia. In some disciplines, the style for decades prior to power point was to write out the entire text and then read it aloud word for word.

    1. . . . word for word. And some readers included the references (Schmendrik 1973, Gavone 1986). Even when there were only three or four people in the audience, the presenters would get up one after the other and read their papers. I feel stupid that it took me so long to realize that the purpose of these sessions was not for people to communicate about a topic — they did that in less formal settings. The purpose was for people to be on the program.

  6. Of course, the medieval lecture was exactly that–the professor reading from a book. But that was then . . .

    There is one good excuse for reading from the PowerPoint. Some organizations are control freaks, yet send their people to scholarly conferences. They sometimes instruct their people to read from the slide. Fear of the press, maybe. It’s silly, but at least the presenter has a Nuremberg defense for their lousy presentation.

  7. edward tufte has an excellent monograph on “the cognitive style of powerpoint” which is well worth reading.

    1. Tufte notes that PowerPoint is pitch software, developed for sales folk, it is best used as a projector operating system than as “presentation development” software. PP does easily integrate multimedia file types, and send them to the projector/audio system.

      He also claims that PP doesn’t hurt the top 10% of presenters, who overcome its obvious deficiencies. It also helps the worst 10% or so, in that even an inadequate organization is better than chaos. But for the middle 80% (i.e., most of us), it’s actively harmful. It leads to garbage like Mark was subjected to: “speakers” who read us their slides.

      I guess we’ve come full circle. Lecturers used to read the students the book in the age when books were unaffordable. Now, we use electrons, and professors read to us even though electrons are cheap.

      1. This reminds me of the old expression “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. PPT is just a tool, I could create great or horrible presentations in Notepad or in PPT.

        In fact, I think the main thing wrong in presentations isn’t “bad slides” or “slides full of text”, it’s the flow of ideas through the presentation. I think the Information Mapping people have great ideas on how to organize training/presentation content to get this flow right.

        1. Has anyone here had to listen to a Ph.D in Management?

          Unfortunately, I have. Wouldn’t wish him on my nemesis, if I had one.

  8. I just spent two days at a conference. Amen. I’m a Tuftean and won’t watch if you haven’t figured it out by now, as PowerPoint is well beyond mature technology.

  9. Amen, Professor Kleiman. This should be Lesson One, Day One in any form of graduate instruction, with the added promise: “This will be on the exam.”

  10. I do sympathize, but there are reasons this happens, and not only because of the poor speaking skills of those on the program. If anything, it’s worse in the corporate world.

    Some of it is corporate culture. I had always learned that your slides should be as Mark describes and you use them accordingly – lots of white space, key takeaways only. During my stint with GE, I found their culture to be the opposite. White space elicited frowns if not outright derision. However, there was method to the madness; the audience took home a copy of the slides, and the expectation was that the slides were the record of the presentation – and you could always refer back to them, or pass them on to those who could not attend.

    In today’s compliance obsessed corporate world, in any decent size company, your outside speaking texts have to be approved by legal – and that means again that the slides are supposed to encompass the presentation, lest you lose discipline and stray from the text.

    This is all very bad news for bored attendees, but when litigation and the plaintiff’s bar are always around the corner, that’s what you do. In the academic world, where too many profs are such lousy speakers, this is one of the reasons so many students sleep through your lectures, the other being that they are largely nocturnal.

    1. Redwave,

      Fear of litigation is no reason to have s****y presentations. Think of a word processor as your presentation software. Reduce your key points encompassing the specifics of what you are saying into a four page briefing paper.

      This avoids the hierarchy imposed by PP’s structure, and documents the presentation and can be approved by whatever powers that be prior to presentation. What’s more, you can start your presentation by giving everyone a few minutes to read the briefing paper. Then, you can devote a chunk of your time to discussing the matter with the audience.

      I wish I could claim credit for this idea, but it’s lifted from Tufte.

