Panels & presentations

_large conference room, stage lit up at the front with one of the grace hopper conference speakers_

One more about the Grace Hopper conference! This one's a critical look at presentations, since I attended a bunch of panels and some speakers were better than others.

The right way

One of the keynote speakers, Duy-Loan T. Le, was a brilliant orator. She held the audience captive. She had no powerpoint, no slides, nothing but a microphone. Her speech reminded me that far too often, presentations of one's work or ideas are focused on the text and images lit up on the screen. The right way to do it: focus on you, explaining and selling your work. A display is great for diagrams and supporting pictures. It's a bonus for clarifying points. But that's all it should be: support. Not the focus.

The wrong way: what not to do & how to fix it

The general approach to presentations these days assumes that the focus is on the slides, not the person talking. Personally, I watch the speaker. I'll glance over at the screen now and then. If I can't understand the talk because I'm not reading along on the slides, there's a serious problem.

  1. Never, ever read sentences directly off the slides. If you do, it means you have too much text on your slides. You can read directly from your notes. Your notes should not be posted on your slides.

  2. Talk slower than you think you should. Everyone in the audience appreciates an intelligible speaker.

  3. Make clean slides, both in terms of amount of content on any one slide and the content's format. This topic could fill a book; I've touched on it before. Use a font large enough for people to read from the back row. Use easy-to-read colors. Don't cram text and graphics into every empty space. If you're just going to gloss over a topic, you don't need paragraphs about it on your slides - particularly when you flip through your slides more quickly than people can read your paragraphs. What's the point of having so many words if no one is going to read them?

  4. Don't have paragraphs on your slides, period. If I want the novel, I'll email you for it, thanks. A presentation involves you and it involves you, presenting. I once sat through a presentation in which the speaker used a gimmick of little cartoon fishies with whom she "conversed" and who "helped explain" her topic. The fishies even made noise - yup, she found a garbled, irritating bubbling audio track. Multiple times, she told the audience, "I'll let my fish friends explain," and proceeded to stand quietly on the side of the stage as the audio track played. We, as the audience, were expected to sit there reading the slides.

  5. Proof-read your slides. At GHC, I saw the phrase "If you don't, know one else will."

  6. Unless you specifically know your audience will be full of programmers, don't put huge chunks of Java pseudocode in your slides. Even if you're giving a talk for an audience that is mostly technical women, your presentation needs to understandable by the non-programmers, at least on a general level. Similarly, if you're going to include technical details, don't gloss over them using unexplained technical terminology to "give the flavor," because all the audience learns is that they don't know the jargon.

  7. Insist on a mobile microphone and/or a laser pointer. Sometimes you don't have a choice, such as at GHC this year. Tied to a specific location on the stage, you're unable to gesture at your slides or point to them except in a vague, flailing manner, and unable to be heard unless you're rigidly standing in one spot. A laser pointer and and a mobile mic add flexibility and allow you to more easily incorporate your slides into your talk.


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Aeronautics Student Forum

Wednesday, August 4th. 10AM. The Aeronautics Student Forum.

My lab is lined up in the front row, fidgeting, exchanging nervous glances. We trade seats between the other students' presentations, taking turns with the laptop to read over the half-done powerpoint.

_four computers in a row on a table_

The motion tracking camera system is set up (we were in the building until 10pm the previous night, testing our hardware and software, ensuring it'd all be ready to demo). One of the cameras lurks beside the white screen, ominous, a constant reminder that it's our turn in an hour, and like or not, we don't have our finalized slides and some of us don't even know for sure whether we'll be speaking.

It was nerve-wracking.

It was also remarkably exciting.

Presentations, preparation, control

I usually plan presentations out to the last sentence. I know I'm not an improv whiz, so I practice my talk out loud over and over. Any slides I have, they're done at least two nights ahead of time. Practice, preparation, organization. No need to worry because I have everything under control.

This presentation at the aero forum was the opposite.

