Top Ten Ways to Lose an Audience

Going to university means coming across things like this.
Dedicated to us: students, citizens, spectators. We, the public. Here it goes:

10. Avoid eye contact.
For example, looking at the screen. Remember: you crafted slides to augment what you say, not to replicate it.  Puzzled faces and hands raised are more important than being obsessively exhaustive. Plus: they won’t hear you well, you’re facing the wrong way…

9. Use colors. Or no color at all.
White on black – or black on white – feels like home. But colors should be there, judiciously. Color emphasizes ideas and establishes connections. Riotous colors, however, are worse than none at all.

8. Overcrowding.
Small fonts, long texts, indistinguishable colors. No. Fonts must be of sufficient size and in a clean, simple typeface. And text is bad, text is evil. Always ask yourself: can I convey the same information in a smaller space? Then do the optician test: if you can’t read it from the back of your room, go to the computer and fix it.

7. Use poor graphics and animations.
People don’t forget beauty when go listen to a talk. Use graphics and animations, but please use your taste, too. They must be handled with care. And remember: tables are deadly and almost always can – and should – be replaced by graphs. Gratuitous use of any flying or spiralling thing is at your peril. Forbidden, actually.

6. Use too many acronyms and symbols.
No one will remember more than two new-to-him/her acronyms across the speech. A talk is not a paper, you can not go back and check instantly. Also: what is standard in one field may not be in another. Using “foreign symbols” will make you look like an undesirable stranger.

5. Fail to put your words in context.
First bullet: explain why your work matters. Any audience (even if familiar with the topic) asks itself: Is this important? What’s the state of the art? What changes? People remember more about what relates to something they care for. And cite, cite, cite. It is useful, fair, and it could let you discover some new friend.

4. Dwell on the background.
People is there for you, not for what other people did. Your goal is to give only enough background to understand your talk. And, above all, avoid reviewing all the standard references and your own past ideas: few things are more boring than sitting through such a commemoration.

3. Create the talk on your way to the talk.
An m-minute talk to n people will consume m*n person-minutes. It’s only courteous to put at least that much time into preparing the talk. It’s not unreasonable to spend a week on a talk, sometimes, especially if something important is at stake. Believe this: the audience is always able to tell, and appreciate, the time put into preparation.

2. Exceed your time.
Even assuming that an audience would love to listen to you forever, many members will have obligations that prevent them from doing so. More to the point, you’re just not that interesting.

1. Deviate from your core message.
You can expect to convey one primary take-away message, supported by only a few of secondary ideas. Members of the audience do not have the luxury of absorbing the details at their leisure, we have papers for that. For some talks (interviews and the like) you can – and should- include two or three major ideas; but taken together, these results form a coherent whole to convince influential members. Some say: “Every talk is an interview talk”. The goal of any presentation should be to end with the audience firmly on your side, wanting to know more.

So, in the end, a thesis: the way in which you communicate an idea is not less important than the way in which you support it. Actually, the first is part of the latter. Note it.


[F.O.]
Adapted from:
Kolda,  Torczon, and Minkoff (2011), www.siam.org
Featured image:
Boris Ioganson (1950), Lenin’s Speech at the III Congress of the KomSoMol

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