Thoughts on oral presentations


First published on LinkedIn, February 26, 2017

Last December I attended the AGU fall meeting to see and learn from the broad spectrum of Earth sciences presented on this conference. As a geophysicist with seismic data processing and engineering as background I was curious to see what other scientists are engaged in and I believe that the AGU is the right place for that.

So I started with a fresh mind and I had a tough schedule like everyone else on this conference. However, after two days following presentations from different fields of expertise I started to lose focus and it became more and more difficult to keep track. I started to wonder why? Was it simply too much information I tried to take in? Or was there something else draining my attention?

Because this feeling is nothing new, the same has happened to me on other conferences before. But on the AGU fall meeting I got an idea why. I started a very rough investigation parallel to my notes from each presentation I followed. In order to keep my little research simple, I separated the presentation figures into two different categories. The first one I called non-multimedia such as diagrams, tables or maps and the second category I called multimedia such as pictures, videos, animations or self-explaining illustrations. Then I simply counted how many figures of each of the two categories were shown in the presentations.

The results I got surprised me in their clearness: On average, each presentation showed 23 non-multimedia and only 3 multimedia figures. This average was consistent for different sessions and disciplines as well. In other words: in every session with 7 presentations, we had to focus on more than 160 diagrams, tables and maps! For a non-specialist in a specific field this represents a real challenge that is hard to fulfill. I have not judged the quality of each figure, but it became obvious to me that the presenters were more focused on showing a constrained line of their results than to make it easy to understand. There was one presentation with 49 non-multimedia figures, and another one showed 10 diagrams on a single slide. These are extreme outliers, but I think you get my point.

Maybe it is time to think about a different strategy for how we should present our results. 30 years ago, when computer based presentations became popular it was difficult to show videos or animations, but the same old rules on how one should present a scientific topic are still very much alive today.

There is nothing wrong in showing diagrams to prove the presented results, but it is not how the audience keeps focus; except maybe some specialist who know exactly what the diagram means. But most of the time we are not specialists on every single presentation in the session we are in. Ask yourself: is there any presentation from that you could remember the data that were presented after a couple of days? Most likely not. But if so, I guess you remember a video, animation or an excellent illustration, not the diagrams.

I would like to propose a different way to present results in an oral presentation. Take a maximum of only three of your most important diagrams from your results and build an illustrated story around them. I believe it is more important to take the audience on a trip through your results than to show a consistent chain about how you got from the data to your results. Consistency is important when you are writing an article, but in an oral presentation the story around it is what we remember. Not every scientist is a good story teller, but if you start to tell why you have done your investigation and what your motivation was the audience will be more focused. Use pictures and (animated) illustrations to show how you answered your question which drove you into your investigation.

I am aware that I am not writing something new, but as my little investigation points out we can still improve our success to share ideas and knowledge and, most importantly, enhance the chance it is remembered. Instead of having 160 diagrams in one session, we would then have only 21 diagrams but 7 very interesting stories attached to them.