27 February 2006

The Zen of Presentations, Part 4: Titles slides are a crutch

I first became aware of this particular presentation tic at grad seminars at UVic. The symposium moderator would get up, thank the previous speaker, then introduce the next speaker and tell the audience the title of the talk. The speaker would walk to the podium and put up their first slide which, more often than not, showed the title of the talk -- the one that the moderator had just read. Not content with that, the speaker would then to look at their slide and, very earnestly and deliberately, proceed to read the title out loud.

So we get that blasted title three times over.

It drove me bonkers then, and drives me bonkers now. I really only need to know a title once. Unfortunately, title slides are emblamatic of a presentation style that is not beaten out of presenters anywhere near often enough: that is, reading directly from slides verbatim.

There are several reasons to avoid having a title slide. First, it burns up time. Particularly in science, I often have to present talks where I summararize complex information that took months or years to gather and analyze, and I have to do it in 15 minutes. Including time for questions. I have to focus on what I need to say as directly and memorably and efficiently as possible.

Second, it can be a little distancing for the audience. You get up, and barely before the audience can look at your face, the lights are going down and people don't know whether to look at the slide, or look at you. Give yourself at least a few second to get up, let people see who you are. Maybe smile, if that's appropriate (not recommended if you're giving a talk about, say, deaths in sub-Saharan Africa from AIDS).

I think people like having a title slide, because it gives them a safe and easy way to start off a talk. Instead of worrying about "What will I say?", you just have to read the title, thereby putting off the problem of whether you really have anything of substance to say by... oh... a good ten to fifteen seconds or so.

A title slide is a useful crutch to deal with that initial moment of the talk. Some people need a simple way to overcome that initial hesitation -- and that's fine. I am in no way bashing crutches here; they're useful things. But the goal should always be to get rid of the crutch, rather than relying on it.

If you want to leave a title in, there are some alternatives to the title slide. Let the moderator read your title. Or, if you feel you must have a title slide, don't read it out directly -- just talk about your subject. Alternately, if you want to tell people the title because there is no moderator, just tell them -- but don't make a text slide of it. I am convinced, though, that the best solution is to forget about introducing a title and just tell people your story in most cases. And leave the lights up for a few seconds so that your audience can see your face.

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