Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Words aren't always enough

As I was scanning through the ToC alert for last week's edition of
Nature, I saw a correspondence entitled "A communication wipeout by gabbling presenters", in which Dongwook Ko of Charles Darwin University in Australia writes:
I have noticed a trend among speakers at scientific conferences to speed up their oral presentations so that they can compress as much information as possible into their allocated time slots.Talking so fast can create a problem for those in the audience whose native language is not the one being used by the speaker — almost invariably English on today's stage.
I would say that 'talking so fast' actually makes if difficult for many in the audience, even if they are native English speakers. At least, it does for me. I am not an android. I cannot process a gig of data in 5 ┬Ás. And I cannot follow you--or the story--if you're blowing through four slides a minute.

Put another way:
More data ≠ better talk

The best speakers present appropriate background and clear, concise data in a well-organized manner. They also know how to keep to time, for the most part, such that they don't have to choose between flying through 10 slides in the last 4 minutes or running 15 minutes over time. Neither is a good option because you're going to lose some folks either way. Speaking clearly and at nice, consistent pace doesn't guarantee a good talk, but at least it gives your data and your story a chance to prove its worth.


Genomic Repairman said...

I agree I want quality over quantity. Once they hit light speed I start to lose focus on whats going on and just zone out and go to my happy place until its time for the next speaker.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

They also know how to keep to time, for the most part, such that they don't have to choose between flying through 10 slides in the last 4 minutes or running 15 minutes over time.

You are absolutely correct that "less is more" when it comes to quantity of data in a slide presentation. Trying to impress your audience is a typical immature rookie mistake made by grad students and post-docs.

However, you are missing a third choice--the correct one--if it looks like you are, despite efforts to the contrary, going to run over. As part of your planning process, you should have designed your talk to be modular, so that as you go along, you can eliminate an entire module so as to stay on time, yet have your talk remain a coherent whole.

This applies only to standard "seminar" talks during which you may have to respond to audience questions and comments during your delivery. For conference platforms, where you have an exact set amount of time and there are no questions until after your complete delivery, there is no need to plan for this kind of uncertainty.

When I start a standard seminar talk, I always tell the audience that I welcome discussion during my delivery, and I promise that I will still get everyone out on time.

biochem belle said...

I agree with you on the modules. I have heard several good talks, in which the speaker realized he/she was running short on time and skipped over some slides.

I find it interesting that you refer to it as a rookie mistake made by grad students and postdocs. I've seen a few PIs do the same in both conference and seminar settings, although I haven't correlated the age/seniority yet. I distinctly recall one given by an older investigator, who spent the ~30 min of the talk giving background that was completely unnecessary for the topic... and then proceeded to present the same amount of data that one typically sees in an hour long seminar. Those are the days that you sit there thinking, "This is an hour plus of my life that I will never get back.