A big part of academic life is attending and presenting your research at conferences. Depending upon your specific discipline, presentations may be passé and poster sessions are the norm. I’m sorry to say, that’s not the case in my field. Why am I sorry about that? Because I, like many engineers and scientists, have an extremely low boredom threshold. The thought of being trapped in a room for 2 to 3 days, passively watching and listening to tediously bad presentations for hours and hours, is truly unbearable. And, let’s face it, most of them are bad… very bad… So, in the interest of self-preservation, here’s my advice for preparing an effective and engaging conference presentation…
First of all, there are some very basic fundamentals important to every type of presentation – I’ve already outlined those in detail in an earlier post (Creating Effective Presentations – Part 1 – Overview), so if you haven’t yet read that, please pop over there and read it first. It covers the most common mistakes that tend to make presentations (of any type) atrociously bad, such as too much text on the slides, illegible fonts and diagrams, and cluttered backgrounds. What I’ll focus on here are the additional pitfalls pertinent to conference presentations (although many apply to other types of presentations, as well). I’m going to group these in terms of ‘preparation’ and ‘delivery’. In this post, I’ll focus on the preparation; tips for an effective delivery will be the subject of my next post.
Here are the most common preparation mistakes I see in scientific/engineering conference presentations (in addition to those described in my previous post)…
Too Many Slides
Most people prepare far too many slides for their conference presentation and end up running way overtime, talking too fast, or getting cut-off part way through. Often, all three occur and it’s unpleasant for everyone. There’s a simple rule-of-thumb to prevent this – one that everyone knows, but that no one thinks they need to follow: allow yourself only one slide per minute. You might think that you can sneak in a couple of extra slides, since you are only going to spend ten seconds on Slide 5, but that’s a fallacious argument because you are undoubtedly going to spend three minutes on Slide 11. Trust me – the ‘one slide per minute’ rule takes into account the fact that you are only going to take a few seconds on some slides – in fact, it counts on it. So be strict with yourself – one slide per minute – maximum – no exceptions. (And, yes, this includes your title and acknowledgement slides.) Usually this means that you have to be extremely focused in your presentation, and likely can’t cover all the details included in the accompanying paper. The secret is to think of the presentation as complementary to the conference paper – not as a substitute for it. If you do a great job on the presentation, the audience will be motivated to go away and read your paper. If the conference does not require accompanying papers, then your job should be easier not harder. You don’t need to describe your whole project in intricate detail – pick one key component and treat it well.
Getting rid of mindless content not only helps you to shave down the length of your presentation, it has the added advantage of eliminating some of the more tedious and boring components of the typical conference presentation. My two least favorite types of ‘mindless content’ in the standard conference presentation are the Outline slide and the Summary slide(s). Let’s start with the Outline slide – here’s a pretty typical example for a scientific conference presentation…
Let’s think about this for a minute – I mean, really, doesn’t anyone notice that we all have the very same outline? What’s the point of wasting time showing each other the same thing? (Not to mention, torturing each other by actually discussing it!) When I see this sort of thing at a conference, I really want to pull my hair out and run from the room screaming (especially by the 20th time). My advice is to throw away the outline slide altogether – just get right into your presentation and get going. Yes, I know it’s radical. The idea that we must start our presentation with an outline has been drummed into us since birth practically – but the truth is – it’s a total waste of time and it is excruciatingly boring… You’ve got about 15 minutes to describe the last 2 years of your life – trust me, you can skip the generic outline. If you absolutely can’t fathom doing this – then at least be creative – perhaps try something more like this for your Outline slide (you can click on the slide to see a larger view)…
Summary (or Conclusions) slides can be even more tedious. My least favorite approach to this is what I call the ‘War and Peace’ summary: 2 to 3 slides of tightly packed text – all read at a painfully slow pace by the presenter. Try to remember, you’re in a room full of brilliant over-achievers… you have only been talking for 15 minutes… chances are good that the thing you’re summarizing is something you just told us less than 5 minutes ago. We remember! We are not interested in hearing it again – and we are especially not interested in suffering through 2 or 3 pages of it. To be perfectly honest, by the time you put up the Summary slide – no matter how terrific or engaging your presentation has been up to then – the entire audience breathes a collective sigh of relief. They can’t help it – it’s just hard to sit through talk after talk for hours and days on end. The minute we see the word Summary (or Conclusions) we are done with you, we want to get up, stretch our legs, and go grab a donut… The cruelest thing you can do to us at this point is to meander slowly through 3 slides crammed with text, reading to yourself. If you must have a summary slide, limit yourself to 3 bullet points – each with a few words only (not a few sentences) …and make it one of your 10 second slides. You will be the most popular presenter at the conference.
