24 November 2008

The Zen of Presentations, Part 22: Conversation, not isolation

I spotted this resource, iBioSeminars, over at The Daily Transcript. I'm not impressed with what I've seen so far -- and these are some very bright people, who I know can be playful and interesting. I see the same old stuff. I see low end PowerPoint slides and the sort of lifeless delivery that sucks the joy from so many scientific presentations.

The only novelty is that they’ve put the presenters on a green screen stage so that their slides can be projected behind them. These things make me appreciate television weather forecasters and reporters. The speakers I looked at don't do handle it well, looking offscreen more than looking at the camera. And some of these things go on for hours.

Videotaped talked can work; I’ve linked to enough TED talks in this blog to show I believe that.

A major problem here is that there’s no audience.

Hans Rosling gave a now famous talk at TED, but less well known are comments he made about it in a later presentation. Rosling said he originally wanted something that was interactive, and that people can explore, and not something passive that people would just watch. He was astonished that millions of people viewed his TED talk.

Rosling's talk would not have been watched by millions of people if it was was presented like the iBioSeminars: alone on a green screen stage with projected slides.

The audience is a big part of what makes Rosling’s talk so great. Go watch the first five minutes, and don’t listen to him—listen to the audience. The spontaneous responses, the laughter, the applause, those things make that talk live. I also doubt Rosling’s performance would have been anywhere near as energized if he was alone in a room, looking off camera to figure out if his fingers are pointing in the right place.

Human beings are very good at conversation, very good at face-to-face interactions. We like it. We crave it. Trying to take the information out of that social context almost always kills it. I think it’s why we have interviewers in many cases, not just people saying what they want. Having an interviewer makes it a conversation, not isolation. It’s why television comedies used to be filmed before an audience, and those that weren't had laugh tracks dubbed in over them.

The audience feeds into the presentation more than you’d think. The dynamics between a presenter and the audience cannot be underestimated. Every time the audience comes out of the equation, presentations suffer.

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