Thursday, June 23, 2005

PPT doesn't bore people, people bore people.

From [Lowerbounds, Upperbounds], a pointer to a "defense" of Powerpoint by Don Norman, a usability expert. Although the article was written in response to the famous Tufte diatribe against Powerpoint, it is not so much a defense of Powerpoint as an argument that you can't blame the tool for people's inadequacies.

The article makes points that I feel are very important, and yet are ignored by a vast majority of academic speakers (especially theory speakers).
Let's face it: most people give poor talks. If we are lucky, the points are laid out logically, starting with the history, the current situation, the analysis, and the recommendations or conclusions. In other words, the dull stuff is presented first with the interesting part at the end, oftentimes missed because the speaker runs out of time.
There is an almost abysmal lack of creativity in talk structuring. A large part of this is because the average speaker doesn't really spend a lot of time on the talk, and if they do, they are focused on a doing a content-dump rather than tweaking the presentation itself.
Academic speakers love to review the entire history of a problem, boring their listeners to tears and robbing themselves of valuable time in which they could be presenting their own views. Why? Because it is thought important to demonstrate one's erudition. Bah. Let that come out in the question period.
This is a slightly more unusual proposition. Personally, I don't mind an exposition of the history, because you have to understand the history to understand why this problem is interesting. I imagine that as with all things, moderation is the key: it's fine to present a relevant path through the history that conveys the message, and defer other related work to questions or a slide at the end.
Listeners cannot absorb too much information at once. Talks should be limited to getting across just a few critical points. The goal is to get the listener interested enough to explore the subject in more depth on their own, perhaps by reading, perhaps by conversation
This is related to the previous point. A very common tendency for speakers (especially less experienced ones) is to overload a talk with every single gem that appeared in their mind (paper). Some of it is insecurity: "I need to show you that I have lots of thoughts", and some of it is ego: "Stand in awe and admire my cool results". Especially in talks, less is quite often more.

[...] slides should illustrate the major points and help motivate the listener. Tufte is apt to complain that this is simply "entertainment," but I respond that if the audience is not entertained, they are not apt to listen, and what good is a cleverly drafted talk if the audience is not listening.
This is another sentiment that I share, but I can't say is widely shared. Entertainment (not the song-and-dance variety) is a key component in making a talk "work". It involves nuances like cadence, flow, visual effects, aural cues, and many other subtle elements that if done best are invisible, but leave an impression.

Bottom line: it is actually possible to make a talk distinctive and interesting. Does every talk you give warrant the effort ? Probably not. But getting into the habit of thinking hard about a presentation (rather than slapping slides together from a paper) will not only earn you the gratitude of your audience, it might even help your research, by forcing you to clarify your thoughts and make judgements about what's important and what's not.


  1. except that you can't easily write grants from a research lab (you need university partners etc). And there is also non-research work at a lab, quite a lot of it in fact.  

    Posted by Suresh

  2. PPT is just a tool, and you can use it, as a tool, to put together Tufte-like slides, if you want. The problem is the easy short cuts which everyone uses with abandon. They were designed for specific functions in the business world and now everyone uses them. I think it would be smart to construct a similar set of templates more intelligently aimed at each field; but perhaps not lucrative enough to justify the time and labor.  

    Posted by Saheli

  3. True. in fact in our community we have such beasts :). I actually don't use PPT any more except for presentations that for whatever reason need it (legacy slides, management slides etc).

    LaTeX/prosper/beamer and the various slide classes that go with it work a lot better and look really nice as well. 

    Posted by Suresh

  4. "Listeners cannot absorb too much information at once. Talks should be limited to getting across just a few critical points."
    My PhD advisor used to say that you should have one ---at most two--- main points in your talk that your audience should take away. That is the maximum they will remember, all details can be obtained from papers or proceedings.

    I still give linear talks though: introduction, history, methodology, results/discussion, conclusion. I guess I am too comfortable with the habit to change it. 

    Posted by Niket

  5. I second Saheli's shout out for Beamer. It's more labour intensive but can break the linearity and (I think) is more elegant. And I don't limit my physical communication to just waving my hands. If I'm talking about a moving particle, I become the particle - Zen and the art of powerpoint presentations. Entertainment can indeed be useful tool, and can tear people from their snoozing. But I also work hard at making the most of figures, a la Tufte. A great figure does you a good service. 

    Posted by Daniel


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