Students in the Northern Hemisphere are by now half way through the college year. Freshman college students will have been exposed to a variety of presentation styles in their lectures, some better and some worse. Here in Australia, students are commencing their academic year, given we are coming to the end of our summer.
For myself, my professional association, the Australian Psychological Society has completed its annual conference in Cairns, in far north Queensland in October 2013, and has called for papers for its next conference the same time this year. I didn’t attend in 2013, having recently returned from the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, held in Honolulu in August.
What each psychological association has in common is their expectation that presentations at their respective conferences will reflect an evidence-base of what works in professional psychology. Attendees expect to hear about current research findings, often derived from traditional experimental methods and statistical analyses.
However, what each also has in common, sadly, is the generally poor quality of presentation skills.
The irony is that while each emphasises the empirical base of the science, few presentations bother to use an evidence base for presenting science.
Psychology is not unique in this shortcoming, and the same criticism can be aimed at many of the sciences. Fortunately, the APS has recognised the growing importance of presenting to a diversity of audiences, and so this year I will be travelling Australia conducting presentation skills workshops under the APS auspices. (It’s open to non-psychologists too). The Australian Health regulator, AHPRA, which oversees all health practitioner national registrations, complaints and continuing education requirements has also recognised presenting as an important skill set.
When it comes to conferences, travelling away from home to exotic destinations is a great way to both holiday and refresh one’s batteries, as well as gain important new insights and networks.
There’s an opportunity to watch and hear the best in their business keynote their latest ideas and discoveries, or perhaps present themselves.
The younger academics might be presenting for their first time to peers and superiors in the hope of attracting interest in their work, and perhaps a job offer if the rest of their CV matches the presentation.
In the sciences and medicine, there’ll be two hour symposia composed of twenty minute formal presentations, then question time; half day and full day “master” workshops, as well as poster sessions where those whose papers didn’t quite make the cut can nonetheless discuss their ideas in a 30 minute informal scenario where conference goers can move around the area dipping into conversations about a student’s Masters or Ph.D research, printed on large laminated sheets in the style of a science paper: abstract, introduction, subjects, method, results, discussion, etc. Stuff you learn to do in your first year undergraduate studies your teachers hope is the start of your professional career.
Getting a spot in a symposium or workshop is a major achievement where you’re either well known, or know someone who is well-known and can sponsor your work and vouch for your ability to do the profession proud when you present.
From experience, one often witnesses presentations demonstrating original research or ideas never before presented, or one sees a recently published paper presented “live” inclusive of new research not yet ready for academic publication (it may have been submitted, but not yet accepted) but which extends the already published research.
Presenting at such a conference can be a daunting task, even for senior members of the profession, well-versed in its ways. Preparation and rehearsal go a long way of course, but new ideas or a criticique of existing paradigms or dogma requires more than just the voice of authority or prestige. At the very top of any profession, it’s not about the money or prestige but about a true sense of advancing the profession and leaving a legacy.
I’ve attended conference presentations by such people, downloaded their presentations when I couldn’t attend, and ventured far and wide in my presentation skills interests apart from science, including how the legal profession presents both academically, at conferences, and to employees and clients.
In this blog entry, I want to guide you past the most overt presentation errors scientists make, often without awareness of these errors. Sometimes they are committed because the profession demands they be committed in order to conform to some pre-conceived notion – or dogma – about presenting that the profession has carried within it for decades.
Other times, a university or research institute or government section’s Marketing or HR department defines how a presentation will look, complete with logo or brand or “team colours”, as well as fonts, size and all. See below (click to enlarge) to see how seriously some organisations take their “look and feel”, from presentations, to business cards, to newsletters to websites, etc:
The entire pdf “visual identity guidance” document from this cancer research group can be downloaded here.
Much of the advice is well founded if a little pedantic in a corporatese kind of way… but on the next page is an interesting guide to the use of visual images in publications. What’s even more interesting is their use of unedited iStockphoto images, complete with the word “iStockphoto” left on one… something I’ll discuss as one of the deadly sins of presenting a little later (click to enlarge):
Now, I could understand leaving on the iStockphoto watermark if this booklet was advising employees where to source their images (especially if a group purchasing arrangement is in place) and with the specific advice to purchase the desired image so as to remove the watermark before placement in a presentation. What I can’t understand is the tacit approval to go outside the research facility and use images anyone could use, rather than supplying their own inhouse images unique to the establishment. The worst case scenario is presenting at the same conference as a rival who just before used the same images!
This leads me to begin my list of unwitting errors scientists make.
