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Conference Presentations
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Words of Wisdom

If you give kids a language, they can use it. I think that’s what these educators fear. If you really educate these kids, they aren’t going to punch you in the face, they are going to challenge you with your own language.

— Jeanette Winterson



So we have a sense of what makes a bad presentation. We have all sat through them unfortunately.

I actually suspect we have all actually given bad presentations too or at least presentations that do not have great aspects. I think what is interesting is that in doing research in doing research for this talk, I actually ran across tons of people who write  booklets about how to give a bad presentation. My favorite is by Richard Smith who was at the time the editor of the British Medical Journal.

He has an entire booklet on what you need to do to give a bad presentation, and he starts with preparation.

How to prepare for a bad presentation:

“Forget it, just don’t prepare at all. Walk into the room and let whatever comes out of your mouth come out. You have been told you are going to speak to Italians make sure you speak only in German. You are speaking to 15 year olds make sure you make a presentation so complex that even perhaps a Nobel Prize winning scientist would not fully understand it. Of course the last one, make sure that your presentation is twenty minutes too long. Just keep talking. Everybody hates presenters that go on too long.”

Smith also give us some ideas of how to prepare visual aids that are bad and interestingly enough they follow along with what we have heard already. Maybe you should use some videos that are long audio that people can’t hear. When you choose to use power point, you decide to use every feature of power point. Animation, sound, websites, and of course, you are going to put a ton of information on every slide. So that you get as much into the teeny-tiny space of one slide as you can.

And what about delivery? We actually hit on delivery as well. The presenter who speaks likes this. The essence of a bad presentation is the boring presenter. You should never actually look at your audience. Keep your presentation in front of your face. Mumble your presentation and preferably read it. So here you are. This is you, your audience, and your bad presentation.

Notice even you are bored with your bad presentation. Even you are falling asleep at this point. I love that this graph. Even though it isn’t a bad visual aid because you can see some pretty distinct levels in the graph, but it has wacky colors. Who chooses pale blue and purple to go with a graph? Usually we see more authoritative colors than that.

We probably have people here from different fields, and different fields often have different expectations

My job here is to give you some general pointers that hopefully will cross different fields. We are going to talk about three areas that Richard Smith points to which are : Preparation so how to prepare you presentation, we are going to talk about visual aids, we are going to talk about delivery. I am going to spend a few minutes on the Q&A session because the Q&A session tends to freak people out. Then at the end, I have some tips specifically for scientists because last time I was here all of my additional questions after I finished were all about science presentations so I have done a little bit of extra research, and we will kind of go back. Hopefully at the end, we will have time for our own little Q&A session. I expect you to ask me really tough questions.

Basically I think about this as thinking about what you are going to say.  I actually like to encourage people to sit down and create a presentation. I think one of the biggest things that I know people in my field do (communication largely humanities) and you scientists you can tell me if you do this as well.

We take the paper that we have written, get out a sharpie, and we start marking out sentences that we think we don’t need. Our presentation is us reading through our paper really fast so we can squeeze it into ten minutes.

If you walk away with nothing else from this talk that I’m giving today, it is that really the worst thing you can do is do exactly what I just described. It is reading your paper whether or not you have sharpied out specific lines or not. If the goal of your paper is to think about presenting your research and making an argument, you need to think about your presentation as having a different goal. Your presentation is ultimately an advertisement for you paper. Your goal is not just to present you argument, but also to get your audience interested enough to get your audience to go out and find more information. Right?

There are lightly different goals. In fact, this is from Paul Edwards who is an associate professor at the University of Michigan who basically tells us, “Your presentation needs to do a couple of different things. One is to communicate your audience and evidence. Two is to persuade your audience that they are true.” Hopefully, you can do that with ease because I’m sure your arguments are all good arguments. “Three is to be interesting and entertaining,” and I think we forget this.

We tend to think of academic presentations as really dry and boring, and in fact many of them are. I’m not encouraging you to bring in a three-ring circus, but I do think we could stand to have more lively presentations. You will get more interest. I promise.

