04 October 2012

The Zen of Presentations, Part 56: References

Citation is one of the defining characteristics of academic writing. But academic presentations have different rules than articles. To be more exact, there aren’t any rules for presentations.

Some ideas work better than others, though. Don’t treat a talk like a paper. It isn’t.

A surprisingly common strategy is to go through the talk (sometimes with no references apparent on any slide), and say at the end, “And here are my references...”


...show a slide full of small text, but flick through it in less than a second...


...because you have another slide. And that stays up only a second...


...so you can get to this one, end the presentation,  and ask for questions. (Those are slides from an actual talk, incidentally.)

This is a horrible way to give references! Yet, I see this frequently. This is the wax fruit of academic citations: no matter what it looks like, you still can’t eat it. Academics are obsessed with citations because they allow other people to fact check. Giving references like this does not do the job.

You cannot put up slides this dense with text, flash them on the screen for less than a second, and expect anyone to get any usable information out of them. You could put in a list of Harlequin romances in the references and nobody would know.

There is no context for the references. In a paper, you can flip back and forth, so you can see that Simon et al. (2004) is given as supporting a particular claim about the infectious pathway of an organism, rather than providing information about the relevant statistical techniques. On slides, you can’t expect to remember that the reference to Simon et al. (2004) was on slide #3 that you put up twelve minutes ago, and that you shouldn’t confuse it with Simon et al. (2005) that was on slide #8, which made a totally different point.

If you want to give references in a talk, it needs to be:

  1. Complete enough that someone can track it down, and
  2. Given at the point of need.

In practice, this means you can’t just put “Simon et al. (2004)” and expect people to know what paper you’re talking about. Heck, I can’t even remember the year for some of my own papers. My suggestion is something concise, so a human being can quickly scribble a note. Something like:

Simon et al. 2004. Mol Biol Evol 21: 1409.

Now, put it on the slide where you’re making the claim, not at the end.

There are advantages for you the presenter as well as to the audience. For a long time, I resisted putting references on my slides. I wanted to maximize the signal, and my strategy was to just say what the important sources were. Over time, however, I have often found myself going back to old slides without references, and going, “Argh, where did I find that? There was something else good on that site I want to us, and now I can’t find it!” Putting references on your slides will make it easier for you in the long run.

External links

References on posters

Thanks to Jacquelyn Gill, Travis Saunders, Annie Rauh, Meghan Duffy, and David Shiffman for discussion about this on Twitter.

5 comments:

Tora Smulders-Srinivasan said...


I totally agree. I'm one of those people who loves writing down references during talks and this is exactly the best way. I can scribble it down and with that much info, I can find it later.

Definitely not slides at the end with lots of references, that's just silly. :-)

Yout approach (the minimum data to find it) works well to cite where figures come from as well. :-)

Chris said...

Dr. Zen,

This is great info, thanks. In regards to the part about leaving references out and just mentioning them, and then going back and forgetting where data/figure came from, if using PowerPoint, I've put references in the notes section of the slide. That way, it's there if I need it, but not on the main stage.

Keep the tips coming!

HarryMonmouth said...

I suppose it all depends upon your purposes. Personally I hate using powerpoints and prefer to work from my own memory. PPT is a tool that people use because it makes their job easier but it is a tool that usually leads to them being lazy and delivering a less than sparkling presentation. If I am going to give refs I like to just give a list on paper or preferably by email afterwards.

We have been complained at quite seriously for including too much information on powerpoint slides when we have used them. Rules of how to use them makes it more difficult to use them and more difficult to work out how best to create them. For me the amount of time it takes to make a powerpoint is time that could better be used in developing your understanding. Of course everyone has their own technique but I like the flexibility to go down whatever path is suggested by the direction that the audiences reaction takes. Mind you, I fear I may be somewhat of a heretic.

Zen Faulkes said...

Harry: Edward Tufte is a big proponent of handouts for presentations. He argues that signal that you are willing to be leave something tangible about your talk. A list of references invites checking, and enhances credibility.

For many seminars, though, not everyone in the audience will need or want a handout. It may be useful to have a few for the devotees, but one for everyone might be a difficult or wasteful strategy. Its hard to know how many show up, and how many want the detailed references.

My own style is to have far more images than text on slides. Adding a reference is not adding a lot to the text; it is usually acting more like a photo credit.

Bashir said...

I usually go with "Smith 2004" at the very bottom of the relevant slide. I think that is usually enough information to locate the paper since the audience knows what the paper is about.

As always audience members are free to talk with me afterwards or email me.