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Looking forward to the 2007 ASA Annual Meeting in New York …

For Conference Presentations, Less Is More

by Jill Campbell, ASA Publications Department

“Too much material,” “ineffective,” “convoluted,” “defied easy understanding.” These are just a few of the comments regarding presentations at last year’s annual meeting. More specifically, Public Forum writer Dean Harper (see December 2006 Footnotes, "Public Forum") criticized presentations that consisted of text-heavy PowerPoint slides read verbatim, overly complex diagrams, and short presentations with too much detail.

For researchers who not only labor over the quality of their research methods and analyses but also struggle with creating figures in Excel and bullet points in PowerPoint, such criticisms may be difficult to hear, much less accept. However, Harper’s criticisms are not unfounded; in fact, the modes with which you communicate your research—both verbal and visual—have a significant impact on whether your audience will comprehend and remember your presentation.

Words, Words, Words

There are a number of reasons why researchers use text-heavy slides during conference presentations. The presenters, who have just spent a good deal of their time and budget on their study, want to provide as many details as possible in the few minutes they have to present their research, with the expectation that the audience leaves with a full understanding of their work. Some presenters may copy their presentation notes into a slide so they are less likely to forget what to say next.

From the presenter’s perspective, displaying copious text on PowerPoint slides seems beneficial; the audience, however, has a different perspective.

If you are talking while your audience is also trying to read your slides, it is likely they are either hearing you or reading the words, but not both. Verbal comprehension decreases when information is presented both aurally and in written form. The theory is that the parts of the brain that process words you hear are also activated when you process words you read. But if you try to do both at once, your audience’s attention is split and comprehension suffers.

A Picture Really Is Worth 1,000 Words

Since silence typically is not an option during a talk (unless you trying to achieve a John Cage–esque kind of presentation), you will need to find alternatives to presenting text-heavy slides while speaking. One option is to simply decrease the amount of text on each slide to include only a few short bullet points (remember to keep the font size large enough for the myopic researchers in the back row who are accustomed to reading text less than two feet away on their laptops).

An even more effective option is to discard the text almost altogether so that you include primarily figures in your slides, with text for titles and subtitles or key points only. Because your brain processes semantic (verbal) and visual information separately, your audience can simultaneously listen to your talk and pay attention to your slides if your slides are showing figures and not large chunks of text.

Presenting words and images does not simply prevent distraction but may work to improve your audience’s comprehension of the material you are presenting. According to the dual-coding theory, first proposed by psychologist Allan Pavio, verbal and relevant visual information presented together can enhance learning. Your audience may learn more if you present figures on your slides rather than text while giving your talk.

Audience-centric Visual Aids

Knowing how your audience processes the information you are presenting enables you to make decisions about how to format your PowerPoint slides for maximum effectiveness. The following are a few suggestions to help you prepare figures and slides for your next presentation:

  • Keep bullet points short. Present key points only. It is better to leave your audience wanting a little more than wanting much less!
  • Let the figures speak for you. Instead of explaining your data in paragraphs or bullet points, show your data through figures.
  • Choose easy-to-read fonts. Sans serif fonts (e.g., Arial, Helvetica) are often easier to read on screen because the letters appear more distinct. Also, be sure text and figure labels are large enough to read at a distance.
  • Practice your presentation in advanceso you do not need to rely on text-heavy slides as reminders of what to say next.

Remember: Your research may be excellent, but if it is presented poorly, its import may never be realized.

Before becoming ASA’s publications manager, Jill Campbell received a master’s degree in technical communication. Her master’s work examined the role of information design and textual narrative in learning and memory.