Good presentations: Part II — Content or charisma?

When I first planned this blog post as a sequel to Part I, I had a different opinion of academic presentations than is presented here — the result of further pondering.

I’ve heard and read horror stories about the sinister slideshow spawn seen as a result of fancy presentation making software as a result of the temptation or perhaps desire to cripple content contained within a presentation.  How easy it is to mask the fact that the emperor has no clothes when all the razzle-dazzle one needs to misdirect and mislead an audience is available at the click of a button!  We hear about these things happening in the business world and the military.  If the PMO started using PowerPoints (or Keynotes or their brethren) to address the nation, you can bet it’d be happening there, too ((For now, politicians do not need it since they often possess the gift of the gab — oratory PowerPoint.)).  But is it happening in academia, a community that takes pride in its supposed openness and ability to challenge what it thinks it knows?  Are academics guilty of content concealment by PowerPoint?

I cannot comment on the entirety of academia nor the relatively tiny sliver that is the computer science community.  I can’t even make general claims about my research niche, though I can speak to the subset of presentations — mostly talks about papers and about which the following comments will apply — that I’ve seen.  I have heard different ideas as to what the goal of a paper presentation is.  The first is that these presentations at conferences are intended to summarize research findings; the second is to entice the audience to read the paper.

In both cases, unless one is presenting a paper whose length is unrestricted, what is presented is usually a summary of a summary: the presenter has chosen what he or she believes to be the important parts of the paper.  The inconvenient parts are conveniently omitted due to length/time restrictions, both in papers and their presentations.  I have attended perhaps two talks that dealt with threats to either internal or external validity.  That is akin to making a business case without presenting any of the costs and risks of failure.

It seems, then, that while the academics in the circles I run in have more content than their counterparts in other sectors, we, too, are guilty of concealing content with (electronic) charisma.  Who are we kidding with these presentations?  We know that it usually takes less time to simply read the paper than to attend a talk!  If the purpose of talks was to ingest information and ask questions, it would be more efficient to read the paper and then show up for a discussion with the author.  Participants would have more informed questions and not be continually redirected to read the original paper.  I’m not saying that academic presentations have no purpose — I believe they do — but perhaps we shouldn’t deceive ourselves that presentations in their current format are about the open dissemination of knowledge.

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