Please Dont Do This To Us!

Please Don't Do This To Us!

I am not sure faculty ever face a more challenging environment for presenting a paper than the AAA concurrent sessions.  You have 15 or 20 minutes to convey months or years of technical work to a diverse audience — some of them know more about the topic than you do, while others need to be held by the hand through even the most basic elements of your research method and questions. I thought this might be a good time to pass along some advice on how to make your presentation memorable — for the right reasons.

Let’s start with the horror stories.  Don’t let this happen to you:

Not long ago I became so enraged by a speaker at a conference I moderated, that I publicly humiliated him before 200 hostile attendees.  This young man chose to read in a monotone from a secretarial pad, flipping pages for 30 minutes of a schedule 20-minute speech while complex slides tripped incomprehensibly across a screen behind him.  At the conclusion of this group insult, he had the nerve to summarize his presentation, looking up for the first time, by stating that he hoped he had helped us to understand the relationship between the rain in Spain and the crumbling of the Rock of Gibraltar, or some such ponderous chain of reasoning.  As I awakened the remaining audience, who had not the nerve to walk out as others had, I explained to him and the audience that his paper was an insult which had obviously boared and irritated a kindly group of scientists who deserved better.  Those who kept awake refrained from stoning him, though they surely had adequate cause.

The author of this diatribe is J. Lehr, and the essay is Let There Be Stoning.  Lehr calls for severe punishment to be meted out upon perpetrators like this.  I believe in our profession the punishment is that you don’t get a job and you do get talked about in the evening receptions.

How can you avoid this?  Here are my own suggestions; please add your own in the comments.

  • Don’t try to do too much. Surprisingly, I received excellent advice about academic presentations from my brother Mike, a political pollster and strategist who tends to work on races with modestly sized electorates and budgets. (He advised Brian Schweitzer in his successful bid to become Governor of Montana, for example).  Mike told me how hard he worked to convince candidates that because they didn’t have the budget for wall-to-wall commercials, they had to swallow this incontrovertible Law Of Small Elections:  “You have the time and money to get the voters to remember three things about you.  And one of them is your name.” I recommend that you approach your brief appearance in a concurrent session the same way.  With so little time, you need to pick the two or three things you want your audience to take away from the study.  Focus on those, and don’t say anything that doesn’t reinforce those basic messages.  This will allow you to hammer away at your key messages the same way a politician will make sure you know they represent change (or that they are a maverick).  I know, I know…there is so much more to your study than just “discretion in revenue recognition actually improves a firms ability to signal its future prospects.”  But you won’t have enough time to do much more than convey your message, and convince your audience that they should care and that they should believe that one conclusion.  That brings me to my second point:
  • Make us care by showing that you care. Your first job is to make your audience care about your research question; only then should you try to convince them that you are right.  If you convince them that you care, they will at once be (1) engaged and ready to hear what you have to say, (2) predisposed to believe you worked hard to get the answer right, and (3) much more likely to think of you as a promising researcher.  After you have done that, then you can offer up a few key points about your method and results that seal the deal.  How do you make people care?  Speak from the heart, don’t read from your notes.  As Lehr says, “A scientist who cannot retain in his head the essence of his latest work can hardly be said to be enraptured by his subject.”  And this leads to point 3–the appropriate use of powerpoint.
  • Use slides only as absolutely necessary. A couple of years ago I was on a panel discussing “big unanswered questions in accounting.”  Joel Demski went before I did, and didn’t use PowerPoint slides.  Not only that, but he made a point of not using them.  I had my slides all prepared and ready to go, but right as I was about to begin speaking, there was some glitch that would have taken 30 seconds to deal with.  But using Joel for inspiration, I closed the laptop and ‘went commando.’  After all, I knew the points I wanted to make, because I cared enough to have thought about my remarks in depth beforehand.   For talks as short as the concurrent sessions in the AAA, I recommend using powerpoint only when you really need to convey something visually–an experimental design or a graph.  Really, a title slide and a few compelling and intuitive visuals are all you need.  A slide or two with key quotes or anecdotes can be helpful.  But I wouldn’t recommend using any tables in such a short talk.  Convert them into intuitive figures–but don’t go overboard with animations and 3D bargraphs, or people will make fun of you like this.

I am sure many of you have other bits of advice, and perhaps you disagree with something I have said here.  Please do us all a favor — presenters and audience alike — and weigh in via the comment thread.  But before I go, let me emphasize one point I have already made.  Do not read or memorize your remarks. Why not?  Because, as the video below shows, even having a teleprompter doesn’t always work!