I suggest you sit down and actually craft a presentation. An entirely separate document from your original conference paper, and while you are crafting that presentation you get to keep three things in mind. One is the sense that oral communication is distinctly different than written communication. The second thing that I want you to keep in mind here is that you need to know your audience. Audience adaptation is specifically important for oral presentations. Finally, I am going to harp on this all day long: Stay within your time limit! It is really important.

Oral communication is certainly different than written communication.  You might think about this in terms of how you are recasting your argument or data into an entire different medium or language. Listeners only have one chance to hear you. Everything you say has to be understood at that moment. They can’t flip back in time and hear you again. It is absolutely essential that you make sure you are talking clearly that the sentences you are using are not too complex. What do you do when you are thinking about this? I have a few helpful hints. The first is KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid, and boy do we not like this. We like to make things look complex because when you make things complex we think we look smart. Actually, we often just look boring. So KISS. I often suggest one way of doing this is by keeping your sentences short, declarative. Make them simple. You might focus on getting one or two or maybe even three key points across instead of attempting, if you have a very complex paper, instead of attempting to cover everything.

Choose what you think is most essential to cover or most interesting to your specific audience. Repeat those key insights. Repetition is great. There is the hold adage. Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Keep at it. Repeat it that way your audience will remember it.

Use examples to clarify or illustrate. Examples will help you in the long term to get your audience to remember things.

The second issue I wanted you to think about is your audience. This is a picture of Martin Luther King Junior. I have him up here because he is an expert at audience adaptation.

Do we all know the “I Have a Dream Speech?” When we look at this speech in public speaking, we often happen about what happened before he got to the stage.

It is a march on Washington. It is hot. It is sweaty, and it is summertime. He is one of the last speakers of the afternoon, and he knows it. He knows that he is looking out at a crowd, hundreds of thousands of people, who are tired, who haven’t had water, who are having trouble finding restrooms.

This is an audience that has been listening to people drone on all day long. What he knows is that he really needs to perform an invigorating speech, and he does. Even before he gets up to the podium as the previous speaking is speaking, he is changing his speech. We actually have the original notes of what he was going to say and his revised notes, and they are dramatically different.

On the fly, he kind of makes revisions because he realizes otherwise his audience is out. He needs to bring them back in. He is a great example.

What do you need to think about? I expect that you aren’t going to be giving conference presentations in the hot sun in the middle of the afternoon.

You might still think about whether you have experts in your area in your audience. What they might already know? If your audience is mixed group, and job talks are often like this, do you want to focus on one group or a different group? Is your audience going to be tired? Are they a group that wants to be there?

I face my undergraduates every other day as a group that actually does not want to be there. I do my best to say, “Yes you do. You are excited to be here. I know it.” I don’t know if they agree with me. With all of this stuff in mind then you can think about how to create a presentation that engages that audience members. If you know that you are on that 8:00 am panel at your convention, and have we been on this panel? I have been on this panel. Not only will only three people show up, but those three people will be asleep. At that point, you know I need to give a presentation that is more exciting than one I might give at eleven o’clock. I need to be more enthusiastic.

In terms of expertise, and I think this is a tricky area because one of the most difficult things is adapting your talking to different levels of expertise. You might think about these kinds of tips. If you are dealing with a mixed level audience, one way of getting around this is to pitch the body of the presentation to the experts. You give them some meaty details, but you pitch the forecast and the conclusion, so the summaries at the beginning and the end at the more general audience. So that no matter what their knowledge level might be. Everyone is going to walk away having a good sense of what your argument is.

With that in mind though, one of the biggest mistakes I think anyone can make is to dumb down their presentation. Nobody actually gets more offended than academic folk in thinking, “Do they think we are stupid?” “Do they think that I don’t know that theory. ” Never ever underestimate the intelligence and the knowledge of your audience. I kind of like the idea of doing a little balance act in speaking to the people with all of the knowledge while offering summaries that speak to everybody.

The third thing that I asked you to think about is that time limit thing. How many of you have seen presenters go beyond your time limit? Everybody. You have to wonder…why? Why have we all seen this, in fact why have we all done it because done we aren’t practicing right so

We don’t actually know how much time it is going to take for us to give our presentation. Generally, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to stay within the time limit.

