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“Notes from a conference” – in which I complain about presentation styles

I was at a conference recently, with lots of presentations by very smart people presenting really good ideas. As well-qualified and expert as folks were, however, nine out of ten of the presentations I saw were poor, as presentations. It was a relief whenever a good one came along.

This not just based on some matter of taste on my part. This is based on objective standards from training specific to designing and delivering presentations. Here is what I saw:

Slideuments: Most people used “slideuments”, i.e., slides filled with text. People cannot read and listen at the same time. When confronted with slideuments, I try to just listen, while others have told me they try to just read. Neither coping strategy works very well and most people end up tuned out, no matter how potentially interesting the material is. Your slides should use only a few words, if any. Preferably, a slide should present an image, like a data graphic or picture that supports what is being said.

The standard practice of conference organizers asking for slides to post later reinforces the use of slideuments. Ideally, your slides alone should be more or less useless.

Lack of structure: Why should we care? What is the problem that this is solving? What happens if we do this? What were the bumps and discoveries along the way? What is the story here? People fall into this trap as presenters because they know how important their discovery is, but the audience doesn’t, and they are blinded to that. This is a variation on “the curse of knowledge”: once you know something, you cannot see that others do not understand it as readily as you do.

A well-designed presentation builds contrast between the problem and the solution, the complication and the resolution, and makes the end result, and why we should care, clear.

Lack of rehearsal – rushing, reading: Conferences pack a lot into their schedules. Most people aren’t used to preparing and rehearsing for a time limit, and so end up rushed as their time ticks down. This is uncomfortable and distracting for the presenter and audience alike.

Taking part in the ”Ignite”- style presentations was a revelation for me. I had not tried this before and I found that it’s amazing how much you can say in five minutes if you set out to do that, plan and rehearse. That being the case, there should be no need to rush through a 20-minute or longer time slot in order to say what you really want to say. Longer presentations are all right if the stated intention is to go into considerable detail, but be aware that some or much of your audience will not stay focused for the whole thing.

Reading your presentation notes distances you from your audience, preventing eye contact and other natural parts of communication; it’s not so much like a conversation. It also shows that you do not know your material well enough to just talk about it naturally.

Oddly, we are not taught how to present in school; generally we see presentations from people who were not taught either (people say that slides dense with text are “in the academic style”. That’s like saying drowning is a style of swimming). So most people don’t know that you shouldn’t use dense text, that you should have structure and contour, like a story, in a presentation, and that you should have it down cold, including timing, by the time you are on. As a result, most presenters lose their audiences early and they stay lost.

I think making effective presentations is a key skill, or in the jargon of our time, “competency”, that is terribly overlooked. It’s not acceptable for professionals to turn in work with poor grammar and spelling. It’s not all right to make mistakes in your math. Why is making soul-destroying presentations OK?