Why is the quality of academic presentations declining?

I think that the quality of academic presentations has been alarmingly declining in recent years. More and more of presentations I hear from senior academics at major conference don’t meet clarity and coherence standards I expect from graduate students. I used to think that this is because older colleagues are not familiar with modern presentation technologies, but the real reason is very different. In fact, the quality of academic talks is driven down by institutionalized expectations of organizers of academic events for whom presentations are little more than sets of slides.

If you’re attending a conference, one thing is certain: you will be asked to send “your presentation” in, because the organizers need to load it in advance onto the projecting computer, post on the website, and share with the sponsors and participants. The organizers would be very upset if you fail to email them your slides. But curiously, they actually would rarely have any other expectations from you (save for showing up to ‘present’ (i.e. read) your slides). So once ‘the presentation’ has been sent in, the respective boxes can be ticked off and everyone is happy. This means that preparing a file to be emailed to the organizers has become the central – and sadly often the only – element of preparing your talk. Indeed, if this is the only thing the organizers are asking for, why bother about anything else?

- Are you prepared?

- Yes, I’ve sent my presentation in!

Somehow, the fact that a presentation is not a computer file, but the actual process of your interaction with the audience is lost in this administrative logic.

Thus, academics increasingly consider their presentations as documents rather than actual talks. Preparing such documents, especially in a hurry, follows a familiar and unfortunate pattern. If the presentation is new, it is often prepared by copying, pasting and shortening text from a recent paper. Usually, from a Word document into a PowerPoint document – smooth and easy! If the ‘presentation’ has already been done, it’s even easier. The old slides can be recycled with a different title and perhaps a slightly different order. Then all that remains is to send your slides in, come to the conference, read those slides to the audience (as if they can’t read themselves) and then sit down and try to make sense of similar slides read aloud at you by the colleagues who have ‘prepared’ in a similar way. Moreover, since the slides are designed not to support your talk but rather to be posted on the organizers’ website they gravitate towards bulleted points and graphics that can be understood without the presenter. Here is the exchange I overheard at a recent conference:

- I could not follow anything he was saying, could you?

- No, but some of the text on his slides was interesting. I wish he would not go so fast so I could read more.

- OK, let’s wait till the slides are posted on the website.

(Why did you come to the event? Why not just check the website?)

What can be done to reverse this trend of powerpoints replacing people? It is very difficult to change the logic of the organizers, but somehow they need to understand the difference between a presentation and a set of slides. They could consider alternative forms of disseminating the proceedings of their events (e.g. through videos of talks rather than slides posted on websites). But it is academics who primarily need to change by preparing for their talks more carefully, going beyond just composing the slides.

It’s not about your slides, it is first and foremost about what you say. Think it through. Write it down. Design visuals to focus the listeners’ minds on your ideas. See more details in the next post.

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy at Central European University and Associate Professor of Lund University. He is also the coordinator of MESPOM, an Erasmus Mundus Masters course operated by six Universities in Europe and North America.
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10 Responses to Why is the quality of academic presentations declining?

  1. krakelen says:

    Preaching to the choir.

    I just discovered your blog, by accident (?) You have some interesting ideas, and I am excited to see the effect of your blog on my own work. BTW, I´m a teacher.

    • Aleh Cherp says:

      Thanks and welcome! As teachers we have to de-powerpoint-ize our students. I have recently been mentoring a few bright kids preparing for a student conference. – When will you look at our powerpoints, professor? – At the very very end! was my answer. Thus we went through the outlines, scripts and only then – the slides.

  2. I am a football (soccer) coach & use Keynote presentations in 2 main areas:
    1. Providing explanatory graphical & statistical information to current players, embedded with video
    2. Giving recruiting information to prospective student athletes & their families

    Your website has helped me modify my methodology & ability to communicate my ideas in a more memorable way.

    Thanks you!

  3. Csaba Pusztai says:

    Powerpoint (or for that matter, any presentation software) seems to be perceived by users as an END rather than a MEANS. If we reflect on the genesis of ppt (and the like), the original (implicit) idea was to visually support presenters in delivering their key points, assuming that multi-sensory stimuli work more effectively on the audience. This, however, creates a greater challenge to presenters (at least in principle) as they need to even more carefully orchestrate their presentation: speech and visuals to yield a better combined outcome. Before the digital age and PowerPoint, you probably had to think twice about what to prepare as visual support (say on a large sheet of paper or poster…or traditional color slides) for these resources very limited and costly. In economic terms, Powerpoint (and the like) brought down the cost of producing visual support to presentations to practically zero. (I mean the marginal (material) cost of adding one more slide to your show is practically none. ) This simultaneously eliminated the need (incentive) to carefully design what you want to show to your audience. So we ended up seeing slideshows built on long portions copy+pasted text from papers, heaps of bullet points, intricate copy+pasted diagrams with 1pt fonts and downsampled raster graphics…on countless slides.
    It seems as if many people thought of slideshows as an opportunity for transplanting their written work into live oral presentations. It wont work. A presentation is a presentation. A different genre which requires a different perspective…and extra work to get the message across (even if it is the same as in the written work).
    I think we would be all outraged if Peter Jackson had just decided to get a single actor to read out loud Tolkien’s books in front of a rolling camera. We would not call that a movie.

  4. Yes. You’re so right that a presentation is a process not a product. One way I learned this is when I joined Toastmasters, a speaking club, where I learned through ten presentations what made up the basics of the presentation such as organisation, getting to the point, vocabulary, persuasion, how to say it (like word choice and sentence structure), body language and movement, vocal variety, researching the topic, visual aids, inspiration. And you practise keeping to the allotted time.

  5. Pingback: Academic presentations: ideas, workflows, and a Mac | Academic workflows on Mac

  6. Alexandra says:

    Hm, I’ve only experienced this a handful of times at mutli-disciplinary conferences. In my home discipline of musicology, often the slides are obviously a last-minute addition to a written-out talk. The failures of presentation, if there are any, lie in the reading of the paper—if the paper is written as an article and not as a talk, it can often get very stiff. Since actually reading one’s pre-written paper is the standard M.O. in musicology, reading from slides rarely happens, at least in my experience.

  7. Pingback: Managing audience attention: Keynote animations | Academic workflows on Mac

  8. Pingback: Talking to slides | Academic workflows on Mac

  9. Mark says:

    This is a great point concerning meeting presentations. As a scientific academic, I really hate going to large (500-1500+ people) meetings for this very reason. You spend an enormous amount of money in airfare, hotels and food and, in the end, the presentations are usually not what you take home as the most important thing.

    To me, the one way this will change is if the conference organizers put their foot down with the businesses that they have hired to run the meeting logistics and demand better. It really is not that hard to allow presenters to use either a PC or a Mac platform for presentations and let the presenters chose if they want to use Powerpoint or Keynote. If more attendees voice their displeasure with the “send-it-in” mentality to the people in charge of putting together these meetings, things could change for the better.

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