As I was doing research for this presentation, it was the number one thing that everybody mentioned. Nobody, nobody hates anything more than people who go over the time limit.  There was one entire blog that was called death to people who go over the time limit. People get angry in part because when you stay within your time limit, you are showing that you are professional. When you go over the time limit, you’re being rude and taking up somebody else’s time. My own experience with this was a couple months ago where the first person had about ten minutes and the first person took about twenty-five. This left the rest of us frantically cutting out our papers to do our presentations in about five minutes. It was fun for nobody.

These are my thoughts broadly about crafting the presentation. It doesn’t quite get at how you are going to say it or preparing for how you are going to talk about it. We will talk about delivery in half a second. In the mean time, I want you to keep this in mind that is practice, practice, practice: practice with your friends, practice with your family, practice in front of a mirror. Practicing does a couple of things for you. It gets you more familiar with your presentation so that you are comfortable with it. You aren’t going to stumble over certain words. It allows you to identify places where you can actually breath, or pause, and take a breath. I think most importantly it allows you to identify those moments that look really great on paper, but when you say them out loud, you friend will go, “Huh? What?” You have time to change things that sound weird when you actually speak them as opposed to when they are actually written on a paper.

Of course, practice with your technology. We will talk more about technology in a second here, but technology always fails. It is best if you practice with it and at least know or suspect to know what it is going to do.

Here is a really good bad visual aide. Is this the type of thing that you see? Your audience walks away only knowing the word numbers and two big green lines. They don’t get any of the data. They don’t actually have any idea what this means. It is simply too small and crowded.

The question then becomes what should you do? And I’m going to give you a few pointers and you are going to say ya. They are simple things, but for whatever reason we tend to do this instead of actually following the simple pointers. First though, why do we use visual aids? Why do we? Tell me. Emphasis. Yes. Emphasis is  to explain something by adding visual interest to your presentation. If you really think you are boring, then throw something splashy up on the screen. Just kidding.

Visual aids if they are done well actually increase your credibility. If they are done poorly, they decrease your credibility. If they are done well, you are showing people that you have put in the time. It is going to help increase retention and comprehension by the audience if you can give them an example to latch onto. It also helps your audience visualize your argument.

Despite all of these good things that visual aids do for us, usually they serve an entirely different purpose and that purpose is distraction. We are going to talk about power point here in a second because I think power point often distracts, but I think the one of other main distractions that we face are handouts. Have you been in a presentation where you see handouts being passed around? A few people have, but they are not so frequent anymore. What happens when we have handouts? The handout becomes the focus instead of the presenter. I have a handout for you, but I’m not going to give it to you. That is the correct way. It makes you stay for one thing, but it is a good way to use handouts.

Handouts you pass them around and people start shuffling and looking if it is a multipage thing. They start flipping ahead. Sometimes we need to use handouts. I would suggest that if you have to use them, you pass them out well before you are beginning to speak so that they have a chance to get all the way around the room before you start and that you consistently refer to what page you are on. For example if you look at the illustration on page two, maybe then people will stick to page two instead of flipping forward to page five. One thing that is always distracting, and I would simply put my foot down and say just don’t do this is passing around the one single copy of a thing. Here is the photo of my grandmother from 1963 or whatever I am going to pass it around. We loose a row of people at a time.

Don’t do that maybe have that item up and say after the presentation if you would like to come look at it I would be happy to show it to you.

In order for visual aids not to become a distraction, well dang it there is that KISS thing again. So keep it simple.

Most slides have way too much text. I think we should use slides to emphasize a point or two or maybe a series of five as I have done here.

Try to use large fonts. Nothing smaller than 24 right? You want this to be easily read by the people in the very back of the room. Pictures graphs, charts and so forth are especially helpful if they are related to your topic which goes right back to something we were talking about earlier. It’s always helpful to choose light colored backgrounds and dark text.

If you were to actually go into the power point system and look at all the different options they give you for what your slides could look like. I am surprised by how many have red backgrounds and yellow texts. This is a lived experience. She actually used red as a background and it didn’t work out that well so don’t do that.

These are simple points, but for some reason we don’t tend to follow them. I think we always tend to fall into the power point trap. I actually think in my experience that we use power point to torture each other. We can’t simply do the basics right? Instead we want to use every little bit of animation we possibly can. So don’t do that.

