Reading 20: Presentations

by Mike Gleicher on April 18, 2012

In a graduate class, I often try to spend some time on the skills a student should build. One of the biggest is how to give a presentation. This is closely connected to visualization.

There are a few caveats here:

  • The goals and standard for presentation really vary across venue/discipline. What we value in computer science (in particular the areas I work in) are quite different than in other disciplines. It’s hard for me to discuss this without value judgement (since I am bred to believe in the “CS way”), but I also plead ignorance to the practices in other area. I’d like to use this as a chance to learn about others.
  • I don’t consider myself to be a great presenter. Do as I say, not as I do. The upside of this, is that it means I think about how to be better at it.
  • A lecture is not the same as a talk, so what you see in class is quite different than what you would see in one of my talks.
  • Even within a particular style/venue/type of talk, there is a wide range of opinions on what is good talk, what the goals should be, …
  • The “right answer” depends not only on the situation, but on the person. But that will be one of the biggest lessons I hope you get. I may not speak to your specific case, but hopefully, you can see how the general lessons apply.
  • As you might guess, I have strong opinions. But you don’t have to guess at what they are, since I’ve written them down.

Given that…

My real goal is to get you to think about what might make for a good presentation, and to form your own strong opinions – even if they are different than mine.

What I would like everyone to do (before Wednesday, April 25th):

  1. Try to think of the best presentation you’ve seen in recent memory. Actually, try to think of three: the best in general, the best in your area, and the one you most aspire to. They might be the same one, or they might be different. Think of this before doing the next things. (and no, you can’t use #2 ). Try to think about what made these presentations so great. Write this down before proceeding to the next steps.
  2. If you’ve never seen a presentation by Hans Rosling, watch one. They are easy to find. Here’s one I have handy. If you have seen one already, you probably would like an excuse to watch another one. Although, you just need to watch some presentation online by someone generally considered to be a good presenter.
  3. Read through my rant about presentations. This will be a coming attraction for the class discussion. Think of it as a way to load up on rotten tomatoes to throw at me while I rant.
  4. (if you are a grad student) Try to find some presentation advice for your discipline. What makes for a good talk in your world? Has anyone written it down? If you can find a pointer to something on the web, that would be valuable for us all!
  5. Make a post on Piazza, on this page

The following things are optional:

For the entertainment value of Tufte at his absolute worst, you can read his essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.” There is a ton of commentary on this, but I recommend actually seeing the actual essay first. It is available on the protected reader. If you are able to see through Tufte’s rhetoric, there are actually some useful points here. But they are sufficiently hard to extract, that I suggest this on mainly for entertainment value. Finding a level-headed commentary on it might be more valuable (much like in the chart junk debate), but I don’t have one handy. If you find one you think is any good, please post about it.

I am explicitly not asking you to think about slide design – since I think it takes away from the main message. If you want to learn about slide design, there are lots of good books (my current fave is presentationzen design – I just found out that UW has it online! (alt link)). And numerous great websites. If you have a favorite, post about it!

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