“That was ... interesting … but I didn’t understand her hypothesis,” a statistician comments, making his way to the meeting room door.
“That’s because she didn’t have a hypothesis,” a biologist replies, “just lots of data, not very believable or persuasive.”
“I couldn’t even understand her data,” a chemist adds. “And we certainly didn’t discuss it; there wasn’t enough time. Same as always.”
“Still, it wasn’t a bad presentation,” they all agree, “one of the best this year.”
We can and should expect much more of science presentations. We depend on presentations to carry out the organization’s core business, develop ideas, test hypotheses, and explore alternatives. Yet we accept levels of presentation effectiveness we wouldn’t begin to tolerate in the other, technical aspects of our work.
Of course it’s difficult to present science topics. Presenters must explain complex concepts, draw on sophisticated analyses, illustrate cumbersome theories, master advanced audiovisual tools, and convince skeptical audiences. Yet as our technical organizations strive to improve their ability to both innovate and earn profits, it’s essential that we significantly improve presentations.
We’ve lost sight of the role they should be playing in advancing inquiry. Presentations provide the major the forum, the key medium where ideas get tested, developed, refined, and perfected. If presentations are not highly effective, the process of inquiry suffers. And it’s quite possible to significantly improve presentations. With modest effort, presenters at all levels can improve their skills and impact.
10 Wince-Inducing Presentation Mistakes
Before the presentation, as participants get seated:
- Inadequate pre-work. Presenters typically devote extensive effort to refining their slides but neglect another essential preparation: letting participants know beforehand what the presentation will be about. Participants who don’t know what to expect in a presentation are unlikely to get from it or respond thoughtfully to it. Pre-work is the presenter’s friend, not just alerting participants to what’s coming but also setting expectations.
- Set-up stand-off. Preparing to speak, the presenter stands at the podium, arranges papers, checks and rechecks the projector, and stares blankly at the participants but doesn’t connect with them. Effective presenters circulate among participants as they enter, asking them what they’d like to get from the presentation.
- Presenter helplessness. When the presenter begins with, “I hope we have enough time to get through all my slides.” This too-familiar opener signifies two problems: the presenter’s lack of organization and his/her view that the presentation is less about its content than it is about participants’ endurance.
- Slide love. This occurs when the presenter focuses more on the slides than on the group. The most extreme form of this symptom is the presenter who spends more time looking at his/her slides (are they really that interesting?) than at participants.
- Data overload. The presenter seemingly empties his/her files, showing participants all possible data and failing to indicate what’s most significant. It’s the presenter’s job to interpret and comment on the data, not simply read it.
- No affect. Shakespearean drama is not required, but many technical presenters sound like they don’t care. It’s difficult for participants to care about a topic if the presenter doesn’t.
- No logic. Following the slides, it’s not clear how the presenter arrived at his/her conclusions. It’s ironic that presenters with strong technical backgrounds often present data that fails to clearly and logically lead to their conclusions.
- No boundaries. The presenter invites and responds to questions at any time during the presentation. The “interrupt me any time with questions” technical presenters follow often results in participants derailing the presentation with minor questions and comments.
- No time for discussion. The presenter “runs over” in his/her time estimates and fails to allow enough time for meaningful discussion.
- No group management. A vocal, usually negative, minority dominates discussion. Most participants are passive. The topics that get discussed generally miss the mark, failing to engage the presenter’s core issue. The presenter hasn’t thought about or prepared questions that channel the discussion along more productive lines.
Two deeper, interrelated problems underlie ineffective presentations and drive the limited results too many presentations achieve: limited expectations and the one-way information flow that occurs in too many science presentations. These feed off and increase each other, triggering a cycle of increasing problems.
One-Way Information Flow
The word “presentation” itself is problematic, implying that the scientist’s job is simply to clearly describe his or her work. That alone poses significant challenges, as the work is often complex and not clear at all.
However, a larger problem lies beyond the challenges of clearly describing the work. In the vast majority of science “presentations,” clearly describing the work is only half the scientist’s job. The other equally, if not more important, task of the scientist is to manage a productive discussion of the concepts. Scientists’ neglect and lack of skill facilitating robust, productive discussion derails many worthy concepts and provides the foundation for many of the ten problems listed above. Why provide pre-work, engage participants, and plan thoughtful questions if the responses are not particularly relevant?
Few technical professionals do justice to their ideas in their presentations, but who can blame them? If we expect little of presentations, technical professionals will continue to neglect their presentation skills. If we recognize what presentations can accomplish—if we make it clear that explaining one’s ideas is as important as developing the ideas—technical professionals will work to improve their presentation skills. If we view presentations more as a key forum for advancing ideas, technical professionals will improve their ability to facilitate meaningful group discussion.
Improving Presentations: Next Steps
Though the problems we describe here are significant and deeply rooted in the culture of science organizations, it’s quite possible for scientists to significantly improve their presentation skills with modest effort. We will describe specific steps for improving presentations in two upcoming blog posts: