23 March 2012

The Zen of Presentations, Part 53: Doing it vs. talking about it

When you are in the thick of a project, the time you spend getting stuff done might look like this.

Because of how much time you have spent learning that technique, getting some initial preliminary results, then having it mysteriously fail for no reason, troubleshooting, learning that your boss calls part of the technique “black voodoo magic”, offering sacrifices to the lab gods, it is understandable that when you are given the chance to talk about that research... you spend the same amount of time describing those techniques.

I think this is particularly a trap for people who are just coming into a project. When I learned a new technique, I was so excited about this technique giving me my first data that I focused too much on the technique, and not enough on the data.

It’s worth noting that in research articles, the methods section is often set in small text or placed last in the article, after the conclusions. Both of these are good indications that descriptions of techniques and methodologies are fine print. Relatively few people are going to be tremendously excited by how you optimised your buffers, or found a great way to manipulate data in Excel.

The breakdown might look more like this.

Many presentations jump into the details way too fast. A lot of good technical presentations are characterized by long introductions. Having an introduction take up half your talk is not out of the question. The data that answers a question and what you conclude about it should make up most of the rest.

The time you spend talking about stuff you did in your project need not – indeed, should not – bear much relationship to the amount of time you spent on that task.

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Dr24Hours said...

I'm not sure about the long introduction. I've been knocked on talks for giving to much background/theory and not enough discussion of how I did what I did. Depends on the audience, yeah?

Zen Faulkes said...

Yeah, “half introduction” might be on the high side. But I’ll say that I’ve seen way more talks where I felt I got rushed into the details without enough background than talks where I was sitting and thinking, “Get to the your stuff already!”