We want to try to be creative and use different colors on every page. We want to write out our entire presentation on power point slides.

All of these things become a distraction instead of something that is emphasizing pretty simple points. If I had a Mickey Mouse dancing across here, you wouldn’t be paying much attention to what I was trying to get at.

A couple more hints about power point. It is almost impossible for people who use power point to not talk to the screen. We either talk to the screen in front of us or even worse, we do this. In which case, I am turning my back on you. I would simply remind you that the screen doesn’t love you; the screen doesn’t care about you. The people who care about you are your audience members so you need to be talking to them. The other thing that we run into with power point is that if often doesn’t work so no matter how fancy your technology is I would be prepared to do without it.

Always bring a backup of some sort. In fact, I got here a good fifteen minutes early because I know this happens to us. It took us almost a whole 12 minutes to log onto the computer.

Technology is often really problematic. My own personal story here when I got the job at A&M, this one about four years ago, my interview was in winter, and there was an ice storm. My job talk which should have taken place in a room like this with technology ended up taking place in the Reveille Inn Dining Room. The Reveille Inn is a bread and breakfast with no technology, but I made it through. You see me standing here today because I was prepared to give my talk no matter what happened.

How do we practice good delivery? Get used to it because this is what we do. We are academics we have to do this. It is part of our deal we make when we enter into this world. Me worry? This is you. You are not worried. I would suggest right off the bat that you develop a speaking style that is not memorized and is not impromptu. I think memorizing is pretty unlikely for a full length conference presentation, but at the same time you certainly don’t want to be making it up as you go along.

Usually we have our presentations written down in some way whether it is on a paper like I do or on little notecards. What I would kind of urge you to do is to know your presentation well enough that you can have it in front of you. You can look at it every once in a while, pick up a few sentences, and glance back down to pick up another few sentences. Therefore, you are continuously making eye contact, and we call this extemporaneous speaking in the public speaking world.

Do you suggest that we writing down everything that we say or just write down bullet points?

I think it is up to you. For some people bullet points work really well. Especially if you are practicing it, you know what those bullet points signify. You can have a very short bulleted thing and know that these are the sentences that are going to go on with the bullet points. My preference, I usually have my entire presentation written out, but if you have been watching me, I am glancing up and down pretty consistently. I think it is up to you. You have to kind of grapple with what works best for you which means again as you get more experience you are going to figure out what does work.

Extemporaneous speaking, like I am talking about, helps you not read your presentation, but it also helps with a couple of other things.

One is that you get to make eye contact with your audience members. Eye contact basically tells your audience that you are engaged with them that you care. You are interacting with them. Speaking with your audience as you are making eye contact with them, you might be paying attention to what they are doing.

This is a great chance for you to know where you audience is right? Are they playing on their iphones? You all are a really attentive audience. I have to say. My undergraduates are on their computers. They are playing with their iphones. I have been at presentations where people are flipping through their conference books to figure out where they are going next. If you are seeing folks who are distracted, it is time to step your performance up. You need to re-engage your audience in some way. Tell a small joke. Make them laugh. Do something. Get louder.

Speaking of humor, does it work? What do you think? Have you seen humor in some of these academic presentations?

Yes, little bits. Outrageous humor bringing in the circus is maybe not a good idea, but often it really does help to have small, non-offensive jokes. Please double check those jokes that you think might be offensive or just don’t tell them at all. Small non-offensive jokes get your audience interested in what you are going to say. You really are a presenter or a performer here so think about it as a performance.

I think there are definitely times where humor is not appropriate so be aware of those times as well. One place where it is consistently appropriate is when you make a mistake. For example, the joke that I made earlier when I missed my slides and said, “You shouldn’t do this.” That is a great example for laughing at a mistake instead of apologizing. Once you apologize, we are only focused on your mistake. It is not that big of a deal we all make mistakes.

The other way to get their attention is vocal variety. You mentioned monotone speaking. Speaking in monotones is sleep inducing. You cannot put anybody to sleep faster if you speak like this all the time. Vary your pitch, vary your rate, insert a couple pauses, and vary your volume. You will become a more interesting speaker all together.

