Long before "death-by-powerpoint" or vertigo-by-prezi, there were bad presentations. Really bad presentations. So don't blame the software. The genesis of painfully dull or muddled presentations predates the computer. No one knows this better than scientists, researchers, and academics, who have long been required to attend numerous conferences each year, conferences which typically feature a keynote speaker and scores of shorter presentations by others in their field.
Over the years I've heard from many people with technical backgrounds about what is a good presentation and what is not. I've heard from many of you — doctors, researchers, scientists, programmers, etc. — and your comments have been very helpful. I've read several presentation books over the years specifically designed for scientists and others who need to give more technical presentations. Here are five:
• The Craft of Scientific Presentations
• Trees, Maps, and Theorems
• Scientific Papers and Presentations, Second Edition
• Communicating in Science : Writing a Scientific Paper and Speaking at Scientific Meetings
• Designing Science Presentations: A Visual Guide to Figures, Papers, Slides, Posters, and More (New)
The book Designing Science Presentations on the list above was published this year. The author Matt Carter is a young scientist who has teaching awards from his years at Stanford. Matt sent me a copy of his book a few weeks ago and said that he had been following my work for years. His book is very visual and very detailed. I recommend it for any one in a scientific field, although it is on the expensive side.
Scientist offers his presentation advice
A few years ago, while on the train to the office, I found a wonderful essay in the appendix section of "Scientific Papers and Presentations." This editorial essay was written by Dr. Jay H. Lehr, an engineer and scientist with a Ph.D. in Ground Water Hydrology who has attended scientific presentations since the '50s. The title of the essay, which appeared in Ground Water in 1985, is "Let there Be Stoning!" This should be required reading for all academics and business people, especially those who are to present at a future conference. And perhaps proof that there is a God, this 28-year old essay is available for download (here) from the Western Washington University website. So spread the word.
As you read the editorial, please keep in mind that it was written by a professional with an engineering and scientific background, not by a "right-brain creative type" who knows more about design and communication than about scientific investigation and processes for evaluating empirical knowledge. Here are just a few highlights from Dr. Lehr's editorial:
On dull conference speakers:
"They are not sophisticated, erudite scientists speaking above our intellectual capability; they are arrogant, thoughtless individuals who insult our very presence by the lack of concern for our desire to benefit from a meeting which we choose to attend."
On the importance of presenting well at technical conferences:
"Failure to spend the [presentation] time wisely and well, failure to educate, entertain, elucidate, enlighten, and most important of all, failure to maintain attention and interest should be punishable by stoning. There is no excuse for tedium."
On reading a conference paper:
"There is never an excuse to read a paper.... Better to lower the level of verbal excellence and raise the level of extemporaneous energy."
On using slides:
"They must be brightly lit and convey a simple thought. If you need a pointer to indicate an important concept or location on a slide, it is probably too crowded or difficult to comprehend."
On showing enthusiasm
"Be enthusiastic! I studied astronomy under a dullard and thought it
was a dead science. Carl Sagan taught me differently."
Please read the whole editorial when you get a chance. And if you have any success stories or details of great presentations you've seen at technical conferences, please feel free to share your wisdom
here. I'd love to hear your stories.
• How to run a useless conference by Seth Godin.
• How to kick butt on a panel by Guy Kawasaki.
• "Slideuments" and the catch-22 for conference speakers, Presentation Zen.
• How to lecture and keep 'em engaged, Presentation Zen.
• Really Bad Powerpoint, Seth Godin