The craft of giving (bad) presentations

This presentation by Nick Hopwood seems to have circulated quite widely this morning. It’s a satirical presentation attached to this post, visually illustrating all the presentational mistakes he observes in the attached article. It makes a lot of useful points in a very effective way, though given Nick is presumably vaguely aiming this at PhDs and ECRs, it could perhaps have been framed a little more sympathetically given the anxieties which are often attached to presenting your work.

What I thought was a more substantive omission was the lack of any reflection on presenting without powerpoint. I don’t like slides. I never have. I struggle to synchronise myself with them, I’m bad at designing them and they completely preclude any extemporaneity on my part. I started to experiment with not using slides after reading a strange and thought-provoking plea for improvisation in academic life by Steve Fuller in this book. However I’ve recently started to feel less confident about not using slides, as I’ve become aware of quite how dramatically the quality of my resulting presentation varies. If I’m in the right mood for it then it goes brilliantly and the notes I have with me are something I use to remind myself of a vague structure (points I want to make and in what order) rather than my ‘content’ as such. But if I’m not then I struggle to get into ‘flow’ (i.e. lose myself in the process) and sometimes end up coming awfully close to just reading the bullet point notes I have on my iPad, which is the worst of both worlds really.

I want to persist without using slides unless there is a specific reason for me to actually use them. When it goes well I really enjoy presenting in this way to an extent I simply don’t if I have powerpoint slides on the wall. But I’m going to try and think more creatively about how to use slides as visual aides to accompany a presentation rather than display my argument. I saw Les Back do this really effectively earlier in the week, using images on slides to set the scene while nonetheless sustaining a genuinely conversational style of precisely the sort I aspire to – public speaking as a peculiarly asymmetric form of dialogue rather than monologuing at the audience: a strange style of conversation where the people you are talking to are nice enough to give you 20 mins or more for you to make your point. It’s an extension of those really wonderful kinds of discussions & debates where each is genuinely listening to the other and giving them time to articulate themselves, rather than simply waiting for the other to finish speaking.

However I’m a bit sceptical that I can learn to synchronise well enough to make this work for me and suspect that the process of matching background images to particular aspects of my talk will cause me to over-think it and preclude the kind of ‘flow’ without which I struggle to relax when public speaking. It can’t hurt to try though.

Incidentally Steve Fuller offered some great advice about speaking in the blog post linked to below. One thing I particularly liked was his suggestion that you need to “integrate your academic message with your normal mode of being”. I’m not sure how to actively cultivate this but when I think back on talks I’ve done which have gone really well, this seems like a really apt description of what the experience felt like at the time.

If the audience is to get any value-added from an academic talk, then the academic should speak not read the talk. Reading the talk, at best, is good karaoke. To me it always suggests that the academic hasn’t mastered his/her material sufficiently to navigate without training wheels. Ditto for powerpoint presentations, unless one really needs to point to something for added epistemic power. A good academic talk should be more like a jazz improvisation – i.e. the speaker provides some novel riffs on themes familiar from his/her texts that allow the audience to join in, sometimes contributing some novelty of their own.

We live in economically stretched times. Why invite famous drones, whose appreciation you could more cheaply acknowledge by buying their books or citing their articles? Anyone who is in charge of a speaker schedule – be it a seminar series or international conference – should always bear in mind that, in the first instance, it is the speaker – not you – who most obviously benefits from an invitation. It is not unreasonable to request something more adventurous than boilerplate from the speaker. You might even – God forbid! – ask them to address a topic somewhat outside their comfort zone. (Youtube is beginning to provide a resource to make informed judgements about who you should (not) invite.)

The increasing specialisation of academic life is way too often used to condone a multitude of sins that hover around the concept of ‘competence’. I never ceased to be amazed how often academics are willing to speak to only a rather narrow sense of ‘what they have already prepared’, or how easily flummoxed they get when they’re told they have 20 instead of 30 (or 10 instead of 20) minutes to present. After all, we’re supposed to be in the business of conveying ideas not displaying powers of recitation.

Categories: Sociological Craft

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5 replies »

  1. When the BBC covered Performative Social Science at BU’s Qualitative Conference 2010, they wanted to film a ‘bad’ presentation. Fearing the wrath of colleagues if they used on of theirs, we ‘staged’ it instead. It’s the very opening of this short video:
    : “Alternative ways of getting your message across”

  2. Very good blog Mark. Having just come back from a conference in Portugal I think all of these sins were committed at some point.

  3. Une fois de plus un très bon post : j’espère en discuter dans la soirée avec certains de mes potes

  4. Encore un article effectivement plaisant

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