Conferences and meaningless PowerPoint usage

Presentation vs content

An article on open source tools to “make your presentations pop” intrigued me initially, then bemused me, then annoyed me. Ignoring for a moment the desirability or otherwise of having presentations that “pop”, the bemusement came from the realisation that the entire focus of the article was on creating effects and transitions for conferences. It had absolutely nothing to do about content. The annoyance began when I realised that several of the oil and gas conferences I’ve attended recently have implicitly taken the same approach, focusing on presentation over content.

The examples

As an example, I presented at a Petroleum Education conference in Houston this year. I was told by the organiser that they had “asked the session chairs to pay more attention to the slides rather than the manuscript”. To compound the problem, there was no real peer review of manuscripts. This is frankly insane.

Let’s start by making the obvious point that if your PowerPoint deck has enough information to be read in the same way as a manuscript, it will be completely unsuitable for use in a presentation. Of course, this doesn’t stop individuals from attempting this. It leads to one or both of two outcomes.

First, the presenter will say that it’s probably not possible to read the slide content at the back. And sometimes the front. Secondly, the presenter will start reading the content of the slide to the audience. It reveals that what is being presented is actually just the speaker notes. To those people, I offer a suggestion. I can read a lot faster than you can say the words, so if that’s it then just mail me the PowerPoint and save me the air fare.

What I’ve noticed

What I want to see at conferences are engaging speakers who will illuminate their subject. Who, in the perfect case, won’t even use PowerPoint. If they do use PowerPoint, chances are it will simply use graphics or a few words to reinforce the major messages. They won’t use it to provide the detail. The detail, if needed, should be in the peer-reviewed manuscript. They will have practiced their presentation, and they won’t believe that preparation for a conference presentation is simply a matter of knocking together a few slides.

Finally, they will be absolutely clear about the one or two messages that they want me to walk away with. Everything they do in their presentation will build those ideas. It will reinforce them and make them resonate with me on a personal level. All this is equally true whether we’re talking about technical or business presentations.

Next time you present, think about how you’d engage your audience if you dropped the PowerPoint and simply told an interesting story.

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