      1. I tried what Dennis suggests in a corporate environment, and it failed miserably. I sent out a one page document with a meeting request a few days before the meeting, naively expecting to be able to discuss the document in the meeting. No one who showed up to the meeting had even glanced at the document, because they were expecting me to read aloud the bullets on a bunch of slides while they checked email and played Tetris. After that experience I went back to using Powerpoint with enough words on the slide to form a record of the presentation.

        1. There’s a simple solution to this. Keep your slides minimal and add extra content in the Notes view. Distribute the Notes view to your audience.

  11. As one who has seen more than his share of PPT presentations in a long career in the military & national security side of the government, let me say “Amen!”

  12. In academe, reading every slide seems to be particularly prevalent–in fact, so prevalent that I think it’s an affirmative professional norm–among medical school professors. I suspect, after going through the reasoning in this post, that this is (unfortunately) due to their being used to treating their patients as not worth the intellectual consideration due a third-grader.

  13. Do you know, I actually created a video presentation before I was forced to sit through one? I used Apple’s product, which may be a little zippier, but it’s basically the same thing as PP. I used an old movie theme just to insert visual jokes to lighten up my otherwise dry subject matter. To illustrate a point to doctors about why not to change medical records after the fact, no matter how tempting, I played a clip from Body Heat where Mickey Rourke, as an ex-con, tells his lawyer about the perfect crime: “Any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you’re gonna fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you’re a genius… and you ain’t no genius.”

    After seeing a few PP presentations, I now understand why I got such an enthusiastic response.

  14. The alternative is always, of course, that stalwart of presentations given by humanities academics — simply read your paper to your colleagues!

    I listen to a lot of academic lectures (via iTunes U et al) and I’m sorry to say that this stereotype is all too true.
    For all their other faults, physicists, CS, engineers are pretty good at simply talking to their colleagues. Economists are pretty good, sociologists so so, anthropologists way too much on the reading side. Historians are very much a mixed bag, but English faculty are pretty uniformly awful, just reading their papers, as are most * Studies (Women’s Studies, Jewish Studies, etc).

    I actually find it really depressing. I WANT to know about the kernels of real knowledge that exist in all these fields, but life is short, there are many many podcasts, and if I have to choose between some droning monotone reading out “Towards a Higher Hermeneutics of the Rap Song in Contemporary Culture” or a well-delivered presentation on the effects of climate variability on war in the 17th century, the choice is obvious. This doesn’t matter if quality of lecture is uniformly distributed across fields; but when 99% of what the English department has to say, and 90% of what the anthropology department has to say, is so godawful to listen to that no-one does so willingly, those same departments cannot be surprised when, in time, a new generation of funders and their friends and colleagues, who’ve listened to iTunes U and podcasts for most of their adult lives, use what they have listened to as more or less unconscious background in making their funding decisions.

    1. For all their other faults, physicists, CS, engineers are pretty good at simply talking to their colleagues.

      Not always — the notable exception is when either the presenter or a significant fraction of the audience don’t speak English as their first language.

      In cases like this, it makes perfect sense to me that the presenter will simply repeat the words on the slides verbatim, as any attempt to do otherwise would end up confusing someone.

  15. While I agree that bad speakers are a problem, I also cannot say that I am happy with the minimalist slide design that is a favorite of some academic speakers these days (Laurence Lessig’s style is a good example for that style, though he can get away with it, because he is an excellent speaker.)

    To begin with, let me say that my favorite presentation tool is a traditional blackboard (colored chalk is occasionally nice, but not necessary; white chalk will do most of the time). Blackboards provide me with more visual real estate than a projector; projectors are insufficient when it comes to presenting complex concepts that cannot be summed up in a dozen words or so. A blackboard allows me to construct a complex mathematical proof; it has ample space so that I can draw diagrams or write down examples off to the side to illustrate and explain difficult parts. And there is a written record of the proof so that the audience can reference every single step if they feel the need.