Unwitting Mistake #1: Not changing your presentation to suite your current audience
1. Often, conferences and conventions take place over several days, feature more than a dozen concurrent tracks to choose from, and a variety of delivery styles, from short presentations of ten to twenty minutes, longer keynotes of 45 minutes, masterclasses of two hours, as well as full day workshops. Each requires a different appreciation of the audience’s knowledge, needs and aspirations.
Take a look at this diagram I created in Keynote to help begin the analysis:
No one expects an extensive review of the field in a 20 minute original presentation. Such presentations usually form part of a symposium either invited by the conference scientific committee, or submitted by a group, such as a university or hospital department. Here, it’s the desire to showcase current research via four or so short papers, each related to the others, whose main theme is pulled together by a senior faculty member with sufficient gravitas and authority to discuss why the research matters.
Those symposia are usually attended by others in the same field, whose knowledge can be considered profound. There is little time for each presenter to give much backgrounding or explanation of specific terms, and audience members are expected to be up to speed with the methods and prior research briefly discussed.
Where scientists make errors, possibly due to time considerations and lack of formal presentation training experience, is taking these same presentations, which may have received much applause and recognition when originally presented, and then offering them, unchanged, to a lay audience.
These lay audiences attend for a different purpose, usually to witness the application of basic research, and possess only rudimentary awareness of the field. They’re not interested so much in experimental method but more in the current status of the field as it relates to them, e.g., Is a cure far away or in the near future? Is climate change real and is it truly man-made? Their IQs may be on par with the presenter’s but their knowledge is much more superficial.
When scientists take their same convention presentations – those they give to their peers – to such a lay audience, they can find themselves working hard to help the audience fill in their gaps of knowledge. They sense it’s not going over well, so they exceed their time limits, and appear unrehearsed. No one doubts their authority, but not all will come away impressed by the scientist’s communication skills. These may be exemplary for his or her peers, but it’s a different skill set when it comes to less informed audiences.
Such audiences may include those in the same field but without the deep foundational knowledge those immersed in a specific research area possess.
Often, speakers offering a short presentation to their peers may also be invited to offer a keynote to the entire convention, with there being few or no competing tracks. The science committee has often invited them, at some expense, because conference goers want to hear leading researchers present, even if the field is not one of primary interest, but for which they have an appreciation none the less. In my experience, science committee choice is rarely based on presentation ability.
Once more, the same “deep” presentation needs to be modified for this professional audience. Language is altered, from the profound “we extended Smith and Jones’ landmark 2003 research by…” to the lay or less knowledgable presentation’s “let me spend a few moments explaining how we setup the experiments”.
It’s my belief the best presenters science has to offer – for both the highly specific through to the lay audience – carefully prepare their data and literally mould it to suit the situation. But it’s not just the data they consider; it’s how their data and its meaning will be conveyed in the most informative and dare I say persuasive manner possible. After all, why present if not to persuade? Well, the answer can all too often be: to add another presentation attendance and paper to my CV.
Such is the demand on scientists to justify their livelihoods that sometimes we in the audience pay the price for poorly conceived delivery methods from presenters who clearly don’t care if we learn anything or not.
There is one more audience parameter that needs to be mentioned in this climate of polarised debates when it comes to certain topics which challenges the neutrality of science research. That is audience bias. As much as scientists may wish to offer a value neutral exposition of their research, its application may have strong emotional and monetary considerations for their audience. So, I can add a third dimension to our table which may influence how a presentation is to be constructed and delivered – ONSIDE, NEUTRAL and HOSTILE:
Now it’s not my idea to intimidate science presenters. It’s more about starting a conversation about the various parameters that can take an average but easily forgotten presentation to something stellar, career changing and memorable.
Unwitting Mistake #2: Not knowing or forgetting a presentation is not the regurgitation of a published paper, but is a medium of knowledge transfer unto itself
Them’s highfalutin words, I know, but this is one of most common and easily remediated mistakes those who undertake science communication instruction need to modify very early in their training.
Below are some photos of slides I took during a symposium at the APA convention in Honololu, 2013. These pictures are from a single 20 minute presentation:
What you are witnessing in this series of slide photos I took with my iPhone is not a presentation, but a paper intended for publication in a paper journal (or online as a PDF) placed onto Powerpoint slides: a cut and paste job from the original Word file, most likely.
How can this be in 2013? In the last few years, I’ve been railing against the dumbing down of presentations through the unwitting overuse of bullet points and half-sentences.
