Apart from teaching me a lot of interesting things, last week’s conference showcased the whole range of academic presenting. Now that I have witnessed some U.S. variants of familiar European patterns, I feel confident enough to attempt a typology of what could be called the Varieties of Powerpoint.
-1- The Wall-of-Text Orthodox
Unfortunately, this is the bread-and-butter type of presentation, at least in European settings. Usually it involves slides using the respective institution’s (slightly old-fashioned) corporate design, very few images in a comically low resolution, and lots of text. If you’re particularly unlucky, this text will then be read out loud by the presenter.
In any case, he or she will have a hard time getting through all of the 23 full-text slides, leading to a dizzying whirl of words when skipping through “the less important points here”. The good thing here is that, if you were to miss the talk (e.g. because you were sleeping) but could then acquire a copy of the slides, you would still know more or less everything of importance in the paper. Of course, the downside of this style of presenting is that you actually might doze off…
Pros: If you don’t want to read the paper, you’ll find the money quotes here
Cons: Boring; no added value of having slides; you either fall asleep or get angry
Bonus point: If there’s a single “funny” thank-you image on the last slide
Who does it? Mostly the Germans
-2- The Wannabe TED Presenter
At first, you feel this strong sense of relief: After four look-alike presentations of type 1 or 3 (see below), suddenly there is a black slide with just a few words on it. And it uses a beautiful typeface! Next up are some stock pictures of happy people eating salad (or something a little more serious / relevant to the topic). The presenter probably has one of these nice remote controls – and uses it to go to a lot of pretty slides very quickly. There are many short sentences. And ellipses!
Yet this doesn’t mean that they actually have a lot to say. In fact, it might be that the first bunch of slides do little more than adding bells and whistles to commonsense points. Also, very serious arguments might get crowded out by all the fanciness (and jokes), and in the worst case the build-up takes so much time that you don’t get to the hard facts at all…
Pros: Can save an otherwise boring panel; can be fun if done well
Cons: Form over function; you might end up not knowing what the paper is about
Bonus points: Prezi! And: If the presenter has actually been at TED before
Who does it? Ivy League grad students
-3- The Pro, or: Too Much Time On Their Hands
It starts with a serious, traditional first slide introducing the topic, author, and institution. But after that point, you’ll hardly see any text. The things to look for are: (i) images as metaphors (that not everyone has seen before), (ii) analytical concepts explained with well-crafted figures, and (iii) a way of summarizing results that does not rely on putting too much text on one of the last slides. Ideally, these slides complement an energetic, interesting oral presentation by someone who knows what they’re talking about.
The downside, and of course there is one, is this: After the first 30 seconds you will probably be jealous, either because you are up next and your slides suck in comparison, or because you just can’t understand how some people find the time to prepare so well. In case you are one of these well-balanced, generous people: Enjoy seeing a pro at work.
Pros: Seriously, did you read any of the above?
Cons: May induce jealousy, stage fright, or self-loathing
Bonus points: If a question from the audience leads to an equally well-done backup slide
Who does it? Far too few people in academia
-4- The Hybrid, or: Between Two Worlds
OK, think of Luke Skywalker for a moment. He can choose to do proper Jedi training, try some ad-hoc Jedi tricks, or even join the Dark Side. It’s a tough choice, really. One the one hand, people just know that they shouldn’t bore their audience, and that going the extra mile to hone their presentation skills is the right path to choose here. But Yoda is a grumpy old man, and isn’t it better to just get things done with a decent Powerpoint presentation that at least tries not to be evil!? So the presenter limits the total number of slides and the number of words on them, maybe even tries to use a good figure or graphic here and there.
But then, unfortunately, there also is the Dark Side. Why not add a few words to that description? Wouldn’t it be better to spell out all seven hypotheses, and maybe add a definition and/or quote here and there? So as a member of the audience, you might feel some disturbances of the Force…
Pros: At least they try, and it might even work most of the time
Cons: Missed potential; might start well and then get worse (if prep time ran out)
Bonus points: If you can tell at which slide they surrendered to the Dark Side
Who does it? Yours truly and a lot of other people
- People who don’t use slides at all
- People (professors) with slides that they’ve obviously never seen before
- … please add in the comments …
All of the mock slides above were sloppily prepared by me. The quotes as well as the “tea/coffee” idea are from a (very well done!) 2013 ISA presentation on work by Carrie Oelberger, Achim Oberg, Karina Kloos, Valeska Korff and Walter W. Powell. More info here.