Not so long ago I went to a huge conference full of science stars and starlets. The combined IQ of the place was more than gazillion making it a good place to learn bright ideas. And in total, I’ve seen and listened to around sixty presentations by the crème de la crème of science. Although most research ideas were great, the presentations of these were at best painful. My personal summary concluded that from over sixty talks, I’ve seen two presentations with compelling and interesting speeches. And from these two, only one had engaging, readable, and beautiful slides.
Was it a statistical fluke and I’ve been seeing only bad presenters? Am I too picky? Or is there an epidemic of bad presentations going around? Check the first two as maybe. Still, I do think that especially the scientific community is a victim of bad communication. Our new conference normal now is the death by bullet points in confusing PowerPoints. Obviously accompanied by a staccato of disconnected sentences. I was a true believer in these too, dazzling my listeners with one sentence explanations for huge tables and tiny diagrams.
Yet you look around and the world is full of beautiful examples. Ted talks, Pint of Science and Researchers’ Night excite thousands for the most complex topics. Evil tongues say this is only because the presentations are made very simple (hear: stupid) for your average Tom, Dick, and Harry. The success of these events is not due to over-simplification, but because they force the speakers to emphasize not only on the content but to work on the form too. And that quality resonates with the audience which often houses both experts and casual listeners. Please, don't explain the full theory behind unsupervised machine learning or quantum dot nanomaterials in twenty minutes. The time is not enough. But if the presentation is exciting the listeners will go and read your book or paper.
And still an opinion persist in the minds of many that showing your entire content comes first. At your typical science conference pass by a group of senior researchers and listen to them discussing a talk. No fifteen bullet points on the slide? – Weak argumentation. The diagram showed only ten points without a gazillion of colorful text boxes pointing to it? – Not enough research was done. The presenter doesn’t mention the twenty-five parameters of his cool equipment? – They are hiding something. And god forbid there is white space on the slide. Quick, patch it up with clip-art and pictures of cats to show your whimsy!
So why did a noble discipline of communication which occupied the great minds of Plato and Aristotle become a necessary evil in our time? This kaleidoscope of sadness has two reasons for me. The first one is a lack of problem acknowledgment. No one deeply teaches public speaking and the structure of communication in schools and higher education, except in a few lucky countries. People tend to pick up their bad skills from mentors and senior colleagues. Add to that an unhealthy relationship with the technology which offers a crutch for a bad presenter in form of simple-to-make yet sad slides. The second part of the problem is the active rejection of public speaking. It is considered a soft-skill and something you’ve learned in the kindergarten when telling other kids in class how you had spent your holidays. Many professionals see it as less important compared to hard, technical skills prioritized in education and public engagement.
So is there a solution? Or should we accept the boredom of the next talk which we'll escape by thumbing the phone? I don’t think we have to. The generations to come have to benefit from our mistakes and we have to include public speaking into the school and university curricula. And for professionals there are so many online courses, support groups, and services which let you learn, practice well and receive feedback in a safe environment. And then with a bit of effort and awareness, we can craft everyday speeches where both the content and the form will unite in harmony to bring our minds together.