Saturday, March 04, 2006

PowerPoint-style presentations must die

So I went to this teeny tiny interdisciplinary graduate conference at my university today. I attended it several years ago, I think during its first year, and I thought it would have grown since then, so I submitted a paper. The conference was still small (too small for a university the size of mine), but it made for a pleasant enough day.

How interdisciplinary was the conference? My quirky humanities talk was bookended by a genetic analysis of skeletal remains and a talk on the intrinsic risk factors contributing to North American mammals' extinction. Fun!

I didn't talk about my dissertation research, except tangentially, but rather indulged in a talk about a recent rift in the model horse collecting community. I know, it sounds really provincial, but I had 'em rolling in the aisles compared to the other participants. (Why do people who have never seen me talk think at first that it's not OK to laugh? It's like I have to warm up the room for every friggin' talk.)

Anyway, what was nice about the conference was we had evaluation sheets to fill out for each speaker, so at the end of the day I received a nice little stack of evaluations of my talk. I received some good feedback, but waaaaay too many people were fixated on my slide presentation. I believe PowerPoint-style slides should be used only for visuals, not text. Years ago I remember reading the results of a study that showed that textual slide presentations actually cause people to retain less information than they would from a talk without the slides. Obviously the other folks in the room disagreed with me because they felt (a) I didn't have enough slides, (b) I didn't have enough text on the slides, and (c) I needed a "standard" first slide that stated my institution's name. (Hello? We're all from the same institution--they're lucky I had a title slide.)

Seriously, I believe PowerPoint presentations are the overhead projector of the 1990s. It's time to move beyond them, unless you have some nifty photos or graphs to show. I don't need to see your talk outline, dude. (I once saw a professor give a talk on how to better engage students--and he read it to us from a PowerPoint presentation. Argh! Irony. . .hurts.)

Here's the funny thing. What did I write on all of their evaluations? Less text on slides. Talk directly to us.

My favorite comment from my evaluations? "I loved the humor. I was sure before your talk that I wouldn't like it, but I loved it." Teehee. I <3 my crazy model horse stuff. Must finish dissertation so I can play with it in earnest.


Queen of West Procrastination said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly, Trillwing. I use Powerpoint for visuals, and occasionally for German words and names (both as a result of non-specialist crowds, and to compensate for any imperfections in my pronunciation). But that's it. Graduate conferences seem to be extra notorious for the reliance on PowerPoint, I find.

You would have loved the last grad conference I was at: we held it at a quirky inn, where they could only guarantee that they'd try to have overhead projectors in each room, and there was the possibility that one room might be able to get PowerPoint hooked up. But the organisers advised us to find ways to cut down on the visuals. My talk didn't need any visuals, this time, and so I just did a small hand-out with the key terms and names. I found that everyone was far more creative and interesting, and I listened more. When one guy did a PP-heavy talk, it was so jarring.

And I love that you gave a quirky talk about model horses. I like to use small interdisciplinary conferences to get people interested in my field, and so I try to pick either the most fun or most controversial topics, and mostly do a stand-up-type routine.

Heather Clisby said...

Oh god, I had no idea how much PP had crept into academia. Of course, in the corporate world, it is the language of choice for presentations. MIND NUMBING.

I went to a satirical performance of a PP presentation last week called, "Power Up!" and the visuals were hysterical. It showed people in business suits carrying briefcases all running a race.

Also, I think I heard about some bizarre art project that David Byrne did with PP. Honestly, I think it is why no one can write a complete sentence anymore.

Just bullet-point it, baby!

Phantom Scribbler said...

You're making me all nostalgic for my once-extensive collection of Misty of Chincoteague figurines.

Kaijsa said...

I hear you on the Powerpoint issue. My grad program was full of inappropriate presentation practices and most faculty seemed wedded to the format. During my instruction core in library school, the prof actually told us we would learn to "think in Powerpoint." I think it's a crutch for those afraid to design a thoughtful, interesting presentation.

I bet I would have liked your talk! I've seen too many conference talks where the speakers a) read from their slides or b) read from their papers. Those who give interesting talks always stand out to me and make me want to find out more about their work.