Here is one of the things that I struggle with is hand movement. Most of what you read in terms of making good presentations say minimize your hand movement. Place your hands on your podium keep your hands down. I love speaking with my hands so this is something that I struggle with still. The one thing that I can tell you is that the worst, worst, worst thing you can do with your hands is put them in your pockets. It drives me crazy. Don’t do it. It signals that you are so uncomfortable with your hands that you are putting them in your pockets. Putting them in your pockets is a bit informal. You are really uncertain about what to do with them. Just rest them somewhere. Just relax.

I have “stand up” here although I am iffy about this. I think standing up makes sure people can see you. If I were sitting, I think some people would have difficulty seeing me. When you stand, you generally have more authority. If you are in a conference presentation moment, where every presenter before you has been sitting down. I would suggest that you be sitting down too. Begin with an introduction like, “Howdy how are you doing?” Maybe your name depending on how much information your chair has given about you. You may want to insert a little information about you. I always include a thank-you. I think it is a nice way to end a presentation.

The bottom line here: practiced practice practice. It will make you feel more comfortable with all of this. Next up, in my own presentation here because we have talked now about preparing, about visual aids, and about delivery. Is to talk about the Q& A session. Does the Q &A session worry you? Yes. Why does it worry you because you may not be able to answer the question. I think that is our main worry most of the time. I think the bottom line is you need to expect questions that are going to floor you. Questions that you are just not going to know the answer to. What you really want though is those good tough critical questions so I am asking you to reframe this in your mind. Instead of being scared of those tough questions, think yes they have offered me a tough question because what that shows is that they have been listening. They find the presentation interesting that they actually have questions about it because the opposite of this is silence and have we been to those presentations? There is nothing more uncomfortable than silence after a presentation. You want to do everything you can do to avoid that by giving an interesting presentation something that is going to attract the interest of your audience.

These are just kind of little tips. I know I have a problem with this as well: trying to not get defensive when you are answering questions. I think we interpret these questions as attacks on us when actually they are questions about our ideas. If we think about it this is the way that knowledge is created. We questions, we tweak, we think about.  They are not attacking you necessarily what they are asking for is clarification or expansion upon your ideas and that is an important distinction to make. What if you don’t know the answer? Do you run away? No, it is actually okay to not know the answer. You can simply say, “This was a really good question it deserves more thought. Can we meet at a separate time? Can we talk later?” Praise the question. Praise the questioner and then say, “Let’s talk more.” If you don’t understand a question, and this is pretty frequent in Q&A sessions actually. Often people who are asking questions ask them as if they just want you all to do research like they would do research. They say, “Now in my field I would have done blah, blah, blah. Now how would you do it if you were me. “

If you don’t understand quite what they are getting at, ask them to rephrase it. They should be more than happy to do so. Some of these questions are off the wall, and you just have to bounce them back and say, “No, no, no, no tell me again what you mean.” Again, what to do if you don’t know the answer. Praise the questions, ask the questioner to discuss the issue with you individually, and remember that this really is not the worst thing in the world. There are smart ways to say I don’t know, and those smart ways include, we should talk about this more instead than running away.

In the humanities, I can tell you right off the bat that the number one problem that we have is that we read our papers. If you go to any conference, if you go to MLA, if you go to the national communication association conference, we read our papers. It is tedious. It is boring. I don’t know why we still do it. I’m asking you not to.

Scientists or people who are outside of the humanities have slightly different sets of issues although not entirely different. I have four common mistakes or common problems we can think about. Again, these are things that are going to sound familiar because we have already discussed the basics.

One of them is that scientists or engineers often think that the data speaks for itself. I’m just going to throw this stuff out there. Here are my equations. Here are my findings. I don’t actually need to make arguments about it. I would ask that you keep in mind that how you present your material is going to impact how that material is received. Thinking carefully about what you are placing emphasis on. What kind of background you give in terms of your theories and so forth becomes really important.

Common mistake number two is actually similar to the first: forgetting about the audience because your data is so great. You say, “This is amazing stuff! You all should be really impressed by this. I’m not even going to think about you.” Keep in mind that communication is a two or three or four way track. I am sending messages your way and you are receiving them, but I am picking up on what you are looking at. You are like, “Really?” I am responding to the kinds of messages that you are sending back to me as well so you need to keep yourself in the audiences’ position at all times. You might ask yourself some of the following questions so that you keep yourself in the audiences’ position at all times.

