24 May 2010

The Clipart Syndrome

Michael Ernst has some super advice for giving a talk. One point is subtle and deserves extra attention:
"When giving a presentation, never point at your laptop screen, which the audience cannot see."
You should interpret this broadly and metaphorically, not just literally. When you point to a part of a slide, you are pointing to it because it reminds you of something.

Take a simple example with harmless clipart: You might have thought deeply about some concept when making your slides, and picked out a drawing to fit what you had in mind. Now, when you see that clipart, you get an immediate association with that concept you had in mind. It's a mistake to think that pointing to that same piece of clipart will resonate with your audience the same way it does with you.

It follows that this doesn't have to be clipart, either. It could have been a word you chose, a slogan you conjured, or a diagram you constructed. You must be very careful that it means the same thing to the audience that it does to you.

One of the worst ways this clipart syndrome manifests itself is when it applies to the whole slide. When you see a slide, you immediately think about what was on your mind when you made it. I've seen some speakers, who weren't even short on time, bring up a slide filled with text, talk about it using different terminology, and then skip to the next slide before I could even skim the first half of it.

The clipart syndrome applied to a whole slide can also make an audience motion sick. An unprepared speaker might jump forward five slides, because while on their feet they thought of a great connection to other material, and then later jump backward ten slides, because they just thought of another cool connection. When doing such slide jumps, the audience might not even know if the speaker is going forward or backward. [And the speaker isn't even going to show the slide long enough for it to sink in even if it could!] If you must jump to a slide, use the menu to navigate to it directly. This will spare the audience from seeing that fly-in animation happen five times.

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The reason there is a reference problem in the first place is due to the lack of context.

Your audience has little or no context for your work, while you have been deep in the trenches so long, the context is the only way you see the world. That's why motivation is so important. When you show that something is a problem, keep in mind that your audience might not even see how the problem is a problem. You will need to be explicit: Not only do you say what the problem is, you should say what the implications of that problem are, and what opportunities are missed.

The goal is for the audience to think in the first minute "this might not be my area, but thank god someone is working on this and that this solution exists."

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You should also banish the temptation of making your talk or publication a mystery novel. One trap I've noticed students fall into is making their talk mirror the structure of a mathematical proof. That means the talk begins with some definitions, some more definitions, a discussion of the actual material, and then, only at the very end, do you see where all of it was going. I can't stress enough that audiences-- even students in a lecture-- won't appreciate this approach.

Perhaps you've even come up with a great definition that generalizes your contributions and it became a real ah-ha moment and breakthrough in your work. Your ah-ha will just look like clipart to someone else if you don't provide it with the context it needs.

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