Posted by: unlikelygrad | November 4, 2011

what not to do

OK, I admit, I’ve lost my notes on what not to do in a conference presentation! I just unpacked and sorted/put away my last box of loose papers and, while I found some notes from ACS, I didn’t find those particular notes. *sigh* But I still remember a lot, and I’ll try to recreate what I can.

As a general rule, it’s helpful to try presentations out on an audience in advance–especially if you know that audience will give you honest feedback. How I wish people had told speakers, before the beginning of the conference, that:

  • If you put half a dozen different complicated organic reactions on one slide, no one will be able to read any of them.
  • Along those same lines, it’s better to pick a case study or two rather than trying to cover ever reaction you’ve ever studied. At the end of your talk, you may say something along the lines of: “We’ve also looked at these reactions, and you can read about the results in (citation).” I love people who do that.
  • A slide filled from top to bottom with equations will make the audience’s eyes glaze over. Even if they’re not in small print…if they are, that’s even worse.
  • If you have trouble getting your animation to work, leave it out. I don’t care how cool it is; if it doesn’t work, you’re just wasting valuable time.
  • If you’re going to bring your presentation on a thumb drive and display it from someone else’s computer, please try it on that computer before you stand up to speak. You wouldn’t believe how many speakers had things running off the edge, text overlapping figures, etc. because they were borrowing someone else’s laptop. This can be a problem if you have a Mac and are borrowing a PC (or vice versa) or if you have a different version of Powerpoint.
  • Don’t assume that we all know all of the acronyms. We may not specialize in the same subfield as you.
  • And for heaven’s sake, please speak up…and try to enunciate everything properly!

Now let me say something to the worst offenders. I attended several symposia at the ACS conference, and several of the PIs were fairly well-known in my field. And yet, without fail, the absolute best presentations were those given by graduate students! And so I have some advice for those PIs whom I heard speak.

In a nutshell:

Do not assume that your experience, greatness, and renown excuse you from properly preparing a conference presentation.

Things I saw people do:

  • At least one PI put together his Powerpoint presentation during the symposium he was presenting at. I was sitting right behind him so I could tell that he was in fact making new slides (not just tweaking something he’d put together earlier). He finished about 10 minutes before the scheduled start of his presentation; needless to say, his talk was a bit disjointed.
  • More than one PI (I think maybe 3 or 4?) took far more than his scheduled time slot. Now I freely admit that my presentation ran long by about 20 seconds, but that’s really inconsequential in the general scheme of things. I’m talking about people who run 10 to 15 minutes overtime…when their talk is scheduled to be 20 minutes in the first place. That’s just inexcusable.

    In each case things worked out because another presenter didn’t show up. But this was sheer luck–a hurricane had closed several airports on the East Coast, so there were a relatively large number of no-shows this time around. You generally can’t count on that happening. People who have practiced their talk in advance know if it’s too long and look for ways to cut their presentation down to a more appropriate length.

  • Besides these specific instances, it was pretty obvious that many of these people didn’t practice: for example, some said things like, “Wait–where was I going with this?” Ugh. Know your own presentation, people. The way to do this is to practice.

In general, my advice is this:

If you’re not well-known, you want to make as good an impact as possible on those who hear you speak. So practice: by yourself first, then in front of an audience. The best audiences are those who (1) are outspoken and (2) are only vaguely familiar with what you do. They will ensure that you explain things clearly.

If you *are* well-known, please practice your talk. Sure, you may have already won the respect of your peers, but why should that stop you from giving a good presentation? Don’t you want to earn more respect, not less? Wouldn’t you like to wow that really cool grad student who is trying to decide whether to post-doc with you some day? Or the person not in your field who’s just dropping in to see their friend’s presentation after yours?

My own feeling upon leaving ACS is that clear communication is a bit undervalued in the scientific world. And that’s a shame, really–is it any wonder that the general public doesn’t understand what we do? Or the value of what we do as scientists?

I firmly believe that those who understand their science best can also communicate it the most clearly–not only in gory detail to those in their subfield, but at every level, all the way down to school children. The best scientists don’t just reach out to specialists who read their papers in ES&T or JACS or Science or Nature; they get the general public excited about what they do.

In closing, a bit of a boast. A friend of mine registered for the ACS conference for the sole purpose of job-hunting; he has a Ph.D. in physics and is just wrapping up a post-doc. He promised me he’d come see my talk, if for no other reason than that I should have one friendly face in the room. Later we met in the vendor hall, where he gave me his feedback:

“That was pretty awesome!” he said. “I went in expecting to be bored and not understand anything–I just went to be nice. But I understood almost everything you said! And it was really cool, too!”

That, dear readers, is precisely what I shoot for in a presentation.

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