Pheno 2012 Interlude
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.