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This is the worst academic presentation in the world … tribute

Conference season is fast approaching, and around the hallowed halls of academia frantic graduate students are rushing around trying to cat herd committee members for thesis drafts and preparing the capstone to all of their recent study and research: the thesis defense. For the past two weeks my life has largely been back to back student presentations, and on the whole they were excellent. a couple of moments when nerves got the better of presenters, but generally high quality.

Then I went to an academic meeting, and I was reminded again why we are struggling to communicate environmental issues to the general public. I had forgotten quite how excruciatingly dull and painfully constructed academic presentations can be.

The presenters were completely unaware of the effect of their talks on the audience, who were checking email, napping and in one case just staring blankly at a wall, which was obviously more entertaining than the presentation at hand.

It really was a master class in how to ensure that your presentation was as dull, dense, and obtuse as possible. So for the benefit of those who what to ensure that they can give the most perfectly dull academic presentation, here are some tips:

(1) When preparing getting ready for your talk, always ensure that the abstract contains no results or conclusions. If you have data in your abstract, why would people come to your talk? So after the methods are explained -ideally with as much technical jargon as possible, as this will make you seem more cutting edge- always insure that you put “results and the implications of the study will be discussed”. Leave your potential audience wanting more.

(2) Never rehearse your presentation. That way it will look more spontaneous and “edgy”. Practice is for novices – always hit your presentation cold, it will make the presentation fresher.

(3) Speak quietly, in a monotone voice. academics are easily frightened by loud noises and sudden movements.

(4) Read the text off your slides… slowly. It’s always good to repeat your message exactly and thoroughly.

(5) Spend the first five minutes groveling and sucking up to your funders. They’ll be more likely to fund you again, and that is the most important thing.

(6) Use the Oscar speeches as a model – you must thank every person in your lab, department, who has ever given you a grant, you have ever met or spoken to, by name. Ideally at the beginning of the presentation so that you run out of time when it comes to your conclusions part of your talk – that part isn’t important anyway.

(7) Always crack “in jokes” that only 2 people in the audience get (and one of them is you) – it will make you appear like a popular and amusing person who has friends, and who doesn’t still live in their parent’s basement.

(8) Comic sans ! Who doesn’t like comic sans font ?!

(9) Use bright colored backgrounds and clashing colored fonts. striking colors like banana yellow, lime green and neon pink are best. The audience will remember the presentation better if you can literally burn it into their retinas.

(10) Equations – your audience loves reading complex equations, ideally in as small and as quirky a font as possible. It makes your presentation seem more scientifically rigorous.

(11) Generally, try to make your presentation as complicated as possible; the more tangled and complicated your presentation, the more impressive it appears.

(12) Fill your slides with text, the smaller the font the better.  Leaving any slide background visible is an affront to science.

(13) Talking of burning retinas, when using a laser pointer, make sure that you wave it around. The patterns it makes are entertaining, and the possibility of blinding one of the audience just makes the presentation that much more exciting.

(14) On exciting presentations, always use animations. Lines of text that zoom into the screen like a speeding car, or spin are best. The program Prezi is particularly good for making text and images spin around like that spacecraft docking scene in “Interstellar”. Spinning animations are best first thing in the morning, after a big party the night before…

(15) For your introduction, make sure that you explain the back ground behind the study like the audience are kindergartners, for example, in a marine mammal conference, explain clearing that seals and whales are marine mammals because they are mammals in the sea. Don’t assume taht experts in the field, know the basics of that field.

(16) Linear graphs and scatterplots are great – always put at least 6 on a slide. Your audience is scientists, they don’t need labels or explanations so don’t waste valuable time on them, the science speaks for itself. A graph is worth a thousand words, so it just stands to reason that a thousand graphs are worth a million words, right?!

(17) Make sure you always have a few typos on slides. Make sure that you always act surprised when you see them. Your audience will think you’re laid back and ’folksy’.

(18) Remember also that technology always works first time, and no matter what computer you use. Don’t waste time checking that your images or animations work on the conference computer, that’s important time that you can spend adding more graphs to your presentation.

(19) In addition to thanking funders and the introductory material, always spend the most time talking about the methods. Explain every single stage, from the addition of solutions, to switching on the spectrometer, or explaining how you approached each and every person you surveyed. The methods are extremely important and no one ever looks them up in published papers, so as much detail as possible in your presentations is important.

(20) If you run out of time, don’t worry about skipping through the results. A good scientist only needs 3 or 4 seconds to read a results slide.

(21) The conclusions and discussion is really more of an optional extra if you have time at the end.

(22) Always spend the concluding part of your presentation talking about the additional funding you need for more research rather than what you found out and its implications.

(23) Always finish with “this will be a useful tool for practitioners” – assuming they simultaneously have PhDs in statistics, computer programming and advanced physics (OK, this is not really related to presentation skills, but it is one of my personal bugbears).

‎(24) Always increase the importance of everything – “possibly slightly useful” becomes “essential” or “critical” or “vital” and…

(25) When referring to statistics or a technique use the term “powerful” as many times as possible – it makes you sound like a superhero.

(26) Your presentation is really important, you must give all of it, unabridged and unedited. Moreover, conference time slots are just guidelines that the organizers assume that you will go over. ‎

(27) Always remember more is more.

(28) Never make eye contact with the audience – if you do, they will steal your soul, and more importantly, your funding. Always stare at the podium. Preferably remaining immobile. Don’t move…don’t even blink.

(29) Give the same presentation at every meeting you go to. One of the key criteria of science is repeatability. If they liked the presentation the first time, they will love it the seventh time.

(30) Never adjust your talk for your audience. Experts don’t mind being patronized or told things that they already know (for example, organic chemistry is the chemistry of carbon compounds) and non-experts are impressed and awed by jargon and frequent use of technical terms.

 

(This list started as a rant on facebook and my personal blog and has evolved over the years [or was created by an intelligent designer if you live in certain states] and I thanks the various chums who suggested items for the list ! )

 

P.S. This also works  as a drinking game …


Dr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in projects on every continent. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing four of the International Marine Conservation Congresses (IMCC) (the world’s largest academic marine conservation conference) and two of the International Congresses for Conservation Biology. He was a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology for nearly a decade and is currently on the Board of Directors of the American Cetacean Society and the Society for Marine Mammalogy. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 120 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.


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