I think that the quality of academic presentations has been alarmingly declining in recent years. More and more of presentations I hear from senior academics at major conference don’t meet clarity and coherence standards I expect from graduate students. I used to think that this is because older colleagues are not familiar with modern presentation technologies, but the real reason is very different. In fact, the quality of academic talks is driven down by institutionalized expectations of organizers of academic events for whom presentations are little more than sets of slides.
If you’re attending a conference, one thing is certain: you will be asked to send “your presentation” in, because the organizers need to load it in advance onto the projecting computer, post on the website, and share with the sponsors and participants. The organizers would be very upset if you fail to email them your slides. But curiously, they actually would rarely have any other expectations from you (save for showing up to ‘present’ (i.e. read) your slides). So once ‘the presentation’ has been sent in, the respective boxes can be ticked off and everyone is happy. This means that preparing a file to be emailed to the organizers has become the central – and sadly often the only – element of preparing your talk. Indeed, if this is the only thing the organizers are asking for, why bother about anything else?
– Are you prepared?
– Yes, I’ve sent my presentation in!
Somehow, the fact that a presentation is not a computer file, but the actual process of your interaction with the audience is lost in this administrative logic.
Thus, academics increasingly consider their presentations as documents rather than actual talks. Preparing such documents, especially in a hurry, follows a familiar and unfortunate pattern. If the presentation is new, it is often prepared by copying, pasting and shortening text from a recent paper. Usually, from a Word document into a PowerPoint document – smooth and easy! If the ‘presentation’ has already been done, it’s even easier. The old slides can be recycled with a different title and perhaps a slightly different order. Then all that remains is to send your slides in, come to the conference, read those slides to the audience (as if they can’t read themselves) and then sit down and try to make sense of similar slides read aloud at you by the colleagues who have ‘prepared’ in a similar way. Moreover, since the slides are designed not to support your talk but rather to be posted on the organizers’ website they gravitate towards bulleted points and graphics that can be understood without the presenter. Here is the exchange I overheard at a recent conference:
– I could not follow anything he was saying, could you?
– No, but some of the text on his slides was interesting. I wish he would not go so fast so I could read more.
– OK, let’s wait till the slides are posted on the website.
(Why did you come to the event? Why not just check the website?)
What can be done to reverse this trend of powerpoints replacing people? It is very difficult to change the logic of the organizers, but somehow they need to understand the difference between a presentation and a set of slides. They could consider alternative forms of disseminating the proceedings of their events (e.g. through videos of talks rather than slides posted on websites). But it is academics who primarily need to change by preparing for their talks more carefully, going beyond just composing the slides.
It’s not about your slides, it is first and foremost about what you say. Think it through. Write it down. Design visuals to focus the listeners’ minds on your ideas. See more details in the next post.