Most scientists and engineers use equations in their research. However, let’s admit the truth about equations – THEY… ARE… BORING… I actually live, eat, sleep, and breathe equations – but when I read a journal paper – I always skim over them (and so do you, I’ll bet). Frankly, most of the time, I am only marginally interested in looking at my own equations – I am definitely not going to be interested in looking at yours, ever. So don’t bother showing them to me.
The truth is, it probably took you months to understand those equations. So how on earth are we ever going to make sense of them in a 15 minute presentation? More importantly – why should we need to? It doesn’t matter if you are a numerical modeller or an experimentalist – if you need to show me your equations to explain what you’re doing, then you’re not going to get your message across. If you’re showing them to impress me – then just admit it: flash a page of equations up as a 5 second slide and say “Here’s all the boring stuff, now that that’s out of the way let me tell you about…” and move on.
Tables are useful for documenting the detailed results of your research in an appendix to your thesis, but they really have only limited value in a presentation. I see many presenters using slides like the one shown below; some even admit that they know we won’t be able to read any of it. Then they spend 5 minutes talking about it as if we could! It’s extraordinarily frustrating (not to mention, annoying).
It’s naïve and unrealistic to expect your audience to continue to give you their attention when you present something like this. Personally, I take it as permission to haul out my smartphone and check my email, and I’m extremely reluctant to return my attention to the presentation even after the presenter moves on. Tables are only effective if they are limited to 2 or 3 columns and 3 to 5 rows – beyond that, the mind just can’t absorb them, so draw a graph instead. In addition, even a table with only a few columns and rows can be useless if the fonts are too tiny to read and the headings are mysterious. So be sure to keep your audience with you by avoiding those problems.
A considerable amount of jargon is required to describe any scientific or engineering research study, not to mention a ton of variables. By the time we’ve spent years researching something, we are so entrenched in it that we develop our own short-cuts and usually talk in code with the rest of our research team. For example, we generally use letters to describe our variables and acronyms to abbreviate our jargon. Here’s a bulletin for you – we (the audience) don’t know what your acronyms mean and we are not even remotely interested in learning them. Littering your slides with acronyms is a sure way to get us to ‘tune out’ of your conference presentation. Same for the variables – there are only so many letters to draw upon and the rest of us are using them for different variables in our own work. If you serve up alphabet soup in your slides – you’ll only confuse us. Pretty quickly no one is going to know, or care, what you are talking about. My advice is to expect us to learn and remember, at the very most, only one acronym for the duration of your talk, and absolutely no variables. (That means you will need to label your graphs and figures with actual words.)
Hopefully by now, after reading these two posts, you’re beginning to see a pattern emerge. The idea is to make things as easy for your audience to understand and interpret as possible, and to stick to engaging content. Neglecting the audience in preparing your presentation is the most common cause of bad conference presentations. Of course, all of this takes time and there are still the rehearsals to think about. (Yes – you absolutely must rehearse – preferably in front of a test audience that includes (but is not limited to) your co-authors.) So don’t start preparing your presentation the week before the conference, start at least a month ahead, and do your first rehearsals early so that you have time to get feedback and to make improvements.
Even the most fantastic set of slides can fall flat if the delivery is weak. That will be the topic of my next post – look for it in one week! In the meantime, thanks for reading and please remember, as always, comments are most welcome. Perhaps you might even like to share your own tips!