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Public Forum

How Not to Make a Presentation

I attended another mostly dismal ASA meeting. What wasn’t dismal was the setting in Montréal and the efficient and effective organization of the conference by the ASA. What made it dismal were the many presentations that lacked basic standards of quality.

  • Some presenters tried to present too much material in too short a time and too small space. For example, many detailed tables were accompanied by seemingly endless commentary, which was sometimes cut short by the session presider.
  • Some presiders were ineffective in controlling the session, leaving the last presenter with little time to present, and leaving the audience with no time for discussion or questions.
  • PowerPoint slides were often read by the presenter word-forword, wasting time since audience members could read them independently while the presentation continued.
  • Many PowerPoint slides featured complex diagrams that defied easy understanding.
  • Some presenters mumbled. (One wonders what goes on in their classrooms.)
  • And, of course, there were the usual convoluted soporific papers of words on words.

Sitting through paper presentations such as these leaves one with sympathy for our students. Obviously, these criticisms do not apply to all sessions and all papers, but they do describe too many of them.

What made me think about the sessions and papers was the following: I bumped into a friend whom I had not seen since the last meeting; I asked him what he had been doing. He briefly described his most recent research project and over the next hour we discussed it with my raising questions, offering ideas, and he thinking out loud about the project. It was intellectually stimulating. And so I thought to myself: Why can't the organized sessions be more like this?

What makes an ideal meeting? A meeting where each person talks (i.e., does not read) his or her paper for, say, eight minutes—presenting two or three ideas or findings, which then leaves time for discussion. This makes the meetings more collegial and intellectually useful. The presenter could collect email addresses of those interested and send a detailed paper to them.

I suggest, then, that those who plan the program for the 2007 and subsequent meetings urge participants to make the meetings more satisfying by structuring their presentations in this way.

Dean Harper, University of Rochester