Oct 27, 2011

How not to give a presentation

We’ve all witnessed it. That presentation that went on way too long. That presentation where people left half-way through. That presentation where you nodded off. That presentation you didn’t follow, despite it being your field. And we all wish that presentation never happens to us.

The speaker, the one that should have retired years ago, or the one that has been using the same data since her PhD - yes, that one - takes the stage, most likely jet-lagged.

After the obligatory laptop malfunction we begin at the start. Or rather, he begins in the middle. He simply assumes you are a mind reader and you know the subject of his talk. And, no, in case you were wondering, the title slide did little to enlighten you as to the subject.

First slide - just text. Comic sans. Font size 10. Black, on a blue background. Then he gets interesting. The first catastrophe is either one of two options. Either he reads that first slide, verbatim, or he doesn’t. Instead he goes on a rambling anecdotal monologue on something you can’t quite fathom. His childhood in the Piemontese region in Italy, with his large extended family perhaps. Whatever it is, it has little to do with the topic.

1 - Don’t introduce your topic.

A few slides down the line you think you’re finally on board. She’s talking about risk factors linking certain types of cancers to kidney disease. Except she hasn’t given you a reason to care about the subject. Not once has she outlined what is known and not in the field. And she certainly hasn’t put her research into context. Her science, apparently, occurred in a vacuum. No research came before it and it appeared fully formed like a baby on the doorstep.

Then he hits you with the slides that are just all data - and not comprehensible data. Badly formatted graphs, erroneous p-values, mislabelled axes, and error bars the size of the Titanic. General correlations and are used to prove his point. Doesn’t really matter if the graphs don’t really show the point he is making.

2 - Be simple and overly complicated at the same time.

Next he’s going to show you a video. A video that took three post-docs, six PhD students and a research assistant working for 18 months to acquire. The video lasts 21 seconds.

But it doesn’t play.

3 - Don’t be prepared for software changes.

In a veiled attempt to seem relevant the phrases “climate change”, “war on terror”, “arsenic life” and any other hot-button issue currently making column inches are unashamedly shoe-horned into the talk. What does all that have to do with kidney disease you wonder.

4 - Feel free to go off topic as much as possible.

Finally, he will tell you, in no less than one slide, how what he just told you should get him a Nobel prize. The phrase Nobel prize is never used but that’s the general area he’s eluding to. What you just witnessed was a tour-de-force of science. The scientific method in all its glory. Of course he’s neglected to point out all the gaping holes and caveats. But that doesn’t matter. It is to give the impression that any questions or flaws you could possibly have are simply a figment of your imagination and certainly not worth his time. This science is unflappable and rock solid. The data might as well have been etched in stone and handed down from a mountain top.

5 - Overreach and oversell.

She ends by acknowledging those that contributed to the study - namely her. A lab photo is included but no names are given except for one or two notables - like the perpetual post-doc and the PhD student that was chained to the bench for the duration. And despite collaborating with three different groups on two different continents that Nobel prize belongs to her.

Written by Dr. Charles Ebikeme for The All Results Journals. 

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