Deep or wide? You decide.
February 13, 2008
The problem with many presentations is that people simply try to say too much in a short amount of time. Most people struggle with practicing restraint in the preparation stage—including myself—and have a hard time making the tough choices about inclusion and exclusion before the presentation. Often no time is given to the idea of exclusion and paring down. As a result, audiences all too often get more than they want, need, or can comprehend. We know this is true of many executive presentations, sales presentations, and conference presentations, etc. In The Craft of Scientific Presentations Michael Alley touches on a similar idea. In this book he suggests that you can go deep (depth) or you can go wide (scope) but it is very difficult to do both in, say, an hour lecture or conference presentation. The key, then, is to set realistic goals, and if you decide that you need to go deep then you have to seriously consider reducing the scope. Sometimes, in life as in presentations, you just have to make a choice about what's important, and let go of the rest (at least for the time being).
Slides adapted from The Craft of Scientific Presentations.
And in the classroom?
I have often wondered if this idea of including a very large breadth of material in a short amount of time is a problem for teachers and students as well in traditional classroom settings. Now, teaching daily lessons is a different animal from the kind of presentations I generally focus on here, to be sure, but I have wondered for the longest time if teachers — especially college professors — attempt to cover too much ground (and not enough depth) per semester. That is, do too many classes sacrifice depth and understanding for scope? Yes, it depends on the subject I suppose, but is it better to learn, say, only six core ideas deeply and repeatedly or is it better to cover as much ground as possible and go for the greatest breadth in the time alloted? Great scope certainly makes for an impressive syllabus and perhaps even a feeling of accomplishment for those who pushed hard and got the highest marks. But how many of the students who got a 'C' or better will actually remember what they studied a year later?
What got me thinking about this again was this presentation by economist Robert Frank speaking at Google.You already know about the talks available at TED, but you may not be aware of the hundreds of presentations and speeches available for free that are part of the @Google Talks including [email protected], [email protected], Candidates @Google, etc. (I have been ask to present for Google as well and will be there hopefully later in the year). Except for the all too familiar PowerPoint style, Dr. Frank gives an interesting talk. But what I found compelling in the talk were his comments concerning depth/scope and narrative learning theory. I invite you to watch his presentation, but you can see the gist of the points I'm referring to below in his slides (click for larger view).
Watch Robert Frank's @Google talk below.
The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas by Robert Frank
I read a great book in grad school called Flow (Csikszentmihalyi) that I have found very helpful in preparing interactions with people. Though the book isn't specifically talking about interactions, it is very useful. Basically, he says that we all are happier or more at peace when we are in the flow (meaning that we have ever increasing challenges that are neither too hard, nor too difficult). I try to tailor interactions with people in the same way. It takes a commitment to research and some flexibility, but has always been helpful.
Posted by: Paul | February 14, 2008 at 01:56 AM
Garr, great post. I was unaware of authors at Google and enjoyed watching some of the videos. I wished it was possible to sort them similar to TED. Interestingly, I clicked on about 8 different speakers until I finally found someone that kept my interest beyond the first few minutes. Tim Harford. I realized the reason he kept me watching was the power of story. The others had introductions that did not move me, were dry, but his did for a number of reasons. Thanks for also addressing presentation in the classroom, my primary audience these days.
Posted by: John | February 14, 2008 at 02:43 AM
Thanks for pushing me in a new direction with this. I work with teachers of all grade levels on questions much like the one you pose above. It's a no win situation for many teachers because the mandates that most states put on curriculum that must be taught require breadth and the methodologies that best enable students to retain and be "narrative" require depth and time.
Posted by: Patrick | February 14, 2008 at 03:20 AM
Wow, what a timely post! I'm working on a book and struggling with the issue of deep vs. wide.
Also, that last part about narrative and human experience is dead on. I've been thinking a lot about the centrality of story and human understanding. (The power of myth...)
Posted by: Christopher Bennage | February 14, 2008 at 05:15 AM
Totally agree with the thoughts on teachers and the deep vs wide conundrum and like Patrick work with numerous staff who wrangle with this issue. However, in my experience the best teachers actually cement student understanding and knowledge by focusing on depth over scope. Interestingly, this invariably prompts scope as "Independent Learning" (a buzz word in the UK at present) is actually promoted as students want to go further themselves, e.g lessons on William the Conqueror leading to comparisons with Robert Mugabe!
Funnily enough those staff who focus on depth consistently outperform the teachers who focus on scope, "to cover the curriculum", in terms of student performance in exams, but more importantly score higher in student reviews and staff job satisfaction surveys. Go figure!
