As I mentioned in my last post, I was sucked out of the blogosphere for much of last week by the International Society for the Philosophy of Chemistry (ISPC) 2007 Summer Symposium .
I did not live-blog the conference. I did use overheads. Why, other than being a tremendous Luddite, would I use overheads?
One big issue that has me using overheads rather than PowerPoint presentations is time. As many conferences are, this one was scheduled within an inch of its life. Each speaker had 20 minutes to talk and 5 minutes at the end for questions and answers. Indeed, if the previous speaker went over, the next speaker either had to make up the time or incur the wrath of the conference goers by encroaching on the coffee and restroom breaks.
Now in theory, there’s no reason a PowerPoint presentation should chew up more time than an old timey presentation given with an overhead projector. In practice, there’s a near guarantee that precious minutes will be spent finding where on the hard drive or data stick the presentation lurks, not to mention getting the computer projection system to actually project the presentation onto the screen so that attendees may view it.
Additional time is lost as the presenter struggles with the remote control that is supposed to signal to the computer from halfway across the room that it is time to advance the slide. Where do I point this thing? Which button is which? Is the battery dead? Hey, it advanced, but it actually went too far — so how do I go back?
And don’t even get me started with laser pointer mishaps.
In short, the cutting edge technology seems not to work reliably for the academic types inclined to use it in giving their conference presentations. Assuredly, with time the technological issues are usually resolved, but this time is hardly ever the time before the presentations commence for the day. It’s time that come out of the time allotted in which one has to get one’s point across.
Compounding the problem is the way many academics seem to use the technology to compose their slides. You’ve heard the list of atrocities before if you haven’t witnessed them first-hand: too many words on each slide, so many colors that it’s impossible to tell which words on the screen are important, underlining and Capitalization that Make you Wonder whether the presenter has recently finished a stint as a copywriter for Cosmopolitan and has only recently broken himself of the habit of ending every sentence with an exclamation point!! And the words that fly in or do fancy tricks. And so on.
In 20 minutes, there’s only so much you can get across to your audience.* Keeping them focused on your points is probably easier if you can strip out the extraneous words and the distracting effects.
My overheads were almost entirely black ink on clear transparency film**, photocopied onto that film by my department’s black and white photocopier. Because I was working without my own reading glasses while writing the slides, the print size was large, putting a serious constraint on how many words would fit on each slide.
There was no pause required between switching on the overhead projector and starting my presentations. Changing my slides by hand, I did not overflip past the slide I wanted. When it became clear that not all the points I had prepared would fit in my allotted time, I was able to omit a whole section of my talk without having to flip past those slides one by one.
As well, I wasted no energy worrying about my talk being incompatible with the computer’s native software nor about the computer crashing. I just had to put my folders of slides in my backpack and carry them to the projector without spilling them.
Now, those who read their papers at conferences may not have to worry about all the technical stars aligning, but you’ll recall that I’m not convinced reading papers at conferences is a great idea. (Another bad call worth mentioning: spending precious minutes arguing with the chair of your session over how many minutes you have left.)
*While 20 minutes seems like the minimum time it might take to make an interesting philosophical point, the conference organizer hypothesized that 20 minutes is close to the maximum attention span you can expect of your audience. It seems a plausible hypothesis to me.
**There were a few hand-drawn slides. The busiest of these had three colors total.