What other scientists might be interested in, or what other areas might be interested? These are for talks of all lengths, but especially for longer or more diverse talks. I think this really goes for just about anybody. How can I generate excitement in my subject in someone without knowledge, any knowledge, in the field, or is there research or a teaching anecdote that I can use to bring emphasis or interest? Maybe even a little humor? It is tough.

Common mistake number three is speaking in scientific journalese. Humanities folks, do I have English folks? What is our equivalent to scientific journalese? It is theory talk. It is high theory talk. ‘Now for my presentation on Derrida?” Blah. We can read it, but it is hard to dissect when you are reading it. The solution here is to translate written science into spoken science so we are back to that difference between written and oral communication. A well-prepared presentation should be simple, direct, filled with active words and the technical language should be kept as simple as possible. Again, you have to do this without dumbing down your presentation. It is a tough line to walk, but you should at least try to negotiate it.

Poor visual aids are another problems. This seems to be specifically for scientific or technical folks because generally humanities folks don’t use visual aids.

Generally any conference presentation that I give does not have any visual aids whatsoever which means that all of the focus really is on me, but when you do have graphs or charts or whatnot, you need to make sure that they don’t look like the visual aid that I showed you a few minutes ago which was cluttered with numbers.

I have actually been citing a specific document here called “Scientifically Speaking,” and it is written by the Oceanography Society. It is a great resource and it is online. Not only does it talk about presentations, but it also talks about poster presentation. Poster presentations are probably more important in the world of science than they are again in the world of humanities. If you are interested in that, I would highly suggest that you check out the website which will be on the handout I will give you at the end of my presentation.

I have a little time for questions. The questions is: What do you do when people are asking questions in the middle of your presentation?

I think you have a couple of ways to go about it. You can go with the flow and try to answer those questions, or you could simply say, I’m going to make a note of that. I’m going to come back at the end of my presentation if we have time in Q&A. Your goal is ultimately to A: finish your presentation and do it well and B: not offend your audience. It is actually a nice thing to say, “That is a great question, can I pick that up in a minute?” My guess is that once you say that the other people in the audience who are wanting to ask questions will get the hint, or they should.

This question broadly is can you clarify what you are asking us to do in terms of writing up an actual presentation versus basing it on what your conference paper is because you actually have a document in front of you. I’m saying yes indeed I do. I can actually show you a longer version of the document. These are my presentation notes, and I have a much longer document about giving good presentations that I have crafted this presentation from. Indeed, what I describe to you is exactly what I do when I am presenting. I look at my conference paper, often you can cut and paste, but I come up with an entirely separate document that does not entirely mirror my original paper. It is more work, and that is part of the reason why we do give bad presentations because we have limited time. We are on the airplane on the way to the conference going can’t say this or this. I know people that are also writing their paper on the way to the conference on the airplane. I do know don’t do that. Write it ahead of time, a couple days at least. I do know that it is tough to squeak out the time to do it, but it does make a difference.

Do you want to know how I practiced for this presentation?.  This is a presentation I am familiar with because I have given parts of it before in various places. Before coming here, I practice it full two times once last night and once again this morning. I probably would have done it more, if I had been more unfamiliar with it. Two full run-throughs so about forty minutes each, and I would sit down with the computer to my side.  I actually sat I didn’t stand. I sat with the computer to my side so I could press the button for the power point because I was running the power point as I went through it. So that is how I do it. I really actually do practice what I preach. I really do practice.

If English is your second language, really think about practicing because practicing is going to be the thing that makes you the most comfortable with speaking English. I would also think in that case that it might be helpful to practice in front of other people. I know that I can practice alone in my office, but it might be useful to practice in front of other people. I actually wouldn’t worry about it too much. The truth is that we are all in fields that are becoming increasingly international. I think if you are speaking as you were just speaking the audience will work with you to understand. You make your best effort right? You put your best foot forward. I think the audience also has a duty and a responsibility as an active audience to understand you.

I hope you all have a fantastic wonderful Friday afternoon.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute The University Writing Center, Texas A&M University.

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