Work in Progress: Coaching Better Presentations
There is something strangely tiring about sitting in an auditorium listening to others talk for eight or ten hours. Superficially, it ought to be the easiest way to spend a day, but I think that it would be “easier” in a non-physical sense to spend a day cutting wood than attending a conference. Nevertheless, I paid my own way back to Scotland (having been here last August for another conference) to attend the inaugural Forming and Exploring Habitable Worlds. As it is rare for me to be asked to present at an event, I didn’t want to pass over this chance, and the entire program of the event looked interesting to me. Indeed, I have learned a lot from the talks I listened to over the past week, with many standout presentations that gave me a new perspective on familiar ideas (like the “Late Heavy Bombardment”), as well as presenting some new ideas that I heard about for the first time, like the “shoreline hypothesis” to explain what planets retain their atmospheres (the crucial factors appear to be XUV radiation and escape velocity).
I have said previously that origins of life research is fragmented, but after this week I have concluded that astrobiology is no less fragmented than origins of life. Since Forming and Exploring Habitable Worlds was organized by the geosciences department, the bulk of the presentations were in geoscience, with a focus on the formation of habitable worlds. There is a lot to be said on this complex topic, but there is also a lot to be said about biology in astrobiology. There were presentations about biogeochemical processes, but few focusing specifically on biology. This isn’t a criticism; the NoRCEL conference last August in St. Andrews was much more focused on biology, and specifically on origins of life, and much less on planetary formation and the geosciences.
The important thing in a multi-disciplinary science like astrobiology is to get the various special sciences to talk to each other in a productive way, and here a great deal of improvement is possible. If I were organizing an astrobiology conference (which I wouldn’t want to do; I have some little experience in organizing a conference and it was enough to demonstrate to me that I am no event planner), I would require the participants send me their presentation slides ahead of time, I would critique them, send them back for revision, and make participation in the conference dependent upon participation in this process of revision.
The deeper one gets into specialization within a given scientific discipline, the more clearly defined one’s problems become, but the more difficult it becomes to talk to others outside the field. The sad alternative would seem to be high-level presentations that are short on clarity and detail, but which successfully synthesize aspects of the special sciences. While some higher-level presentations (my own included, since I am as interested in the questions of scientific method as in the details of any particular special science) lack detail and specifics, here, too, there is great room for improvement. But that improvement can only take place when individuals in different disciplines learn to talk to each other productively.
Therefore, in an interdisciplinary conference (like an astrobiology conference), every presentation should lead off with the explanation of how the work of this individual’s special science relates to the big picture of the discipline, and should also give a brief synopsis of how the specialized problem came to be formulated, and how it is presently being answered.
After my participation last August in the NoRCEL conference I wrote down a series of steps that could be used to coach participants on better conference presentations:
a. Regular contact with scheduled presenters prior to event
b. Weekly emails at least to make sure they are on track and plan to be there
a. Be explicit with presenters about expectations for their presentations
b. No crowded slides
c. No graphs that are too small to read
d. No tiny text
e. With a cross-disciplinary audience, avoid technicalities and define technical terms
f. A general audience needs to be given just the right amount of background knowledge to give the presentation its proper context, and to show why it is important.
g. Minimize the use of abbreviations and, when they first appear, write them out in their entirety
i. Pacing: neither too fast nor too slow
ii. Projection: speak to the room
iii. Clarity: enunciate
3. Slide Samples
a. Require presenters to send in sample slides from their presentation (it needn’t be the entirety of the presentation)
b. Review the slides and make suggestions for revisions
c. Presenter must re-submit revised slides
d. Review revised slides
4. Video Samples
a. Presenter must send in a sample video of one or two minutes’ duration
b. Review the video and make suggests for revision
c. Presenters much re-submit their video and show that they have listened to suggestions for revision
d. Review revised video
This would be a lot of work, and very time intensive. Most conferences do not have the budget or the personnel to do justice to these guidelines. Moreover, a lot of potential conference participants would probably be put off by this, so I’m not suggesting that this is a viable plan, especially for small events with a small budget, but I can dream, can’t I?
My own work would be improved by a conference that followed these guidelines, in the same way that my work would be improved if I personally knew specialists in various scientific disciplines that I could contact to review ideas to make sure that I’m not too far off track as someone who comes into a discipline from a big picture perspective and who is trying to say something relevant without getting obvious details wrong (obvious, that is, to anyone in the special science in question).
Everyone who has attended a conference has their own ideas about how a conference should be run. A dispute that always comes up is that of the length of the conference. There is much to be said for relatively short and intense conferences. One feels drained afterward, but it is without the limits of the weakness of the flesh to get through an intense day or two as long as one can recover afterward. However, there is also something to be said for a longer conference, like Forming and Exploring Habitable Worlds, which ran Monday to Friday, and which was then extended for some participants by a weekend retreat following the conference.
In a longer event, one is likely to see individuals come and go. Some stay for a week, some for a day, and some are around only long enough to deliver their presentation. There is something to be said for this traffic, as those who are most dedicated to deriving the most from the conference can stay for the duration and hear from everyone, while those without the time or the inclination can dip in and get away soon after. Also, in a longer conference, people can get more comfortable with each other.
A conventional education is like an extended conference that goes on for years, with the individual presentations going on for weeks or months. I say that as an autodidact who hasn’t had the experience of a university education. Someone coming from within the academic community might reasonably say that a conference is like an education in miniature, with the classes being finished in 30 to 45 minutes. Either way of putting it is fair, but since this is, essentially, my only conventional contact with academia, I have my own way of seeing it and interpreting; conferences loom large in my mind because I know what they are like, while spending months or years in a university is unknown to me.