Home > academia > Style and Substance in Presentation Style

Style and Substance in Presentation Style

I first realized that my style of giving a talk was old-fashioned when I spoke at TEDxNYED in 2010. During setup, I asked for a lectern–I wanted to be able to see my slides while I talked. The staff argued with me–are you sure? I was sure. My slides–horrors!–had bullet points of text on them, and few images. I was the only one. Everyone else had slides with single images that faded from one to the next, or perhaps a single evocative word.

The current fashion in presentation style is a triumph of style over substance. When I design slides, I use text to emphasize the main points. If I am telling a charming story, the point is on the slide. This is why I am telling you this story. My talks have content.

Of course images can be content too. Sometimes pictures are actually data. A couple nice examples come to mind from the recent CSCW conference in Vancouver. Nicki Dell from UW presented a paper about people in developing nations struggling to fill in paper forms, and photos of her subjects with giant stacks of paper told the story better than words. Similarly, Lynn Dombrowski from UCI discussed how hard it is to help people to sign up for public assistance. She didn’t have photos from her field site she could put in a presentation, but she was able to find images of real people in similar situations–freely available with a Creative Commons license. I’m more a verbal person than a visual one, but even I get the value of well-chosen images. But a photo that is actual data or closely related is not the same thing as one that just sets a mood. Raise your hand if you’re tired of flowers and mountain streams used to evoke abstract concepts in computing. Sometimes I want to ask, is this a research presentation or a greeting card?

It’s not really pictures I object to–use a sunset if you must. I object to the absence of words. Sometimes the cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” is simply not true.

The image-focused style of giving a talk goes back to the introduction of the Pecha Kucha presentation style in 2003. It was originally intended to keep talks fast paced and engaging. Don’t get me wrong–I believe talks should be entertaining and engaging. And I’m not advocating a return to overhead transparencies. But I prefer to engage people by presenting content that is meaningful and relevant–not just pretty. Text on slides helps keep people focused on the ideas I’m trying to convey.

I’m proud to use an old-fashioned talk style. Maybe in the future it’ll become hiply retro.

Categories: academia
  1. March 27, 2015 at 10:57 am

    As a graduate student, I’m often pushed to be less bullet point, more image-focused in slides. It’s encouraging to hear pushback against this practice from an established and respected academic. I also prefer to put choice words in concise bullet points on my slides, to keep things focused. Additionally, when creating the more image-focused slides, I also find that I waste a surprising amount of time trying to find appropriate, non-hokey imagery that is also open, free and CC licensed. This doesn’t seem to be an appropriate I’ll join you in being old-fashioned.

    • March 27, 2015 at 10:59 am

      Totally agree about the wasted time! Thanks for the reply.

  2. Dad
    March 27, 2015 at 11:22 am

    I use the same style as you do. Slides that command too much attention appear to me to be a “show”. I don’t author shows. When I have something to say to an audience, I want their full attention on me and what I am saying. That style has worked well for me for many years.
    rzb

  3. March 27, 2015 at 11:46 am

    Your post raises the broader question of the value of conference talks, which I think is pretty debatable. It also reminds me of my (related, I think) observation of a trend in more HCI talks being completely scripted and read to the audience. On the one hand, what’s the value of being read to if you can just read it yourself? On the other hand, an extemporaneous style seems to belie the importance and effort and preparation that went into the research. It also feels less appropriate for material where precise word choice matters. The early days of HCI had more of a scientific orientation where the tables and charts of experimental results seemed to speak for themselves, but the more recent influence of the humanities and critical theory makes it harder to “wing it” with certain papers.

  4. hrheingold
    March 27, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    I am so bored by lecturers who read aloud the words that I read on their slides a few seconds ago. The reason for this few-words/more-images approach is that too many abused PPT this way. I remember a lecturer at Stanford who not only had text-laden slides with bullet points and sub-bullet points, and not only did he read them, but he pointed at each line as he read it. I’d much rather experience excessive use of images than excessive use of words.

  5. March 28, 2015 at 11:54 am

    Both word-heavy and image-heavy presentation styles can be (and often are) overdone. Often the slides are just a distraction, for the audience and speaker both.

    My son commented after a quarter of CS colloquium talks at UCSB that the most interesting speakers were ones that used no slides at all, but just talked about their work.

    I generally use slides only when I have a tight time limit—for lecturing I prefer an extemporaneous presentation at a whiteboard or chalkboard.

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