In this case, what we have is no effort at thinking about the presentation and its intended live audience. Perhaps it came about because the presenter was in an enormous hurry and had no time to prepare. Highly unlikely since the APA gives you months of acknowledgement that your presentation has been accepted.
Or more likely, it’s the way the presenter has always presented; has seen others in her university present, and worse still, seen others at international conferences present.
But I’m afraid I have worse news: The presenter actually read the slides to us, word for word. And as I looked around the seminar room, I noted one more very disturbing thing: no one in the audience I witnessed seemed to mind. It’s as if they all accepted this as par for the course.
This kind of presentation is not a one off – I’ve seen it too many times to think it’s out of the ordinary.
Now if you’ve come here to this blog entry after referral from a friend and wondering why I am making such as fuss about this, my message is this.
When you read an article in a publication, you have time to pursue the references, to decipher the tables, charts and graphs at your leisure, to look up the references over your morning coffee, and to read at your own pace, perhaps starting with the abstract, heading to the Discussion section, and then closely examining the Results section in more minute detail. Each scientist has their own style of reading journal articles.
In a live presentation, you don’t have this luxury. It is the presenter’s role to tell her story, and use her slides as her augmenting or support crew to illustrate convincingly the veracity and worth of her story.
In plain terms,
It is insulting to the audience to be read to
It utterly disconnects the audience from your presentation, and renders you an impassive narrator while the audience races ahead and reads for themselves the content of the slides.
Scientists are fortunate compared to business presenters because we have our story arcs laid out for us by historical convention, especially if we are reporting original experimental outcomes.
The APA publishes on its website a tutorial for those starting out where it clearly educates how scholarly publications should be constructed:
The story arc in its publications are expected to conform to this structure. At its live presentations at conferences, no such demands are made, but clearly there is an expectation that original research conforms to this story arc too.
But is it really the best way for live audiences to be kept engaged during a keynote or brief paper? Can one hope to achieve the same appreciation of one’s original research in a presentation as can occur in a paper publication?
It seems to me we must start to think about the delivery of scientific story arcs to a live audience in profoundly different ways, and even more so when our audience does not have deep subject knowledge and comes from a hostile base. Your scientific colleagues might approve, but the audience will not be shifted one iota. This is also why the mainstream media is so hungry for scientists who understand how media works, who its audience is, its deadlines, and its use of narrative.
Unwitting mistake #3: Unhelpful room layouts
Take a look at the picture below which I took at another seminar at APA Honolulu, August, 2013:
What do you notice immediately?
The presenter is in the corner, behind his miked podium, Stage right. Centre stage is the presentation discussant alone on a table for seven, and Stage left is the Powerpointed slide, in usual “filled with text” fashion.
The audience, occupying the middle of the room, is forced to play “Presentation Ping Pong” going back and forth between presenter and his slide.
I dread when I walk into such arenas as an audience member, and despise it as a presenter. This is why I scope out the room the day before if it’s at all possible. And why I never, as hard as it is, never stand behind a podium. It has all the appearance of authority at the commencement of your presentation, as you’re introduced and make your way behind the podium, only to lose it once you reach it and do one or more of several things:
- Tap the microphone several times, and ask “CAN YOU HEAR ME”? The several hundred dollar mike and the audio operator with headphones on will not appreciate it.
- You bring up your presentation by showing us the entire slide show contents of 200 text filled slides, with the occasional cheesy clipart.
- You immediately start to read your slides from the laptop, vanity monitor or the projected image as if you had no audience present.
Once more, it’s up to those in charge of scientific presentations and conventions to do what they can – even at the fundamental structural level of designing the room – to assist presenters in what is for many one of the more difficult but nowadays mandatory parts of their professional lives.
Unwitting mistake #4: Failure to understand the power of stories
I spend a lot of time discussing storytelling when I speak with scientist presenters. How do I do this?
In my Presentation Magic workshops, I often show brief clips of favourite movies; those clips which stop you in your tracks to watch over and over again. Such as when you visit a friend and the movie is on in the background… and you say, “Hey, have you seen this movie…?” And when your friend says, “Nup!” you say, “Quick, sit down… there’s this great scene coming up.”
Just like a favourite piece of music you can listen to over and over again because it has emotional hooks for you, there are some movie scenes that feel the same. I usually show a few of mine during my workshops, asking the audience if they can guess what movie they’re from, then asking them to form small groups and share with others their own favourite movie sequences, and why.
