23 August 2012

Let’s stop enabling bad speakers

Matthew Francis saw a bad scientific talk.

Nearly every sentence was unintelligible. ... (T)he speaker compounded the problems listed above by mumbling everything, and not speaking into the microphone so what was mumbled often didn’t even come through the public address system. Since the person’s slides were badly designed (thin gray lines on the plots, tiny fonts), the audience couldn’t get the information from either the audio or the visual. In fact, the crowd of physicists, specialists in the speaker’s own field, were not paying attention to the talk.

Matthew only refers to this individual as “the speaker.” Matthew says he doesn’t want to name this individual, because he is writing about the general issue, and not the specific talk. Fair enough. But we should start creating more of an expectation that scientific talks will be reviewed and critiqued. And names will be named.

If someone wrote a scientific paper that was as bad as this talk apparently was, nobody would have a second thought about writing a response to it, laying out the problems, and naming the authors. Yet it seems to be considered rude to criticize people by name when someone gives an incomprehensible presentation.

When was the last time you went to a speaker after their talk and said, “I don’t think your presentation was very effective”? Have you ever had anyone (besides a supervisor or lab members) give you critical feedback on how to improve your presentation?

The only example I can think of offhand was the National Academy of Science Sackler science symposium on science communication earlier this year. Because it was streamed live online, people on Twitter were able to comment about the deficiencies of some of the talks. And one person was able to get up and convey that frustration to the speakers.

I’m not saying, “Let’s have trial by backchannel for presentations.” This does not need to be immediate and destructive, but could be done with reflection and in a constructive tone. This is what good peer reviewer do for papers.

For that matter, we should be taking more steps to ensure that it never gets that bad in the first place. We have peer review before a paper is published. Maybe we should start having some sort of peer review before presentations, to make sure that slides are at least going to be legible. While this would not be possible for every talk at a conference, it might be possible for at least featured keynote talks to get a once over before the day they’re given.

I recently co-organized a symposium, and I was thinking about emailing my speakers and asking them to email me their PowerPoint deck so I could review it. I didn’t, not because I was scared, but just because I ran out of time. I’m kicking myself now, because I think I missed an opportunity.

We need to be more forthcoming with our colleagues when their presentation isn’t up to snuff.

Related posts

Science communicators need to lead by example

External links

#186) Science Talks: Wanna make ‘em better? Start having critics write REVIEWS (like the theater). I dare ya.

Photo by alicetiara on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.


Stephen said...

I agree totally that people should be pulled up (courteously) on this. We have all sat through too many bad talks.

This is my attempt to lead by example:


First 5 min is a set-up (you'll see)...

Athene Donald said...

What does one do about the Grand Old Men/Women who are always inaudible or with ill-considered slide material (pre Powerpoint perhaps) yet get asked back time and time again because, well, they are Grand Old Men/Women?

Anonymous said...

Graduate students in the lunar science field organize a yearly pre-conference workshop (LunGradCon) just for grads and post-docs, where students have the opportunity to present to their immediate peers. The talk formats are just like our "normal" conference talks, but we also fill out presentation feedback forms. My undergrad also had a similar seminar course for geology students.
Hopefully we're nipping bad talkers in the bud so we won't have that problem when they're Grand Old scientists!