Posted by: Mark | February 14, 2008 at 05:51 AM
Garr, another great post. Something I was wondering though, how do you feel about telling people what you're not going to talk about. Maybe showing the proces you went through in selecting what you do and do not present to them and why you made that choice. I think that sometimes emphasizing why you leave something out can make your point stronger.
Posted by: Dumky de Wilde | February 14, 2008 at 07:13 AM
One thing that you will hear in academic circles, always said slightly jokingly, but with a grain of truth in there is that students learn half of what you teach so teach them twice as much and they will end up knowing what you want them to. So perhaps you can go a little deeper and wider.
BTW having being looking at student performance and module reviews for a lot of years, I have to disagree with the poster above that depth wins out. It certainly does for some students but there is a large cohort for whom it is a complete turn off. If we could all hand pick the students on our classes of course.....
Posted by: L. | February 14, 2008 at 08:14 AM
As a student, I prefer covering a lot of materials because it increases my exposure to ideas. I can follow up topics I'm interested in, and I will have at least heard of other ones that I may need to follow up on in the future.
Knowledge is knowing where to look for answers.
Posted by: Xavier Shay | February 14, 2008 at 10:39 AM
Just to clarify my previous post, especially in light of the post by L, my point of reference is secondary school students (11-18) in the UK, where, in my experience, scope can cause confusion but depth is sacrificed for the exam content and "chasing grades"
However, I certainly wouldn't mind being able to hand pick my classes! Problem is, in some years when my results haven't been as I wanted God sent me the wrong students!
Posted by: Mark Creasy | February 14, 2008 at 11:15 PM
Excellent post Garr.
Here is the reason why you cannot achieve both depth and scope when time is a limiting factor:
Depth + scOPE = DOPE
Combining both makes you a dope of a presenter!
Posted by: Mike Pascoe | February 15, 2008 at 02:04 PM
Garr, thanks for post.
Another angle here - I do not think it is about the choice of either depth or width. In fact, the key is how you structure the message (or class material in the context of teaching). Suppose you have 75 pieces of message you got to pass to the student. You can go through from item 1 to item 75 one by one in the class. (and that's what we call as width here.) Alternatively, you structure and organise the material in a logical way. You may present the first level of 5 core messages. Under each, you have 5 2nd level messages, and then you introduce the 3rd level of 5 each. You present the 75 messages like a tree. I believe that human brain works like window explorer i.e. folder >> sub folder.
By having a good structure, you can have the learners to remember more pieces of message in the same period of time. After all, it is harder to memorize z-r-s-p-e-n-a-t-t-i-e-o-n-n-e than p-r-e-s-e-n-t-a-t-i-o-n-z-e-n.
Posted by: David Yau | February 16, 2008 at 07:47 AM
Just absorbing a presentation DOES NOT mean to learn. A presentation can only achieve as much as explaining something and making people understand. But if you want people to learn, you have to create room (that usually means reducing the depth AND scope in a sensible way) for other methods: e.g. working in pairs/ a group and presenting the results to the others; open debate/discussion etc. etc. That means, people should be enabled to do things on their own, and NOT being forced to passively sit back and listen to bullet-listed phrases on 30 slides...
Personally, I strongly oppose the use of slideware for educational purposes. It has its merits in other fields.
Posted by: Thukydides | February 16, 2008 at 08:00 AM
I read your blog in a RSS reader and "Watch Robert Frank's @Google talk below." is directly above "LINK
The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas by Robert Frank" which annoyingly kept taking me to Amazon.com and Wikipedia. There's no "embedded" Youtube in your RSS feed.
Just thought you might want to know so you can make your suggestions like "Watch Robert Frank's @Google talk below." a little more specific about it requiring a click through to your site to see it.
Posted by: me | February 16, 2008 at 03:26 PM
by the way iam yet to get your book
i had placed order in nov...it is feb..
seems amazon is taking some time
Posted by: raj | February 16, 2008 at 11:20 PM
Ahh, Garr (& Robinson), you've touched a nerve with your Gill Sans comment. I was *supremely* disappointed to see your otherwise peerless book set with large swaths of Gill Sans. I detest Gill Sans, with its pointy 'p' ascenders and other oddities. My wife is sick of hearing my type rants ("what kind of man would set his book in Gill..."). I think I overused it in school (guilty!), and haven't touched it since.
Whew! Got that out of my system. Nothing personal, still a fan and all. =)
Posted by: Allan W. | February 17, 2008 at 04:05 AM
Oops! Previous comment is in the wrong post. ^^ Apologies for being off-topic.
No apologies for hating Gill Sans! =)
Posted by: Allan W. | February 17, 2008 at 04:07 AM
As a weekly course teacher and a one-off speaker, I think it comes down to two things.
