A discussion of the craft of giving (bad) presentations needs to consider avoiding slides entirely

This presentation by Nick Hopwood seems to have circulated quite widely this morning. It’s a satirical presentation attached to this post, visually illustrating all the presentational mistakes he observes in the attached article. It makes a lot of useful points in a very effective way, though given Nick is presumably vaguely aiming this at PhDs and ECRs, it could perhaps have been framed a little more sympathetically given the anxieties which are often attached to presenting your work.

What I thought was a more substantive omission was the lack of any reflection on presenting without powerpoint. I don’t like slides. I never have. I struggle to synchronise myself with them, I’m bad at designing them and they completely preclude any extemporaneity on my part. I started to experiment with not using slides after reading a strange and thought-provoking plea for improvisation in academic life by Steve Fuller in this book. However I’ve recently started to feel less confident about not using slides, as I’ve become aware of quite how dramatically the quality of my resulting presentation varies. If I’m in the right mood for it, it goes brilliantly and the notes I have with me are something I use to remind myself of a vague structure (points I want to make and in what order) rather than my ‘content’ as such. But if I’m not then I struggle to get into ‘flow’ (i.e. lose myself in the process) and sometimes end up coming awfully close to just reading the bullet point notes I have on my iPad, which is the worst of both worlds really.

I want to persist without using slides unless there is a specific reason for me to actually use them. When it goes well I really enjoy presenting in this way to an extent I simply don’t if I have powerpoint slides on the wall. But I’m going to try and think more creatively about how to use slides as visual aides to accompany a presentation rather than display my argument. I saw Les Back do this really effectively earlier in the week, using images on slides to set the scene while nonetheless sustaining a genuinely conversational style of precisely the sort I aspire to – public speaking as a peculiarly asymmetric form of dialogue rather than monologuing at the audience: a strange style of conversation where the people you are talking to are nice enough to give you 20 mins or more for you to make your point. It’s an extension of those really wonderful kinds of discussions & debates where each is genuinely listening to the other and giving them time to articulate themselves, rather than simply waiting for the other to finish speaking.

However I’m a bit sceptical that I can learn to synchronise well enough to make this work for me and that the process of matching background images to particular aspects of my talk will cause me to over-think it and preclude the kind of ‘flow’ without which I struggle to relax when public speaking. It can’t hurt to try though.

Incidentally Steve Fuller offered some great advice about speaking in the blog post linked to below. One thing I particularly liked was his suggestion that you need to “integrate your academic message with your normal mode of being”. I’m not sure how to actively cultivate this but when I think back on talks I’ve done which have gone really well, this seems like a really apt description of what the experience felt like at the time.

If the audience is to get any value-added from an academic talk, then the academic should speak not read the talk. Reading the talk, at best, is good karaoke. To me it always suggests that the academic hasn’t mastered his/her material sufficiently to navigate without training wheels. Ditto for powerpoint presentations, unless one really needs to point to something for added epistemic power. A good academic talk should be more like a jazz improvisation – i.e. the speaker provides some novel riffs on themes familiar from his/her texts that allow the audience to join in, sometimes contributing some novelty of their own.

We live in economically stretched times. Why invite famous drones, whose appreciation you could more cheaply acknowledge by buying their books or citing their articles? Anyone who is in charge of a speaker schedule – be it a seminar series or international conference – should always bear in mind that, in the first instance, it is the speaker – not you – who most obviously benefits from an invitation. It is not unreasonable to request something more adventurous than boilerplate from the speaker. You might even – God forbid! – ask them to address a topic somewhat outside their comfort zone. (Youtube is beginning to provide a resource to make informed judgements about who you should (not) invite.)

The increasing specialisation of academic life is way too often used to condone a multitude of sins that hover around the concept of ‘competence’. I never ceased to be amazed how often academics are willing to speak to only a rather narrow sense of ‘what they have already prepared’, or how easily flummoxed they get when they’re told they have 20 instead of 30 (or 10 instead of 20) minutes to present. After all, we’re supposed to be in the business of conveying ideas not displaying powers of recitation.


5 responses to “A discussion of the craft of giving (bad) presentations needs to consider avoiding slides entirely”

  1. I enjoyed your post, Mark, and will put a link to it under my original blog as I think it makes for a good follow-up and challenge to some of my views. Regarding the lack of sympathy in my accounts – part of that is deliberate. Throughout my posts you’ll see lots of reference to and acknowledgement of the fact that PhDs are hard and PhD students often feel anxious about things. However I sometimes feel that making too much of this molly coddles, and breeds indulgence in anxiety, when ultimately, people have chosen this kind of study, and should be ready to get out of their comfort zone. There’s heaps of very sympathetic resources and blogs out there. I’m writing some deliberately provocative things at times as a counter to that: the harsh reality being if you’re not willing to confront things that are hard or make you anxious, then you’re not going to get very far. This is *not* saying that students who feel anxious are useless. It’s saying that there are problems when being scared, nervous, anxious etc becomes a reason not to do things (eg submitting work to supervisors or for publication), or not to do them properly (eg I know that slide is awful but presenting makes me nervous: I would argue you’d be less nervous if you knew you didn’t have to apologise for awful slides!). I have sympathy for students who find it hard – but that’s the norm, there’s nothing special about that – but more than sympathy I wish to provoke students into hard thinking, and into practices that help them progress! I hope a bit of tough love, based on the assumption that the audience is sensible enough to critique black and white provocations from me where reality is in fact more complex…

  2. Cheers Nick, just to be clear, I wasn’t having a go! I was just unsure whether it was something you’d thought about or not. Have you written anything on this topic? I’d be interested to see if so. I’m also not sure where I stand on it…

  3. In the horrendously anodyne sense that I literally see both sides of the argument…

  4. I never read from a script but I use slides for three reasons:

    1) it allows anyone who is deaf/partially deaf and also helps those for whom English is not their first language to follow along more easily;
    2) it is a bit more stimulating than listening solely to a person drone on for 20-40 mins (and not every academic is a Shakesperian performer)
    3) they’re my notes and prompts and help to keep the talk on schedule

    Personally I know I’m a much better performer with them than without and the real trick here is to find a means of giving the talk that works best for you and the audience.

  5. Thanks Rob, really interesting comment & you’re right that accessibility should be an important factor in this discussion.

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