Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Communication breakdown

PowerPoint Slide with Lots of Words by barbaranixon, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  barbaranixon

I know a lot of people who hate PowerPoint presentations. I see their point but I try to defend the much-maligned tool. Used well the slide show helps the audience follow your argument and lets you provide memorable images and key words or quotations at strategic moments. I've heard too many people who proudly say that they don't like PowerPoint and instead will simply present "unplugged". Unless the presenter is a skilled orator, these casual presentations are often self-indulgent wandering narratives that are often impossible to follow. There are, of course, alternatives like Prezi but in the end they're all just tools and require the presenter's skill and sensitivity.

Used badly however, PowerPoint (or Prezi or whatever) is sheer agony though the fault lies entirely with the user rather than the medium. Despite years of presentation training courses in most organisations slides like the one featured above are still all too common. At several conferences over the past couple of years I have squirmed my way through dull presentations where the speakers actually read their slides to us, showed diagrams that were impossible to read beyond row three or used colour schemes that remind you of sixties psychedelia (ie yellow text on green background). Why does this go on unchecked? Strangely academic conferences are badly afflicted despite all participants being involved in education.

There's a good article by Rob Weir in Inside Higher Ed called End large conferences that takes up this theme with a vengeance. He has had enough of large academic confernces and his main objection is having to sit through a steady stream of excruciatingly dull paper presentations. The point of conferences for some faculty is to get a paper accepted and the presentation is simply a reading of the highlights, often with the stress on reading. Instead of trying to provide a concise, informative and convincing summary many presenters get bogged down in academic detail from the start and few, if any, of the participants are any wiser at the end. Sometimes you feel the speaker is simply ticking off the boxes (paper accepted at international conference - tick, paper presented - tick, paper published - tick).

Weir's objections are understandable and we do need conferences to be more engaging and to provide time and space for discussion and networking. The presentation of papers is a deep-rooted academic tradition that we don't need to throw out the window. I've seen the full scale from inspiring to abysmal but maybe conferences could provide guides to good practice to help presenters prepare the right kind of session. We need to stress the need for good presentation skills and give priority to those who can communicate effectively. The presenters hopefully want to communicate, the audience want to learn - why do we get it wrong then?

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