April 20, 2010

The good, the bad and the just a'ight: TEDxSB Part 2



Continuing on in my TEDxSB series, today I'm going to talk about the speaker "don'ts" I saw during the course of the conference. Tomorrow look for some speaker "do's" and reviews of my favorite presenters from the event. Read part 1 here and part 3 here.

Curse of Knowledge

Nowhere is the curse more dastardly than at a conference on a college campus with speakers who are college professors and scientists.

A few of the day's speakers forgot (or never realized in the first place) that they would be presenting to an audience of mostly laypeople. They lectured at us as though we were captive students who already knew something about their topic. (Not being captive students getting graded on attendance, I know of at least one person who left at the break due to boredom.)

They showed slides packed full of text, tiny images and content like "www based 2048 processor global computing grid, no downloads: write lots of new software!" Whaaaa?

As a speaker, it's critical that you put yourself in the audience's shoes. Remember what it was like before you knew what you know. Imagine what it must be like for an audience to hear about your scientific research for the first time. Is it clear? Is it understandable? Is there a logical flow? Is your content relevant to the people in the audience?

In the case of a couple of speakers, the answer was no. Not that their material couldn't be made relevant. It just wasn't presented in a way that made me care about it.

Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad slides

Is it too much to ask that a presenter take a few minutes and review the readability of their slides? Apparently it is.

Slide after slide, speaker after speaker, dense dense dense. Illegible text, incomprehensible images, acronyms, logos. I want to tear my hair out and scream "Why?!" The slides make no sense. They have too much information for me to process. I can't follow the slides and also listen to the speaker. I get more and more confused. Eventually I give up trying.

You might be thinking, "Lisa, why don't you just listen to the speaker and forget about the slides?"

1. Our brains don't work that way. We are visual creatures and our eyes are drawn to visuals. We can't help ourselves.

2. The speaker has to be interesting enough to hold my attention. If they aren't (and they weren't), my attention will wander... to the visuals.

Not rehearsing with the equipment

Several speakers had problems with their computer, their remote, and their microphone.

One speaker held the microphone at arm's length throughout her presentation. There were regular delays while presenters tested the microphone instead of just speaking (you'll find out soon enough if it's on). One speaker kept pointing the remote at the screen instead of the computer and then wondered why the slides wouldn't move.

All of this confusion could easily have been avoided if speakers had practiced and become familiar with the equipment beforehand.

No audience engagement

A couple of speakers droned on and on about their topic without the slightest shred of passion, humor or energy. A few people stayed tied to the lectern and barely moved at all. Several speakers read directly from their notes enough that it became monotonous. One speaker was completely canned and memorized which, while there were some good parts, did make her seem robotic.

I typically talk about audience involvement as a big part of audience engagement. Unfortunately, there was no interaction from any of the speakers, which was a shame. The best way to get people to buy into your cause is to include them in the discussion.

However, there were speakers who were clearly excited about their topic and were able to convey that excitement to the audience. There were speakers who had energy, movement, and conviction, speakers who made us laugh and made us ponder.

But only about half of them.

I'm going to end today's post with a TED video that was shown at the conference. Rachel Armstrong discusses her work with "metabolic materials" -- "construction materials that possess some of the properties of living systems, and can be manipulated to 'grow' architecture."

Notice how, right away, she describes the problem. And then very quickly moves on to describing her work and the solution. Not all of her language is easy to understand, but she makes up for it by showing examples of the application of this technology to the rotting wooden piles upon which Venice is built.

Notice that there are no data slides. No graphs or charts. Just images which she explains as she shows them. And then she summarizes her main points, in case there was something you didn't catch. And all in 7 and a half minutes. Science presentations don't have to be complicated, incomprehensible, or dull!



If you really want to see a scientist having fun, Hans Rosling's TED presentations are must-see.

2 comments. Please add yours! :

Eric Greenspan said...

I applaud the TEDxSB team for their commitment to "spreading ideas." Stay tuned for TEDxAmericanRiviera on 10/10/10 (not related to TEDxSB).

Lisa Braithwaite said...

I agree, Eric. Some people are better at spreading ideas than others.

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