A howto how not to do academic presentations

This entry was posted by on Thursday, 22 November, 2012 at

In order to publish your scientific work through conference proceedings, it is mandatory you present your work to an audience of peers at the conference. To some, presenting comes more natural than to others. There are many howtos and excellent books out there how to prepare and execute your presentation, but here I’ll list a few ways how NOT to present.

The purpose of this article is two-fold: make sure you give better presentations, and protect your audience against poor presentations.

Presentation Warfare

Use of equation carpet bombing is a very efficient method of killing your audience. You may have the impression you are very smart, but don’t expect that you can convey the very complex mathematics discussed in the paper in a few sheets.

Bulletpoints have that name for a reason; bullets kill people. Some presentations really bring a lot of ammo to the stage.

Use of lasers is still considered high-tech on the battlefield, however it has been used to great effect in the presentation scene for years. Laserpointer dots dancing on the screen on which the presentation is projected (especially by a caffeine-induced shaky hand) effectively demotivate the audience to pay attention.

Some presenters tend to use short bursts,
yet others use a continuous beam. Sometimes, this beam even accidentally wanders into the audience.

It’s all about contents

Crammed slides serve two purposes,

  1. induce information overload in your audience
  2. induce the inability to actually see what is on the sheets

A) effectively ensures your audience will go into a sort of Automatic Gain Control (AGC) state where input from the
environment is gated by selectively ignoring environmental inputs. The result is a lethargic audience.
B) serves various purposes. First, you do not need to put any effort into making good figures, it is going to be mapped to only a hand-full of pixels anyway. Secondly, you can perfectly obfuscate any detail in the material you are communicating.
This is very convenient when the material in your plots does not neatly coincide with your statement – simply obfuscate the plot and say the method you present works.

Result presentation in a huge table – making the fonts so small and the amount of information so high that the audience cannot read it.

Spelling errors – this just shows your level of commitment and competence. If you cannot even create sheets free from spelling errors, can we trust the results of your findings?

Sheet layout

White screen with very light colors, in particular white text on yellow or light-blue surfaces- you do not actually put any meaningful text here, the audience cannot read it anyway. Just mention there should be some intelligent text, and apologise for the poor beamer quality. (this redirects any negative feelings the audience may have towards the beamer).

In the extreme, a white sheet with light gray text will leave the audience wondering: is there some text on there? I can barely see it…

Leaving the lights in the room on, or leaving the windowblinds open, is another effective method to ruin contrast. These methods allow a lot of ambient light on the screen, reducing contrast.
Your audience really has to spend a lot of effort to read the sheets.

The other extreme, of course, is to have the presentation room so dark that the only light at the end of the tunnel is that coming from the sheets. The speaker is not visible (or barely visible by the dim light) and the audience is blinded by the bright sheets. Especially when the temperature in the room is high these are the ideal circumstances to fall asleep.

Going on about colours, when using red on blue or blue on red, you trigger some kind of hallucinogenic effect – most people will be dazzled and unable to see what is on the screen.

Presentation Techniques

Do not show up. Most conferences then will not publish your paper on the web, effectively obsoleting all the effort you put into writing the paper.

Do not show up, and have someone else present for you. Your paper will probably be published – there was someone to present it – but this person may not be able to answer questions from the audience. If you have some particular questionable results or shady methods, this presentation technique allows you to get away without having to motivate your work.

Talk to your sheets, with your back towards your audience.

Read your sheets aloud. The most effective way to do this is in broken english in a very monotonic voice, sometimes starting over again on a line after making a screwup. Also, read aloud slower than anyone can read. Your audience will already be asleep before you are halfway through.

Have a glass or bottle of water available, and drinking every few words. When used effectively, this pause can emphasise certain messages but when used irresponsibly it causes unacceptable overhead.

Hold a pen or pencil in your fingers, and fiddle with it.

Having a very irritating caugh every few words.

Dance around in front of vaguely visible figures on the screen, pointing to supposedly meaningfull details which are beyond the audience’s perception.

Go way overtime
The session chair’s function is to introduce speakers, but also to guard the schedule. If one speaker talks longer, the session chair will often try to get the speaker’s attention to signal “5 minutes left”, “1 minute left” etc.
Some session chairs may write this on a sheet of paper, and raise the paper when you have this many minutes left. If you plan to go over time, a very effective way to be insensitive to session chairs is by talking to your sheets with your back towards the audience.

* DISCLAIMER * the author is in no way an authority in the area of presentation techniques. This list is merely based upon experience of tens and tens and tens of hours undergoing presentations of greatly varying quality at many international conferences all around the world, primarily in the area of computer science and electrical engineering.

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