Repost: Visual Presentations – They Aren’t Papers

Repost: Visual Presentations – They Aren’t Papers

If you read this blog regularly, you probably know that I am anything but succinct. It may surprise you to know that in my technical writing and presentations, I go too far the other way in many cases: I tend to make the assumption that people have a pretty good idea of what I’m saying. This has, on more than one occasion, left me with someone giving me the deer-in-the-headlights stare. I really don’t mind going back and explaining some of the information necessary to grasp what I am discussing, but I often don’t realize it’s not something that people are familiar with. As time has gone on, however, I’ve gotten better at gauging and addressing areas where my audience may be need extra knowledge.

When I’m doing slides or a presentation, my version of being succinct is to create slides that have only a brief outline (2-5 bullet points with a few words) or a plot or two. The reason I’m doing this is because there is almost always a report that goes along with such a presentation. The report, in my opinion, is the place for the details. Talks are for the ‘big picture’ with enough evidence included to make the point.

My frustration with presentations usually comes when people turn them into report or papers. Yes, one often wants to give data in their presentations, but I get frustrated with those who want to include everything plus the kitchen sink. I had a great discussion with someone at a conference (who was giving me feedback on one of my talks), and he was of the same opinion: people are only going to remember 2-3 main points from a talk. You should only give the data you need to make those points and no more. One should also make sure to keep that data easily digestible.

A couple years ago, I attended a talk by a well-known and respected geologist. This researcher had a very interesting talk, but I became lost very quickly. She had tons of plots in her presentation comparing concentrations of various minerals (around 8 different minerals) at between six and 8 field sites. She would decide to discuss a mineral, say molybdenum, and show a bar graph of that mineral for each site. She did this for each mineral. That would have been alright, except that she kept referencing back to previous minerals, and after the third, I had lost track of how the concentrations appeared with the field sites. I found myself thinking that, with a little Excel wizardry, it would have been nice if she had just shown a plot for each mineral with a trace for each field site. Failing that, a spreadsheet with the numbers would have been nice. It is just too difficult to compare 8 or more sets of data when they cannot easily be referenced because that data is three slides back!

Another frustrating talk I attended was probably the epitome of everything wrong I have ever seen in a presentation. The speaker not only didn’t have a powerpoint ready, but they literally put the PDF of their paper on the projector and talked through it. (He also spoke in the most monotonous voice I have ever heard. It was comparable to my seventh grade math teacher.) I had already read the paper and was expecting an animated overview of the highlights. I think that is the only time I’ve walked out in the middle of a talk. What a waste.

I am becoming increasingly frustrated with having to sit through bad talks and busy, confusing, or cluttered power-points. One need not condense information to soundbites to effectively deliver information, but it seems like the tendency is to go too far the other way. I am also becoming frustrated with papers that fail to communicate information necessary to proceed with research. And I am mostly frustrated because these are the kinds of things one learns in first year English and speech classes.

The next time I hear a student say that they don’t need to worry about English or grammar because they’re going into engineering, I think I’m going to force them to read and attempt to use an incomplete journal paper. And the same goes for complaining about speech class.

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