Why Do Conference Talks Suck, and How Can We Change That?

(This post is an aside; I promise to get back to the scientific content of the Pheno 2012 symposium soon.)

Pheno 2012 Interlude

xkcd, as usual, gets it right.

I’ve been out of the world of intensive scientific research for a while—between full-time teaching for 6 years and my current life as a write, I haven’t had enough time to produce more than the occasional paper. One side effect of that is I haven’t gone to many specialist research conferences in recent years. Attending the Pheno 2012 symposium the last few days has really made me realize something that I always kind of knew, but now seems obvious:

Most conference talks suck.

Yes, some speakers are better than others, and a few of the 42 talks I heard were very good. Also, I know I used to commit many of the same sins I witnessed in talks yesterday and the day before, so as I list the problems, I’ll flag my own bad habits (current and former). Based on conversations with my friends, this is not a problem limited to particle physics conferences, much less to physics conferences in general: it’s endemic in science, and perhaps most academic fields.

  • A 15-minute talk is not a compressed 30-minute talk. If you try to pack 30 minutes worth of information into a 15-minute talk, you’ll rush and make the moderator go Hulk. (Well, if the moderator is good: some of them weren’t very aggressive about keeping the speakers on schedule.) Similarly, a 25-minute talk is not a compressed 60-minute talk. I used to suffer from this problem, but I think I’ve gotten better. The key to fixing this problem is largely practice: work on writing talks and time your presentation until they actually take the amount of time allotted. Practice also helps with nervousness.
  • On a related note, it’s better to focus on one or two big ideas than to try to explain every aspect of your work. I understand the reasoning: this is the Big Chance to explain your life’s work to someone else, and you don’t want to shortchange the effort you’ve made. However, packing too much data, too many ideas, too much stuff into your talk doesn’t really help you communicate what you care about either.
  • Slides should contain a minimal amount of text and ideally a single figure (or maybe two if they are readable at that resolution). It’s a strong temptation to make your slides information-dense, but it’s wise to resist. Edward Tufte, the guru of presenting information in print and orally, has written a whole book about how best to make slides. (Thanks to my friend Christine for reminding me of Tufte’s arguments on this matter.) I definitely used to be bad about overcrowding slides; these days, I actually try not to put much text on slides at all, and when I’m presenting to the general public, I don’t put any words at all on most slides. Obviously, a technical audience does require more text than a non-specialist group, but…
  • You also don’t have to print EVERY word you want to say onto a slide. Far too many speakers made slides with full sentences and paragraphs—and many of them proceeded to read those slides to the audience. Worse, some others would flash verbose slides up on the screen and move on before anyone could reasonably be expected to read the content. Too much on a slide, and you either have to read it to your audience (which defeats the purpose of an oral presentation) or your audience will end up trying to read the slides quickly and miss what you’re saying (thus losing out on both the visual and oral content).
  • Similarly, font choice is key. I saw far too many tiny fonts (often coupled to verbose slides), which again is distracting. The audience has to focus much harder to read small text, meaning they aren’t paying attention to what you’re saying. If the color of the font and the background color are too close together, then it also leads to difficulty reading.
  • Additionally, sans serif fonts (like Ariel or Helvetica) are better than fonts like Times or Palatino for presentation. “Decorative” fonts like Comic Sans or the various calligraphic (e.g. Papyrus) or handwriting fonts should be shunned, even if they are technically sans serif. Yes, three presentations used Comic Sans. At a particle physics conference.

I’m focusing mostly on the content of the talks and especially the visuals, which are all slides created using PowerPoint or similar programs—including LaTeX Beamer, which (if it is used properly) encourages good practices in slide design. Delivery and clarity of speech are other issues entirely; many of the presenters at this conference are not native speakers of English, and I certainly don’t speak Chinese or Italian or German, so I can’t criticize them on those grounds. Additionally, even the substantial fraction of presenters who spoke well—looked at the audience, modulated their voices, etc.—still largely suffered from the problems with slide construction and cramming too much information into a short talk.

I anticipate a few objections to my critiques. These are particle physicists talking to other particle physicists, so why should they try to make elegant-looking presentations, or make their talks more polished? The answer is that communication with the public is a difference in degree, but not kind: the factors that make a talk excellent are the same whether you’re speaking to colleagues or people who don’t know the Higgs boson from their…elbow.

A related objection might involve context: saying that people have sufficient shared mindsets that providing background for the talk isn’t necessary. I’m not talking about jargon, which is just fine if everyone speaks the same language—I’m talking about making sure the talk has a beginning, middle, and end. If you’re speaking about an experiment, it doesn’t hurt to say what the important aspects of said experiment are. Even at this particle physics meeting, there are scientists working on the LHC, dark matter detectors, more theoretical problems, neutrinos, quark physics, and so forth; while there’s a lot of overlap in ideas and language, it’s not wise to assume everyone is in precisely the same frame of reference. Too many talks I heard felt like someone was speaking to their own research group, without concern that others may not have been privy to all the thoughts leading up to the presentation.

