Saturday, March 18, 2006

A polemic worth reading (not mine, the linked one)

What's most striking (and sad) to me is that this rant about conference presentations was written in 1985 and yet it is still highly relevant today (except for the part about good slides costing hundreds of dollars). Will things ever get better?

Now that I think about it, though, maybe things have been getting better. Some people around me, for instance, seem to be very aware of what works and does not work in a presentation and are adjusting theirs accordingly. I've definitely seen some good talks recently, and some of them have even been delivered by young people. I think that those of us starting out have a particularly hard time delivering effective presentations because we have talked to so few people outside of your labs and thus don't realize just how little the average outsider knows about our work. Before we step out of our little research worlds to tell others of their glories, we have to be productive inside them. And sometimes it takes awhile before we have something worth sharing. When we finally emerge from these worlds, we forget that while on our separate planets we have developed our own language--a language that even those just down the hall don't speak. (One of the first things I noticed when I started doing research was how quickly one invents new terminology in conversation with one's collaborators. This is essential, as this abstraction, this encapsulation of complex ideas in small linguistic units, is necessary for efficient communication.)

So when the young researcher first travels back to the home planet after a long journey, to present his or her "findings" at the inevitable "[Demographic] Research Day" symposium at the end of the summer program or rotation, if the student has been successful he or she will have created a whole set of concise tags for the distributed patterns of activity that he or she has been kicking around upstairs throughout the term. If the student is less successful (or if the topic is especially difficult), the terms will still be new to him or her, and thus the young researcher will still be excited enough about them to include their definitions in the presentation. If the student has been even slightly more successful, he or she will have become fluent in the new language, and thus will have a hard time identifying everything the outsider does not know.

I took this writing class in college where they announced on the first day, "You're not writing for yourself. You're writing for an audience, so know your audience." "Know your audience" was the mantra of the class. It's obvious advice that isn't followed often enough. There are two reasons people don't know their audience: First, some people don't know their audience because they think their audience should know them. This is the immature take that the class tried to drill out of us. If one of your target readers makes a good faith effort to understand you, and yet he or she cannot, it's not their fault, it's yours. Taking any other attitude is not an option for virtually everyone who needs to communicate in order to do their job. But the second people don't know their audience is the one that we all struggle with and is the one I have been discussing above: Knowing your audience intimately enough to communicate with them well is really really hard and takes a lot of practice. (One might also add that one needs to know oneself as well as one's audience, so that one can find the set difference of the things one knows and one's audience knows, but I guess that's assumed.) The moral of the story: we should talk to our neighbors early and often.

Maybe there's a backlash by some of the youth of today because we grew up along with PowerPoint and thus bore witness to much of the worst it can do, as there was a time when some of its early adopters thought that its gee-whiz features were actually worth using?

See also: The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, the Wired article that came out at the same time, and some advice.


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