First, it is about knowing who your audience is. The more hetrogenous the audience, the more you will have to go broad to address the varied interests and knowledge levels of the listeners.
Second, it is about having a clear concept of what you want the audience to take away. Few teachers and speakers, or for that matter books or texts that I have read, seem to be begin with a clear end in mind. They tend toward the spaghetti throwing approach and just hope something, anything, will stick.
Know who you are speaking to and decide what you want them to remember from your presentation, and the rest falls into place.
Posted by: Rus Howser | February 17, 2008 at 11:27 PM
In regards to your question about college courses, my experience is as follows:
Undergraduate course work = breadth
Graduate course work = depth
One of the college courses I teach is a required departmental course, which means that I am given a set number of topics which must be covered during the semester and then the student takes a cumulative departmental final exam. Needless to say, average student scores are not as good as the average student scores in the elective course that I teach.
When I first started teaching at the university level, I was overwhelmed by the scope of material I needed to cover during the semester because I felt responsible for the students learning. After teaching for several years, I have come to realize that students are more responsible for their success in learning the material presented. My role as an instructor is to point them in the right direction and motivate them to learn.
Posted by: Julie | February 21, 2008 at 09:04 AM
Excellent tips for technical presenters. This topic just came up this week. Very timely.
--- Now am I entered in the book drawing????
PS Garr Rocks!!!!
Posted by: Pierre Hulsebus | February 22, 2008 at 10:31 PM
Why couldn't someone start from a narrow/shallow point and expand while going deeper (inductive reasoning)? Or start from a wide scope and move to a point (deductive reasoning)? Or the use of metaphor as a coninuous reference?
Maybe you cover these things... I just stumbled upon your blog.
Posted by: Ned | February 24, 2008 at 05:52 AM
One thing that can be useful in deciding what to -- and not to -- include in a presentation is to ask...what/how much can my audience absorb? The Navy did some research a number of years ago to determine how long people can listen to other people speak and then remember what's said...and they determined that the average adult's attention span is 18 minutes. Certainly shorter than the average presentation!
Ideas for "chunking" 18 minute blocks: separate with a story or anecdote; ask audience to do something (write something down, respond to a question, discuss a point with person next to them); use a prop; switch from speaking to showing a slide (assuming you haven't innundated them with slides already!).
Posted by: Kathy Reiffenstein | February 26, 2008 at 05:49 AM
I just discovered this site and all of the ideas intuitively seem right on to me. But I'm still struggling to see how to apply it in my situation.
I'm preparing to give a two-hour public talk (long, I know!) that debunks common myths about cholesterol and heart disease. The audience will be a mix of medical professionals and students and the general public.
I know I can't throw data at them and expect them not to fall asleep. On the other hand, because I'm presenting information / a point of view that conflicts with the dominant scientific paradigm, it seems necessary to include a fair amount of data that supports what I'm saying.
I've ordered the book on scientific presentations, but while I'm waiting to receive it, I wonder if anyone has advice about giving data-oriented scientific presentations?
Posted by: switters | February 26, 2008 at 08:32 AM
I put a comment here: http://snipurl.com/247d0 [which may be relevant. the prof I refer to taught me Combustion Technology and Had I key point per lecture with a pyramid of supporting information, calculation, data, etc. I remembered the key facts which I never used again for 20 years because I was in a meeting about a totally different topic when people were discussing catalysis, assuming I was ignorant.. I realised that stuff I was taught many years ago applied and challenged the conclusions.. with reasons. It stopped the meeting from rushing to a dodgy conclusion... thanks to a clear presentation at college!
And how do we do facts... Well ask yourself "what is the unfolding story behind the facts/data that the recipients want to hear? Can I tell that story with facts/data to add substance? Because data must support something, surely?
Posted by: tartle | April 12, 2008 at 06:51 PM
The idea of narratives as being innate to how we view experience was summed up quite nicely by Anthony Powell in "Books Do Furnish a Room": "...if you bring off adequate preservation of your personal myth, nothing much else in life matters. It is not what happens to people that is significant, but what they think happens to them."
Posted by: Kerry | November 24, 2008 at 10:34 AM
Doctor Gold,wait understanding live in lead terrible ready thing second likely wonderful aspect hurt previous exercise limited learn separate cold house beginning student him relatively employ prospect yet park bill customer face whether cash shoe wait upper link strength married available shape atmosphere love cost with affect bus blue rest moment better result during live class occur figure relationship flower issue fast period knowledge realize photograph to resource file decade shall hurt experiment almost opposition war reflect mile result below date range lawyer royal increase post following
Posted by: Mouthgarden | December 05, 2009 at 11:31 PM