More evidence that those in the sciences are tiring of boring presentations using you-know-what, and perhaps Apple’s Keynote can come to the rescue

For my Powertools Workshop at Macworld in February, I’m going to highlight scientific presenting during the two-days. I’m doing this following a one-day workshop I conducted in October for my own professional society of psychologists, where after three years of submitting the workshop (either as a half day or full day), it was finally accepted. I have the evaluations which I’ll publish soon (warts and all!) but suffice to say that I felt vindicated in my Presentation Magic approach even though many who attended had been quite steeped in their careers in the cognitive style of Powerpoint.

Because I was presenting to my peers, my task was especially challenging as I was unsure of their level of knowledge of the psychological concepts I was invoking as evidence – some would be professors in the field, some would have long lost the knowledge they may once have had as students, while others had perhaps never been exposed to some of the concepts. This variation in depth of knowledge is one all presenters face, and requires both careful consultation with the conference or workshop organisers (“Who is the likely attendee? Who else is presenting similar material? Are they undergraduates or seasoned professionals, etc”). In my case, I had to take an educated guess, and once more felt vindicated that I do not script what I say during the workshop.

It may mean you can get away with using acronyms for the entire presentation, or that each term needs to be explained fully, or that jargon (sometimes called technical expressions) can be readily used or put to one side.

What became clear to me during the day is that scientists are very interested in the field of presenting, but will only improve their presenting if they become more audience-focussed, i.e., they become exquisitely aware of how humans learn and remember.

As I have suggested in a previous blog post on climate scientists’ presentations – which resemble an information “dump” from Word into Powerpoint for the worst offenders – it’s too easy for scientists to hastily throw together slides in the belief that on the day, their spoken descriptions will “bring it all together”. As many of you who attend such conferences will attest, they are wrong in their assumptions.

While I continue to work on a major blog article to help scientists (and others who work with lots of complex concepts and jargon-driven text), I also keep a look out for others who share my ideas about such presenting and its pitfalls.

So I was delighted today to locate an article in the December 17 online issue of Bioworld, entitled “Technology Begets Miscommunication: Biotech Conferences and Meetings Dumbed-Down by Smart Devices” by Mike Williams.

Williams takes a swipe at his colleagues who seem unable to display the appropriate etiquette when it comes to employing technologies, as well as corporate time and energy wasting strategies.

Here’s a quote Williams offers regarding conference behaviour:

“As many presenters at biotech conferences have become only too well aware as they try to engage their audience, they are ignored as the latter fiddle with their various communication devices (including wireless laptops) to check for messages, stock prices, play games or even text message/email other members of the audience to comment on the quality/futility/pathos of the meeting and/or presenter. The consequent lack of attention then necessitates a partial or complete recapitulation of the presentation if, by chance, a question is asked — or the subsequent rescheduling of the entire meeting when few of the participants can remember or agree on what the meeting was about and whether any, or what, resolution was reached.”

This will likely resonate with many scientists and others who regularly attended peer-reviewed conferences.

My interest in Mr. William’s writing was piqued when I scanned down to another paragraph:

“A perhaps bigger contributor to ineffectual meetings than participant-driven electronic disengagement is the almost universal (mis)use of Microsoft Corp.’s PowerPoint as THE meeting communication tool. Like other software creations from Redmond, Wash., PowerPoint is visually appealing but often fails to achieve precisely what the user intended. One cynical biotech in New England actually informed a job applicant that its differentiating technology platform was PowerPoint.”

Ah, someone else who recognises how organisations’ reliance on certain products can lead to miscommunication or obfuscation.

And close to the conclusion of this one page article, is a section which eventually mentions Apple’s Keynote, in the context of those who’ve decided to put Powerpoint to one side:

“In a frequently quoted interview in the San Jose Mercury News, from August 1997, Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems Inc., in noting that his company had purged 12.9 gigabytes of PowerPoint slides from its network, was quoted as saying, “we’ve had three unbelievable record-breaking quarters since we banned PowerPoint.” McNealy also noted that he considered PowerPoint a “huge waste of corporate productivity.”

His comments should be viewed in the context of competitive hubris — one computer entrepreneur’s view of another’s product — a perspective reinforced by the observation that Apple’s Keynote, a software package with similar functionality, rarely provokes the level of abuse and outrage as PowerPoint, a possible reflection of the computer literacy, intelligence and communication skills of Macintosh users. (sic)”

And I promise, this mention of Keynote and Macintosh users is all Mr. Williams’ original work!

Next week, I’ll have more time to spend on my scientist-oriented article: while Apple continues to promote Keynote at its online tutorial homepage using corporate presentations as the exemplar, I have formed the strong belief that science (and education for that matter) is underserved. In other words, there’s an opening I’m more than happy to explore and exploit, gently of course!

3 responses to “More evidence that those in the sciences are tiring of boring presentations using you-know-what, and perhaps Apple’s Keynote can come to the rescue

  1. Some of us will have to rely on the DVD you were developing as our source for learning how to communicate more effectively. Any word on its progress?


  2. I’m pretty much with you here, but (speaking as someone who trains people to deliver presentations as they way I earn my humble crust) I find I often come up against a brick wall when I try and explain to scientists about how to make their presentations memorable, interesting and so on….

    I was recently given two horrifying bits of feedback from some PhD students I was training. The first was a simple : “I can’t do it your way, it’s not allowed!” (by which he means that no one else does it so why should he!) and the second was: “I don’t want people to remember what I say at presentations in case I’m wrong”.

    At that point all I could do was blink in shock! 🙂


  3. Pingback: Facilitation - Evaluation - Beyond the Edge - Viv McWaters

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