The previous week, to the relief of my labmates, I'd tried to organize everything (the slides, the talks, the demo). But our mentor, Garry, told us not to worry about any of it. He kept repeating that: don't worry. It's just a presentation.

_a white board covered in colorful diagrams_

None of us were convinced.

It wasn't until Garry sat down with me and explained what he had in mind--how he was going to help compile photos and diagrams into a logical order--that I trusted he was right. No need to worry. He had given scores of presentations. He had good ideas. He frequently pulled things together last-minute. It'd be okay.

In short, when he explained that, I consciously relinquished control. I mentioned control (and the lack thereof) in the context of volleyball games with my lab. The same idea comes into play here: Setting perfectionism aside, trusting that someone else is competent enough to get the job done. Teamwork. All that good stuff.

Coming together last-minute

Garry showed up not long after 10AM, printed copies of the finalized powerpoint in hand. As our time slot approached, my labmates and I shuffled discretely through the slides, still worried, still anxious.

Our turn came. We trooped up to the podium, all nine of us. We spoke. Twenty minutes, all told (not too long, really), plus the demo. We explained our newly established Autonomous Vehicle Lab, its capabilities, and what the audience would see in the demo. We flew our quadcopter. We demonstrated object tracking and obstacle avoidance.

It went well. It went better than well: our presentation was splendid.

Everyone knew what to say. Everyone was clear, concise, and comprehensible. Perhaps it was because we were not prepared that we were prepared: rehearsing, in our minds, coherent sentences about our parts of the project. Recapitulating our work with the quadcopters, the DGPS system, the Vicon cameras, the many vehicles and pieces of software. Unsure of what we would need to say, and thus, preparing for the worst.

If not for Garry's persistent "don't worry about it"s, I would never have experienced a presentation this way. I'd have planned out that talk and every one after, never daring take a chance on not preparing enough and not practicing enough. Now I know. Our aero forum talk was proof: Things can come together last-minute.

That said, I think I still like having my slides done more than an hour before the presentation. As engrossing an adventure as it was, last-minute isn't going to become my style.


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Improbability and confidence

Scene: One of those big college gyms, set up with fencing strips from wall to wall. People everywhere, fencers shouting and scoring machines buzzing, referees struggling to be heard above the din. I'm about to start my next 5-point bout. "You've got this!" my teammate says. An optimistic pat on my shoulder accompanies the words.

Stop right there.

I don't "got this." I won't have "got this" until the score is 5-something in my favor. Sure, it may be improbable that I would lose the bout, given my opponent. My teammate was merely expressing confidence in my abilities (and I appreciate that). But the way the encouraging statement was phrased expressed an assured certainty that I personally cannot associate with future events. The outcome of a bout--the outcome of anything, really--is in no way fixed until it's over.

Maybe that's just semantics and a personal irritant. Expectations can, and do, go a long way toward fixing an outcome.

No harm in faking it

During a lesson with a coach last year, I was having a lot of trouble executing a particular action. He stopped the lesson. He looked me in the eye, and said, "Repeat after me: 'Hells yeah I can do this action!'"

His intent: Increased confidence. If you expect to succeed, your chances of success improve dramatically.

I repeated the phrase, as directed. I then had to repeat it several more times before I achieved the desired level of confidence in my tone. The action I was practicing worked better after that, though. I was a little more convinced I could do it.

Of course, just being more confident won't win a bout. Expecting to win--not doubting that you can win--still needs to be paired with good performance. If you think you'll beat your opponents because your opponents just isn't good enough to beat you, well, you still have to do your part and be good enough to beat them. Over-confidence sets you up for disappointment. The reverse is true, too: If you're convinced you'll fail, guess what, you probably will.

Another sports analogy Presentations!

We're not all athletes here, so I have another example! Have you ever had to stand up in front of a roomful of people and talk coherently and engagingly? Presentations: the bane of our existence.

