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
years annual meeting. More specifically,
Public Forum writer Dean Harper (see
December 2006 Footnotes, "Public Forum") criticized
consisted of text-heavy
slides read verbatim,
diagrams, and short
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,
Harpers criticisms are not unfounded;
in fact, the modes with which you communicate
your researchboth verbal
and visualhave 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
From the presenters 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 audiences
attention is split and comprehension
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 Cageesque 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 audiences 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
- 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 ASAs publications
manager, Jill Campbell received a masters
degree in technical communication. Her
masters work examined the role of information
design and textual narrative in learning