Saturday, November 19, 2011

How to give a bad conference talk!

I just found that I had never posted this entry, written over a year ago.

I just got back from the Society for American Archaeology meetings in St. Louis. I have always been amazed at the low quality of many presentations at these meetings, starting at the first one I attended as an undergraduate. I am not just picking on students here; some of the worst clunkers are from senior scholars. It seems that many archaeologists must WANT to be boring and even insulting at conferences.  If that is the case, then I can be helpful! Here are some tips on giving bad presentations:

  1. Read your paper from a prepared text. This will almost always result in a worse presentation than if you talk from notes, or talk from your slides. This is an excellent way to give a boring talk. But it is not fool-proof; sometimes reading produces a good presentation.
  2. Go over the time limit. This makes the session chair mad, it shows a lack of respect for the audience and other presenters, and it makes you look less professional. Maybe this is what you want. If so, read on…..
  3. If you want to go over the time limit, here are some good ways to do it:
    1. Read your paper from a prepared text. Then when you have misjudged the timing (this happens in most cases), and your allotted time runs out, you still aren’t done! The best material is in the conclusions, right?, and so you can’t just skip them. Go on and forge ahead to gain all the benefits of running overtime.
    2. Stop to explain a slide. If you have planned your talk (whether to read or talk from notes), and in the process you take time out to explain a slide, I guarantee you will not finish within the time limit. Yes, this is a money-back guarantee. Try it sometime and let me know if I am right or wrong.
    3. Don’t bother to look at the clock or your watch during your talk.
    4. Don’t waste time practicing your talk ahead of time.
    5. Use a pointer to show something on screen (please don’t use the simple tools of powerpoint to emphasize sites or places or points with arrows, circles, etc.). Much better to wave your pointer (with an unstable hand) in the general direction and hope the audience can find the thing you are talking about, while wasting time.
  4. Well, perhaps you are young and nervous and insecure and feel that something will go seriously wrong if you don’t read your paper. That is probably not the case, but if you feel this way, here is a way to make sure your presentation is bad: Write the text using the style of discourse you would use in writing a journal article. That almost guarantees that your talk will be stiff and boring and difficult to follow. Don’t write it out in the style of verbal discourse, and whatever you do don't be informal or clear; that might produce a good presentation and that is not our goal here. Postmodern obfuscatory prose can help you underachieve.
  5. Here are some tips for making sure your slides are bad:
    1. Have long paragraphs of text in the slide.
    2. Use small font (or odd color schemes) so people can’t read the text easily.
    3. Use complicated charts and graphs that can’t be comprehended quickly and easily. A table that fills the screen with numbers is a great way to put the audience to sleep.
    4. Use a pointer to show the audience something that is painfully obvious on the slide. Needless repetition is good here, both for making you look unprofessional and for putting time on the clock to help you run over the limit.
  1. Insult your audience! (this should be #6, sorry) If you don't think the tips listed above will be sufficiently damaging to your talk and reputation, you can step it up a notch and insult the intelligence of your listeners. One of my favorite tricks is to put a bunch of text up on the screen, and then read it out loud, verbatim. That insults me every time.

If you follow some of these tips, you will be sure to give a low-quality presentation at your next professional conference.


Ryan Anderson said...

Ha. Thanks for posting this. Lots of good advice. I especially appreciate your point about writing the presentation in thick academic language versus actually writing it to be read aloud. Big difference. These kinds of presentations are great opportunities to actually communicate and talk about our work--burying all of the good ideas in dense (and often boring) language is the best way to kill a good opportunity.

Lee Potts said...

Another time related issue -- Show up early enough to make sure all the tech is working and your presentation will be projected correctly. Principle #6: “If you’re not early, you’re late.” ('s not respectful to ask the audience to watch you deal with AV issues that could have easily been addressed ahead of time.

Chris said...

These are really good points for my students. I am designing my arch theory class for next semester and am including a section on blogs in archaeology. So, it is good that they will get some practical knowledge out of this section in addition to seeing how the field is represented in this medium.

In terms of conferences, the absolutely worst talks I have ever seen have always been by experienced professors. Of course, I have seen really bad ones by students, but the worst ones have always been by the established profs. I always felt it is because, well, they don't care much about the quality of their talks. I organized a session with a friend in Sacramento, and I was sweating as chair as every well established participant went way over in time.

You can read a talk. But there are effective ways to read and ineffective ways to read. I think it should be treated as a skill and an art. Also, reading a written talk is good because you come to a conference with a shortened version of a possible pub.

However, when I do it, I channel my days as a thespian. (1) A fifteen minute talk should be no more than 8 double spaced pages, at the most. I get nervous if I push 8 pages. Shooting for 6-7 is better. This is so important. Going over is not just poor form, it is rude and obnoxious. (2) Write to read aloud. Avoid long sentences and dense prose. Avoid jargon unless the jargon is intrinsic to a concept you are talking about.(3) This is real important: Script your talk. I treat my talks like scripts. I bold face some words and passages. I underline others. I know where I should emphasize points and to what extent. (4) Practice for time, content, and display. Know your script. (5) Don't read boringly. Be energetic.

Of course, I always see great talks that are not written, but they usually lack an overall narrative and focus on "we did this, then that, found this, then that." Also, I absolutely hate it when I see someone giving a talk without reading but use flash cards or clearly use the powerpoint entries to jog their memory.

I have seem wonderful talks with crappy research and atrocious talks that cloud quality research. Giving a talk is performance, whether it is read or not.

Oh yes, it sometimes helps to quietly play Eye of the Tiger on your Ipod right before you go on stage...

Michael E. Smith said...

Ryan, Lee, and Chris-

Nice comments. There are several reasons why I strongly favor NOT reading a presentation. (1) The boring talks I heard at my first SAA meetings. (2) A talk I heard David Freidel give at the Puleston memorial conference in Minnesota, where he talked directly to the audience without notes. It was one of the best talks I've ever heard (in terms of presentaiton style), and pretty good intellectually also. (3) When I first tried talking without a prepared text (my 2nd or 3rd talk), as a student at the AAA meetings, TWO strangers came up to me and said it was the best talk they had heard at the meetings (and Robert Carneiro also came up and said that most of my ideas were wrong!). (4) A friend and colleague who shall remain unidentified here often gives boring, read-from-a-text talks. They are technically and intellectually fine, but boring to listen to. At one SAA, this person's slides were lost by the airline (in pre-Powerpoint days), and they had to talk without them. It was the BEST talk I had ever heard by this colleague, who just drew a few things on a blackboard and talked, semi-converstionally, directly to the audience. (5)Early on, my wife Cindy made me practice, practice, practice my talks, sometimes to her, sometimes to our toddler kids, and even to "Mr. Mask" (a Guerrero carved wood mask who has long hung on our wall). Practice make perfect. I don't think I'm being overly egotistical to claim that I give pretty darn good professional talks.

Anonymous said...

What about job talks?

Michael E. Smith said...

Job talks? I guess I could do a post on that topic. After eight academic job talks, I hope I am retired from this genre.

Anonymous said...

honestly, reading makes me a lot more nervous than not reading.

Anonymous said...

A couple of days ago I "heard" a conference paper by a guy who literally slumped over the lectern. The microphone was quite close to his mouth, but you still couldn't make out the words because they were directed at his boots. He never noticed the mass exodus, because he didn't look at the audience ...

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Aristotle Koskinas said...

Ha-ha-ha, this is hilarious! I can assure you,many participants in conferences I've attended followed your instructions to the letter. Good work!