    Similarly, If I am attending a conference, I much prefer that the slides can serve as a sort of written record of at least the key points that the speaker is making. Live speakers do not have pause and rewind buttons, so my retention, if I were to rely on my ears alone, would limited to what information I can digest at the speaker’s chosen pace. Informative slides allow me a modicum of control over the pace; I can try to digest a point for a few seconds and pick up on the narrative later if I the slides provide me with sufficient information to do so.

    That, obviously, varies by person. Some people are better at retaining information from the spoken word, some are better at retaining information that is visualized for them, some prefer the written word. As a result, I believe that a good academic presentation will have at least some redundancy between slides and speech; obviously, the spoken word should not be an exact duplicate of the slides, but I don’t want one to be difficult to understand without the other, either. Also worth remembering is that we human beings have somewhat limited cognitive bandwidth. While you shouldn’t assume that your audience is illiterate, they probably aren’t superhuman, either.

    An example where I sometimes actually literally read the content of a slide is when it’s a verbatim quote by a famous person that illustrates an important point (ideally, one that is entertaining and that my audience can understand immediately (such as, when talking to software engineers, Tony Hoare’s famous dictum that “there are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies.”) It’s a quote, so I don’t want to paraphrase it, and there’s no point in just having the audience read it. It’s a rhetorical anchor point for the audience’s memories, so it helps them retain more information when I tell them how it relates to the subject I’m talking about.

    About Powerpoint/Keynote slides: From a speaker’s perspective, the biggest problem I have with them is the vast amount of visual real estate they tend to waste on often pointless headlines. Not because I want to fit a small novel on each, but because they sorely cut into the amount of room you have available and which are useful for some presentation techniques. Diagrams are one example, especially those that you add to and develop over the course of a talk. Or developing one point, then another, then trying to juxtapose them. Again, these techniques are so much easier to use on a blackboard; in a lecture hall you may be able to accomplish the same with dual projectors, but that’s impractical in a conference setting on the road.

    More generally, the information that you want to visually present to your audience is rarely sequential in nature; often I want to have a certain diagram show up on multiple slides or develop two points side by side. Powerpoint’s copy and paste is a poor substitute for actually being able to overlay or juxtapose elements of my narrative.

    Conversely, I don’t actually have a big problem with the much-decried bullet lists if they’re used well; there is plenty of information that is naturally enumerated; if that is the case, why hide it and make it more difficult for your audience to see the structure? Unfortunately, bullet lists are often abused to create the illusion of structure (usually with several levels of nesting) in completely unstructured content, resulting in verbal spaghetti. But they have their uses: For example, in longer talks I like to divide the talk into parts. Each part begins with a short table of contents with the title of the current section highlighted. This tells the audience where we are in the talk and gives them a rough idea how the current part fits in with the overall structure.

    1. I too like a good blackboard (although I actually prefer a whiteboard and at least two pen colors).

      Almost every corporate “training room” has the whiteboard mounted behind the projector screen so the audience cannot see both at once. It’s baffling.

  16. You could always go with the actuarial approach: do all the work in Excel, and then cut-and-paste to Excel sheet into a PP slide. (Bonus total-geek points if it’s off-center.)

  17. Yes, this is annoying and I have seen it very often in mathematics. One likely reason in many cases is that the speaker is less than fluent in the language of the talk (or at least she lacks confidence in her language skills), and doesn’t trust herself to ad lib or even to memorise a script if it isn’t projected onto the wall. Then again, I can think of at least one occasion when a native speaker took what looked like a chapter from a textbook he was in the middle of writing, handed out printed copies of it, and then proceeded to read it out verbatim from transparencies, without embellishment (not even intonation).

    I have seen good slide talks and bad board talks, but the correlation runs very much the other way. Far too many slide talks suffer from an information overload that would cause wrist injuries if attempted on a whiteboard (never mind a blackboard). Even when writing slowly on a board and giving plenty of commentary, the efficiency of mathematical jargon (relative to the difficulty of absorbing mathematical concepts) makes it far too easy to drown the audience.

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