The choices discussed often form a kind of movie Rorschach test, telling us something about the viewer via his or her choice. Almost always, there is a personal meaning the viewer extracts from the scene, such as the comeuppance of a nasty character, a “hit it out” of the ball park by an unexpected baseball hero, a rescue by a very ordinary passerby, or a scene where you know how it ends but want to see the reactions of those who don’t know what will happen next… a favourite story arc of master story teller, Alfred Hitchcock.
Indeed, this sequence in my workshops is the commencement of an important discussion in presentation skills training, one that has now caught on fast: the place of story telling in helping make complex ideas more readily understandable.
Some would say there are only a limited number of story “styles” traceable back to ancient times with their fables, biblical and metaphorical accounts, and so on.
The rise of psychoanalysis in the twentieth century with Freud and later Jung exploring the role of universal conflicts, dreams and fantasies, collective beliefs and archetypes is still a potent force in the twenty first century.
The power of storytelling is to convey complex and perhaps difficult messages to unbelieving or sceptical audiences, for which there is a body of neuroscience knowledge that likely underpins the uniquely human quality of both telling and witnessing others’ stories, to perhaps better understand and change our own.
So, back to the mistake of confusing live presentations with published papers, and why a presentation should not be a repurposed or reformatted paper: It’s because each tells a story in a different way.
Take a look at this diagram below which I’ve been using recently in workshops for psychologists on IT. I found it on Horace Dedieu’s blog and it refers to a New York Times’ article he cites, published several years ago (click to enlarge):
The graph was developed by famed data visualiser and self-chronicler, Nicholas Felton, who was a recent visitor to Australia for his own presentations to designers.
Essentially, Felton’s NYT graph shows the rate at which various technologies we now take for granted were taken up in the last hundred years. The dependent variable is percentage of US households, and we can see along the independent (X or Time axis) how newer technologies, when they penetrate customer resistance, penetrate much more quickly than the older ones, like the telephone, electricity, and refrigeration, all of which are near 100% penetration currently.
In my IT presentations, I often discuss what happens when a product reaches 50% home penetration, how there are often dips after the products reaches a certain acceptance (sometimes called The Valley of Disappointment), and what happens at 80% (it’s more about marketers trying for brand loyalty rather than convince potential customers to purchase for the first time).
But the graph, while offering the newspaper reader plentiful data to immerse oneself – tracking uptake for various products over 100 years – is time consuming, given its data density.
I would not ordinarily, even for a switched-on audience, show such as graph, or more pointedly, create one of my own for a stand and deliver audience. It’s much too dense and would take too much time for even hard core data visualisers to work out what’s going on.
It’s worse when you’re standing up speaking with this in the background because its complexity (and I think it is a terrifically informative graphic) will easily distract your audience from you and what you’re are saying as the audience tries to work out what’s going on. Those who are easily confused by such graphs will just turn off completely and go play Angry Birds or Candy Crush.
But there are ways and means for using this in a live presentation and still stay in control of your presentation. Left as it is with the speaker likely using a laser pointer to try and track a product’s time course, an audience will quickly turn off and disengage.
In my follow up blog entry, I’ll spend a little time and effort discussing the importance of using graphs and charts, and how there are better and worse ways to achieve your goals of being an influential, entertaining and persuasive presenter.
Unwitting Mistake #5: Applying the principles of Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte and me without forethought
What the heck am I saying, you might be asking?
It’s this: In some domains, you are better off staying with the status quo that elevating yourself above your peers and betters, lest you be seen as a smart-ass. For certain audiences, especially those with deep profound knowledge of the subject, perhaps greater than the presenter’s (think PhD examination committee), shifting away from traditional means of presenting and employing the new guidelines espoused by some of us (who are thoroughly over how most academics present), may set your audience against you.
They may perceive you to be obscuring statistically insignificant findings or poorly thought through outcomes with glitz and glamour (you know, when presenters go crazy with builds, animations, transitions when the presentation does not call for it). In other words, the deeper the knowledge level of the audience, and the more hostile or disbelieving they are, the better it is to leave aside flashy presentations, and get to the meat and potatoes swiftly – no nouvelle cuisine.
This doesn’t means returning to the standard default Powerpoint of 6 x 6 slides filled with text. It means being cautious with the visual elements of your presentation, using charts and graphs judiciously, and adhering to the advice offered by your supervisors if you are a graduate student.
Later, as your career develops, you can introduce more 21st Century components, or you can take the risk as I do each time of challenging dogmatic “principles” of presenting, as long as you’re prepared to wear the consequences.
More to follow in another blog entry soon, and I will be discussing more of these ideas at Macworld in a few weeks time in San Francisco.