One class, three folks and I were going to give a half hour presentation. The morning of, our professor asked us if we were ready. I told him, of course! It'll be great. "What if you stuff up?" he asked us. "What if your voice squeaks?" No, I said, it'd be fine. If my voice squeaks, my voice squeaks. I didn't let the possibility of anything other than "this will go fine" enter my mind. "Can't faze you, can I," he said.

Truth was, I could be fazed. Like many people, if I stopped to think about it, I'd forget what I was saying, talk too fast, stumble over words--I have experience with that. But in this case, I was remembering all those little bits of good advice I'd been given. Hells yeah, I could do this. Or my dad's advice: "Act like you're supposed to be there, and no one will question you." Act like you know what you're doing and everyone will think you do--including yourself.

Conclusion

Confidence is good. Over-confidence is bad. Go figure.


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Snapshot: Classroom

Tap tap tap. That's your pencil hitting the edge of your desk, one rhythmic note at a time. The wood of the pencil has a little indent now from all the tapping (unless you use a mechanical pencil), but at least you're still awake. The kid next to you has been slumped over his notebook for the past half hour. You're pretty sure he's snoring. He has every reason to be, though; the professor has a fantastically monotone voice. Bullet point after bullet point, slide after slide. It's not like you have to pay attention, either--everything the professor is saying is in the lecture notes handed out at the start of class. But you feel obligated to try to stay awake.

Death by Power Point

Is this at all familiar? Most of us, at some point or another, have experienced the ultimate Boring Lecture: A droning, not-quite-loud-enough voice, reading sentences one by one off a set of elaborate PowerPoint slides. The slides look pretty, sure, but fancy formatting can't overcome the serious lack of anything remotely engaging.

Fortunately, most lecturers aren't that bad. But as my friend Carolyn points out, a lot of professors still rely too heavily on PowerPoint. The primary instruction, she says, needs to come from the professors, not from the text slopped across their slides.

And it's true. A lecture is a performance, and Hubert Knoblauch's (2008) analysis of PowerPoint presentations suggests that the use of PowerPoint serves to amplify the performance aspect. Slides should complement rather than replace the presenter's speech. They should be used to emphasize points and help explain difficult concepts with diagrams and photos; after all, a separate sheet of lecture notes with all the text of the bullet points can be handed out later. This may sound obvious, but in practice, most of us conform to convention of cluttering up our slides with too many words and too much visual noise.

Keep it simple, stupid

How do we fix this problem and avoid death by PowerPoint? Garr Reynolds recommends a highly minimalist approach (he's got a handout[pdf] summarizing his suggestions). Instead of lists and summaries, put just a few key words boldly in the middle of the slide. Use large images and diagrams. Turn off the projector entirely when you happen to digress from the slides. Remove excess logos and irrelevant graphics--they're just visual noise that detract from your message.

It may take some effort to get the hang of the minimalist presentation (I certainly haven't gotten it down, though I try), and it will certainly take some guts to be the nonconformist who doesn't use bullet points. One of my professors at the University of Sydney told a story about a student who went minimalist and was marked down as a result: It wasn't a proper presentation! (The audience, however, said it was one of the best presentations they had seen in a long time.)

A place for everything

That said, bullet points occasionally have their place: e.g., when the goal is to memorize facts (Kinchin & Cabot, 2007). But if the aim is to make links between concepts and gain a deeper understanding of the subject, other methods of presenting information may fare better. I'll open up the floor. What tips and tricks do you keep up your sleeve for making a PowerPoint engaging? Do you adhere to minimalism? Obviously, it's not all about the slides--it's also about delivery. Feel free to share thoughts on that, too.

References:

Knoblauch, H. (2008). The Performance of Knowledge: Pointing and Knowledge in Powerpoint Presentations. Cultural Sociology, 2(75):75-97. [PDF]

Kinchin, I., & Cabot, L. (2007). Using concept mapping principles in PowerPoint. Eur J Dent Educ, 11: 194-199. [PDF].


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