Research presentations from hell

Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking to friends and colleagues about research presentations that drive them to despair. As it’s nearly Halloween here’s a list of the presentation horrors people have noted.

The Speaker
– Doesn’t keep to time (this is also a fault of whoever’s chairing any event)
– Is difficult to follow (speaks too quickly, quietly or doesn’t face the audience)
– Has not prepared or rehearsed their presentation
– Reads through all slides out loud (particularly qualitative research/quotes) or from pages of notes (without engaging with audience)
– Makes awkward jokes/uses misplaced humour
– Works to a memorized script – then forgets script and hasn’t got spare copy with them
– Has not accounted for audience needs (ability, level of understanding, is overly technical etc)
– When presenting on research fails to give adequate detail of method, process, reflection on practice, main findings and lessons learned
– Presents work in such a dry or ‘cleaned up’ way all the passion, interest and frustrations of doing the work are lost
– On any community based/led project the people presenting the work are not from the community/are often senior academics that take the credit that belongs to others
– Fails to acknowledge others who helped them with the work being presented

These fail because….
– ‘Death by powerpoint’
– Text heavy
– Inaccessible fonts/colours/text size
– More bullet points than audience can follow
– Clip art/seemingly irrelevant illustrations
– More slides than you can cover in the allocated time
– Graphs, tables, pie charts etc that cover problematic data

Not speakers nor presentations but still really awful anyway
– Event is inaccessible – no disabled access, signing/interpreter services (or is accessible to wheelchairs but not in all areas of the venue where events are taking place)
– Events predominantly hosted in capital cities rather than different parts of a country
– Facilities at events not accessible to all (e.g. whiteboards set very high on walls, microphones positioned at height of taller guests), and little consideration given to lighting, noise levels or other broadcasting issues that may cause problems for those with sensory issues
– Assuming all guests/attendees/presenters have the same abilities (e.g. raise your hand if you want the microphone, stand up if you wish to ask a question, presenters standing for talks at lecterns, all questions must be asked verbally)
– Expensive entry cost for event and no free/low cost/sponsored places, additional charges for food/snacks (so lunch/tea or other refreshments not included in conference cost)
– Poor organization (lack of advertising, information for speakers, rooms that don’t suit the event – e.g. small room when large audience expected)
– Events take place in venues that are not open to all (e.g. in pubs where not everyone would feel comfortable). Or at times that are suit some people better than others (e.g. early breakfast meetings that may exclude those who do not have child care cover available at that time). Or with no adequate provision for those who are parents/carers (e.g no creche availability or reduced prices for those who’ll need to pay for additional care for children/other family members while they attend an event)
– Where events could be inclusive, but panels are made up entirely of middle-aged White men. Or where particular groups are needlessly excluded (e.g. an LGBT conference that only has lesbian or gay speakers; or a BAME event where keynote presentations are still made by predominantly White practitioners)
– Where meetings or presentations require minority/marginalised groups to defend themselves/their existence to an audience (often in an artificially created debate setting). Frequently seen in discussions around Transgender topics, sex work, youth/teenager issues (particularly teen pregnancy)
– Establishing events in ways that impose particular values upon them (e.g. at International conferences where papers might be given in three major languages, the only one that is always used is English; or where posters or talks must be given in ‘academese’ but where many contributors are not from nor familiar with academic styles)
– A hostile, blaming or shaming response when you raise these barriers to organisers!

These issues and more are covered in Bad Presentation Bingo by Monica Metzler and Scott Berkun’s open letter to speakers.

And illustrated even more clearly in Prof Andrew Walker’s talk ‘Academics Behaving Badly’

And in The craft of giving (bad) presentations.

In highlighting the problems with presentations there is always the risk of making already anxious speakers feel worse, particularly those who’re inexperienced or struggle with public speaking. In thinking about what goes wrong how can we also think about kindly supporting people to present more confidently and avoid blaming/shaming?

What are your presentation pet hates that aren’t on this list? Have you any presentation from hell stories you want to share – that might include events you’ve attended or talks you’ve done that you know have really not gone well. Feel free to share below. And if you hate presenting or find it difficult, don’t worry, a future post is going to deal with resources, tips and techniques to improve your posters, presentations and workshops.

Other resources and recommendations readers have shared to improve your presentations
This post on Improvisation in academic life contains some useful reflections on being a flexible speaker/presenter (although I suspect the suggestions raised may be more suited to those who’re confident both in public speaking and with the topics they want to talk about, and have an audience open to a more informal presentation style).

The University of Southern California have a detailed archive of numerous tools and materials for diverse presentations. While the University of Michigan have a guide on giving an academic talk.

Maria Wolters explains the ‘behind the scenes’ aspects of planning and hosting a conference, may be particularly beneficial if you’re new to this area and have been tasked with organising an event.

The Eloquent Woman has loads of information about presenting and speaking, but this guide for scientists about public presentations may be especially useful.Six Minutes is a similarly helpful resource about presenting, but this post on the ladder of abstraction highlights more pitfalls you’ll want to avoid.

The Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies focus on the needs of students learning presentation skills in a second (or third) language. While this piece looks at removing barriers that prevent people with disabilities accessing/attending/participating in conferences. And this first person guide details how to overcome presentation nerves, with a specific focus on presenters with disabilities.

Related to presentations is making the most of conferences, and to that end this from the Guardian is very handy. As is this post about what to expect from conferences and how to survive them.

Crawford PhD have a comprehensive toolkit on slideshows and powerpoint
, as do KU Medical Centre’s guide to effective presentations, while an introvert’s guide to better presentations may help if you find presenting difficult.

One response to Research presentations from hell

  1. Claire

    I think it was Seinfeld that said people fear public speaking more than they fear death, which means they’d rather be the person in the coffin than the one giving the eulogy. With that in mind, having a lecturer refuse to tell me how long I’d been speaking for (when there was no clock in the room) was an incredibly stressful experience. He also told us we weren’t being graded on the presentation and then spent five minutes frowning and scribbling notes (whilst I, a grown woman of 34, tried not to cry).

    Having someone very visibly telling you when you’ve got 2 minutes left to speak is hugely helpful. Time passes much more quickly when you’re not used to public presentations (because your usual audience is the dog or your ever patient partner).

    If you’re a lecturer who is watching a student, even if it’s the most boring and incoherent talk you’ve ever heard, give the student a smile and a nod of encouragement – there are studies showing that it actually reduces the presenter’s stress hormones (which is probably why they’re incoherent in the first place).

    Both of those things really helped during my dissertation presentation and made it not an entirely terrifying experience (and one for which I got a distinction, unlike the one I talked about above).

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