Sliding down a Primrose Path

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Scott Berkun expresses his distaste for Prezi, which, after reading his piece, I would describe as "PowerPoint on steroids, including the side-effects".

[I]t had taken the things I hated most about Powerpoint, and emphasized them. Prezi bills itself on the ability to ZOOM, to MOVE, to TRANSITION. All the most distracting elements for would-be speakers, elements that distract them away from the quality thinking required to speak well.  Instead of thinking "I'm so proud of how I worked hard to explain this important idea so that my audience can understand it" they think "Here comes my favorite transition! Look at how the entire screen is going to rotate! WOOT!". I can see how, in the hands of a skilled communicator, Prezi makes some things easier to do, but a skilled communicator would do just fine with any tool.
Berkun ends by challenging his commenters to give an example of a "great talk" given with the aid of this tool. I think he is being too hard on the software, but he makes some useful comments about public speaking when he isn't expressing his exasperation with how most people become infatuated with the tool.
You start by thinking about the audience. Why are they coming? What questions are they hoping you will answer about the topic? What are your well thought out answers? What is the best way to express those answers? Only after some hard thinking on these questions is there any hope a presentation will turn out well, and it's only then that a speaker should start thinking about slides. And even then, slides should be a tool for drafting. Make the quickest and dirtiest slides possible, and then start practicing the talk. After each practice, improve how well the slides support what you want to say. Only then will the slides have the proper role as a prop, rather being the star and making you the prop.
Slide presentations are, often for some good reasons, one of the most common ways to update colleagues in bioscience. However, upon thinking back on my grad school and postdoctoral days, I think it would have been an interesting and useful excercise to present one's research results on at least one occasion entirely without slides. I think that doing so could go a long way towards helping people appreciate the above advice and keep the role -- if any -- of slides in perspective.

I particularly recall another postdoc complaining about the "inordinate" amount of time he spent perfecting the slides he was being directed to use in lab meetings. It is interesting to consider the idea that this exercise was both keeping him from thinking more about his presentations, which was bad enough, and causing him to misallocate time better spent on actual research.

-- CAV


RT said...

Tufte was critical of Power Point

Gus Van Horn said...

Interesting. Those pressed for time or unfamillar with Tufte will find his entry at Wikipedia a good place to get an idea of his angle.

Thanks for mentioning this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention.

I'm hard on all the presentation tools. They do little to help people make good presentations.

The science community is shockingly bad about presentations and communication in general. The scientific method is oddly not employed to experiment with different ways to exchange ideas at events and conferences. Instead audiences are bored out of their minds simply because "it's the way its always been done".

- @berkun

Gus Van Horn said...

"The scientific method is oddly not employed to experiment with different ways to exchange ideas at events and conferences."

Well put.