Stranger Fruit

A quick meditation on presentations

One of the thinks that surprised me when I first started attending history of science conferences was how many (virtually all) presenters just stand up and read a paper. No visuals. Nothing. Sort of boring. I used to therefore think that in general, scientists were better communicators (at least to their peers). Boy am I wrong.

After this morning, I think I’ve realized that some scientists should never, ever, ever, be allowed to make any sort of presentation, slides or no. They talk to the slides, they mutter, they put too much information on a slide, they try to say everything in 25 minutes (rather than attempting to say one thing well), they don’t realize that you need to speak into a microphone.

For the sake of their students, I hope some of these folks don’t give lecture classes.


  1. #1 Kevin
    January 5, 2007

    Just because you’re good at what you do, are smart, know your material and have something interesting to say, doesn’t mean you can display any of that in front of a crowd.

    The fact that most people fear public speaking more than death is somewhat telling here. Even though I have annoying, nagging social anxiety problems, I enjoy public speaking, it comes so easily to me. But I’ve seen gregarious, likable, outgoing people absolutely crumble when on a stage. It’s a completely different skill, unrelated to any other personality trait.

    I agree that some people should never be giving presentations – but it’s only because they’re boring or so full of themselves they never actually talk about their topic, just themselves. I bet that for some of these scientists, 2 weeks of actual training on how to give a proper presentation would make a world of difference.

  2. #2 Simon Greenhill
    January 5, 2007

    It’s very hard to give a good talk – it’s quite frightening for a lot of people (and me!). I’ve found it best to just have a picture or a few key words on each slide. I found that if I had really loaded slides, then the temptation to read them end-to-end was just too great.

    Basically I try to emulate the Lawrence Lessig method, you can see one of his talks here on “Free Culture”

    If you’ve just got a few words or a picture, then it’s actually easier to say things, because you naturally discuss it well, and you’re thinking on your feet (rather than just turning off and reading). It’s worrying to strip away all those extra bullet-points (what if I forget to say something?!), but it helps and I found that I forget less than I thought I would.


  3. #3 MIke Kaspari
    January 5, 2007

    IMO sucking at presentations, not being “not particularly good”, but sucking, is arrogance. Consider that people are investing part of their lives to hear you, that a lecture hall with 100 people listening to your 15 minute talk is taking up in sum a full day of human existence.

    Sure there are a handful of folks who are congenitally unable to speak in front of crowds. But we are social organisms. The folks who are taught how to teach, and/or think teaching is valuable enough, can learn the basic skills.

    While I’m on the soapbox….;-)

    When we don’t police our own, and instead shunt these awful teachers to tiny graduate classes, we allow them to get away with the oldest tactic in the Academic arsenal–The practice of applied incompetence: be bad enough at something, and your department chair won’t ask you to do it anymore.

    Getting things done in Academia
    a guide for graduate students

  4. #4 Bob
    January 5, 2007

    For most of intellectual history, the study of rhetoric was the foundation of education and every other subject served to facilitate the sharing of ideas. The academic departmentalization of the 19th & 20th century killed the art of oratory.

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