Again, this may sound like I’m condemning all the speakers, or setting myself up higher than everyone else; that’s not the case. However, the way to begin change to acknowledge the need for that change, and a little time outside the research community has helped me see. I think everyone who does science needs to think about how they speak about their work, even if they rarely talk to a member of the public—after all, if they can’t explain it to someone else, whether in their field or out of it, I’m not convinced they fully understand it themselves.



12 responses to “Why Do Conference Talks Suck, and How Can We Change That?”

  1. I think the best way to look at a 15-minute talk is that it is an *advertisement* of your research, not a detailed description. Ideally, your talk should convey that your idea is interesting, your methods are sound, and leave the audience member interested in looking up all the horrific details in your (presumably published) paper.

    1. I think this is a great point. I’m at a (different) scientific conference this week, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that the best talks are the ones that spend a good 5 (or even 10!) minutes of the 20-minute talk explaining the problem, why it’s interesting, and why the presenter’s research can bring insight into the topic.

      If the speaker can convince me in the first few minutes that his or her research is interesting, then I’m more likely to pay attention to the details later in the rest of the talk and to ask you questions/read the papers afterward. Even if I do get a little lost once they get into the details, if the speaker has convinced me their research is interesting, I’ll be much more inclined to follow up afterward

      (Correspondingly, if they haven’t given me a reason to care, if I lose the thread, that’s it. I won’t be motivated to try to pick it back up again.)

  2. Audience participation. I start my talks by telling the audience to interupt with questions when they think of them. I delay a bit before answering them, in case someone else from the audience does. Some of the best bits have been audience discussions. Better for them. Better for me.

    It seems that way more than half of all talks are below average(!). When i look back on the last 200+ talks i attended, the best weren’t the ones with great Powerpoint fades. The best were on the blackboard or overhead projector. Some stuff was drawn in real time, and animated. Only relevant bits were drawn.

    I used to use a laser pointer, but now, the mouse cursor is sufficient.

  3. Well said, Dr. Skyskull!

    Great point on steering clear of jargon, even if presenting to other scientists in the same field. Everyone has a different history and reference points, and I’ve seen several talks at conservation biology conferences that are so dense that unless you study that same fish, in that same river, using the same methodology….the presentation is lost on you.

    I think the other thing that should be said is that although most conference attendees are colleagues in your field, the audience is not comprised solely of other scientists. Journalists frequently attend conferences, and will go to the talks to sniff out stories separate from press conferences that may be held. It’s important for researchers to communicate well enough that they can capture the interest of a journalist. You could have the most exciting, newsworthy research in the world, but if you can’t explain it in a way an outsider would understand, you just lost the chance to get some media coverage.

  4. Thank you all for your comments – these are all really good points.

    Greg, your point about short presentations being advertisements is excellent, and I wish I had thought of that (or seen your comment) when I was speaking to a graduate student this afternoon. He was being very defensive about having 30 slides for a 15-minute talk, and I was trying to turn some of the negative response into positive feedback that could lead to improvement. Your point would have been a great help to him.

    Allie, also a good point that journalists are audience members. If they (i.e., I) can’t understand what’s going on, they can’t share anything with their readership.

  5. I’d also recommend Michael Alley’s ‘The Craft of Scientific Presentation’ – he does a great bit on reformating slides and throwing out the standard set up of a power point slide.

    In anthropology we frequently read written papers. A lot of folks hear this and think ‘HORRIBLE!’ – but I think it is actually a lesson learned from the kinds of talks you saw. If you give yourself a script and stick to it, you will be much more effective than if you try to talk off your slides – especially if you get nervous. Writing a script doesn’t have to mean you write a boring script – I always write it as a presentation to be read, not a paper. I write down my ‘asides’ and my jokes – and this means I keep the slides neat and effective. And 7 pages double spaced = a 15 minute presentation. Knowing that helps you to figure out the key things to be said.

    1. Agreed about writing a script (especially if you’re not a confident public speaker), but it’s generally a bad idea to read text to an audience – even if said text is interesting.

      Again, I think the key is preparation and practice. If writing every word out as part of the preparation is the way you roll, that’s fine.

      1. Again, this depends on your field. In anthropology I’d say 99.88 % of talks are read. And they’re really not bad to listen to. I’m not there to be entertained, I’m there to get information. The script means that the information is handed to me clearly, and I can focus on the visuals on the slides.

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