With my book manuscript and an edited volume of New Directions in Evaluation (on dataviz) due this Friday, this week’s blog post is a repost from an original article I wrote for Presentation Magazine.

My background is a garbled mouthful: interdisciplinary program evaluation. What does that even mean? It means I help groups solve problems, groups from many disciplines. And that means I end up at a lot of conferences.

In all of that experience, I’ve seen my fair share of presentation mistakes. Like you, my initial reaction was the Death by PowerPoint eye glaze-over and subsequent message checking on my iPhone.

But then I wrote a dissertation on the topic, started a data communications company, and launched a major initiative within one professional association to change the quality of conference presentations.

Here, I’ll tip my hand to point out the top presentation mistakes that are a bit particular to the conference setting, along with the smartest solutions.

1.    Including references on the slide

This is a mistake usually solved by another mistake. Often the slide will contain something like (Reynolds, 2008), which is almost worthless.

Should an audience member want to look up that reference, the author’s name and date aren’t sufficient. Google Scholar gives me 640,000 results when I search on Reynolds 2008. I know, I know, this is how the American Psychological Association style guide asks us to cite our sources, but a presentation is not a research paper. The second layer of this mistake occurs when wise presenters, who know that the author’s last name and date are insufficient, show a slide near the end of the talk with full references.

It’s true, knowing
Reynolds, G. (2008). Presentation Zen. Berkeley, CA: New Riders
is a lot more helpful, but it puts audience members in the position of having to scribble down all that text (while trying to listen to the presenter speak at the same time).

The same problem also crops up when presenters list URLs on the screen. We don’t want to create a situation where exact transcription is required because audience members are apt to miss a letter or a backslash, along with the point the speaker is attempting to make at the same time.

The solution: delete references and URLs from the slide. Academic people are likely to balk at this idea, for fear of being accused of plagiarism for not appropriately citing sources. It’s okay – just distribute those references and URLs on a one-page handout.

2.    Including logos on each slide

This mistake is made with good intentions. When an organisation fronts the funds to send some staff to a conference, it seems like slapping the logo everywhere would be a great way to make the expenses do double duty as marketing and promotion. But the power of the image is lost when it is repeated on each slide.

After the third slide with the same logo in the same location, it becomes an ignored (though still cluttering) element. When that’s the case, the inclusion of the logo on every slide actually works against the original intention of the inclusion of the logo on every slide – to make the organisation memorable for the audience. Ironic, right?

The solution: ditch the logo. If a presenter wants to be memorable, they should have great content and well-designed slides. In some cases, organisational or departmental requirements mandate that the logo be used, for reasons ranging from branding to legal. In that situation, work to get agreement on only putting the logo on the first and last slides.

Grab your nearest book. Chances are the publisher’s logo is on the front page and on the back cover. Also, if you’ve solved the first mistake and created a handout, the logo should go there, too.

3.    “I know you can’t read this from the back row”

This mistake tends to make audience members feel like the presenter didn’t care enough about their needs, that slide preparation was a hurried process.

If the text is so small that the audience can’t read it, a slideshow is not the best way to present the information.

Once the audience realises the slides hold no value, they will stop looking at your screen and start looking at their own (smartphone, iPad, etc.). Without an audience looking at the slides, it becomes difficult to justify the time and effort put in to making and delivering them (even if it actually was a hurried process).

The solution: break up the content so there’s just one idea per slide. Instead of four bullet points on one slide, make four slides with just one bullet point. Awesome things happen when we present this way. It keeps people from reading ahead to what will be presented in two minutes, and maintains focus on the content at hand. It also allows the presenter to increase the font size so that it is legible from the back row.

Of course, dividing up the slides this way means the number of slides in the deck will increase substantially. But it adds no extra content and no extra presentation time, just more clicks to advance the deck. You can handle it.

4.    Bullet points are scholarly

You’ll notice that the first three mistakes had something in common – they were all about over-including.

This mistake is the capstone.

When I speak in workshops about slide communication strategy, sometimes I hear a bit of pushback in that the culture in some circles is such that presenters are not viewed as serious or academic unless the slides look horrid. It’s as if cleaner slides make it seem like the presenter is hiding something. Or that time spent making clear slides should have been spent on the research. However, heavy bulleted slides actively impede our audience’s ability to understand the content. People cannot process information when their brains are trying to read and listen simultaneously.

Usually the point of conference presentations is to teach others, but the bullet-filled slide ensures that little content will be remembered. And if we aren’t aimed at making a difference with our work, why are we at the conference in the first place?

The solution: distribute the notes version of the slides or the full research paper after the event by posting it on the conference website. Or email it to the attendee list. Or ask anyone interested in the full paper to leave their business cards. Or put key points in a handout. Whatever dissemination method you choose, begin and end by telling the audience that the full set of notes will be made available after the fact. This way, the argument that the presenter is glossing over something is deflated and the audience can give their full attention. Then follow the steps listed above for smarter slide construction and presentation delivery.

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