How to Conference: Presenting the Paper 2

Sliding Like a Pro

As with reading from your paper, there are those who firmly believe that we have too. damned. many. PowerPoint. presentations nowadays; and, also like reading from your paper, a lot of this antipathy towards slides of any kind tends to come from them being handled badly.

So, what does a bad slide look like? I shall illustrate:

This is a pretty good example, in my opinion, of a pretty awful slide – and because it’s mine, I can tell you exactly what’s wrong with it. I went through a fortunately short-lived phase where I thought that having gradation in my slide backgrounds was cool. However, as you can see here, the only thing that the faded black in the middle of the slide does is makes it a little harder to read. But more than this, this is simply a LOT of text. I mean, I get it, I really, really do. You have a quote you want to make sure EVERYONE sees, and you want to make sure they can follow it closely, so you write it out. And then, because standing around silently while everyone reads the slide to themselves is awkward at best, you read it out loud. The effect is both dull and redundant, and I would hazard to guess that the sheer volume of text in fact may make some people stop paying attention altogether.

More than even these things, though, is that this is very clearly lifted from an essay. With few exceptions – and they do exist! – there’s simply no need to quote this extensively from another work when giving your paper. The degree of detail included here is unnecessary; if you wanted to get Murakami’s ideas across (which I did, being the rare Japanese writer on this particular text), it would likely have been much more effective to show a clip and say something like “As Yumiko Murakami has argued…” and summarize it based on what your audience has just now watched.

Sometimes people will say you should rely more heavily on images in your slideshows, and it’s absolutely the case that an image gives the audience something to explore and even enjoy as you speak. Sometimes an image is actually the best way to make a given point; moreover, if there’s a longish quote you have to get into a slide come hell or high water, pairing it with an image can soften the busyness of all that text:

So, this would be a better slide, right? Yes and no. Given that the quote is actually from a contemporaneous film critic and relates directly to the argument I’m making, I want to have it there and I’m even prepared to read it. I think the image makes a nice counterbalance and acts as a point of visual interest for the audience as I read. BUT, were I to give this paper today, I would make three changes that I think would improve the slide:

  1. get rid of the gradation, because OMG no
  2. shorten the quote substantially – the only thing that I absolutely want the audience to read and, hopefully, remember is “As Japanese viewers are able to understand the film’s English subtitles, they can fully appreciate the amusing interplay of English and Japanese.” That’s it. Everything else can be folded into my paper, and with less text I think the audience would have a better chance of remembering what that bit of text actually said
  3. Put the title of the film at the top of the slide in English, because what was I even thinking? I mean, I know what I was thinking: I was on a panel with three Japanese women and I am NOT Japanese, and I was feeling a bit anxious/defensive about my Japanese ability. As a result, getting any of it into my paper presentation pointlessly took front and center; you could say it became a darling I didn’t want to kill. Kill your darlings – if they serve no clear purpose, be ruthless.

There’s one other thing that I might consider changing now, with the benefit of hindsight, and that’s the font. That’s not to say that this one is necessarily bad, but we also have a LOT of very readable fonts to choose from these days and some of them are quite pretty.

I do better than this nowadays, because even the title slide can be a work of art and a vision to behold; to wit:

(Yes, I have given more than one paper on Hannibal; and yes, I gave the wrong Twitter handle in the first slide IDEK.)

To my mind what makes these far better title slides is pretty clear: they’re visually interesting. In the case of the two Hannibal ones, they also reflect pretty closely what I’m talking about in the paper, which might not mean much to the audience, but it tickles me pink. And that’s the thing – a paper presentation can actually be fun to put together, especially when you get to slides! You’re allowed to have fun with it, and I’ll tell you now there are people who’s attention to design and detail in their slides has blown me away. If you’re going to use slides – be they PowerPoint, Google, Prezi, Keynote, whatever – remember that they work best not when they’re simply communicating information, but when they do it in such a way they illustrate – complement – what you’re talking about.

This is, obviously, especially the case with content slides, and as the years have passed I’ve found myself using less and less text and more images to visualize for the audience what I’m talking about (happily, this is pretty easy to do in film/media/fan studies):

In the case of the second slide here, I’ve made it into a gif to give you an idea of what a ‘dynamic’ slide might look like, although it’s going a bit faster than I would normally go. Each bit of the whole is part of something that I’m saying as I bring it up, and with enough practice you can get to the point where you know exactly when to click in order for that element to have the greatest effect. If you don’t practice as much – and this has been me before – you sometimes end up going backwards, clicking twice and ending up at another slide altogether… so, yeah. Practice does make perfect.

And now, a word about social media in/and presentations. If you look at current work on ethics in Internet research, you’ll see that there remains no clear consensus about how/how much you can or should ethically quote or cut and paste tweets. If the tweeter comes with a blue checkmark, I don’t generally worry about showing a tweet in its entirety. In such cases, I think it’s reasonable to assume that those tweets are intended for public consumption.

The question of public/private typically arises with tweets by the rest of us. Yes, if the account isn’t locked, strictly speaking those tweets are public. That said, it cannot be assumed that the tweeters themselves have a sense of just how public one of their tweets may be, particularly if – say – they’re having an otherwise ‘private’ conversation with someone they know, or something of that nature. As I said above, there are no hard-and-fast rules about ethics in online research, just a lot of discussion of best practices; thus, when in doubt, it can be useful to ask around a bit with people whose judgement you trust. Ideally, you’ll find someone who does Internet research and will probably have their own best practices in place. My own usual rule of thumb is that I’ll blur the name of the tweeter but include the tweet – minus any other identifying information, but I’m also fairly careful to ask my audience not to take pictures of tweets, fan art, etc.

Which brings up another Twitter issue; namely, do you want your paper to be live-tweeted? Depending on the discipline this may not be much of an issue, but in media and film studies (and especially in fan studies) it’s becoming a pretty common practice. Enough so that people often put their Twitter handle on the cover slide (and some people have started putting them on each slide), which can usually be taken as permission to tweet. These days, it’s more common for presenters to say that they don’t want something tweeted rather than that they don’t mind live-tweeting, but when in doubt exercise caution. And above all, refrain from using common hashtags in your live tweets if the presenter is talking about those hashtags. There are some that will attract a lot of negative attention to a speaker, especially those associated with groups or individuals known for online harassment.

Similarly, and this is particularly relevant for film and media studies, unless you have express permission to “@” someone on Twitter who’s being talked about, don’t. YOU may think it would be really cool to have X celebrity know that they’re being talked about at an academic conference, but it can be deeply embarrassing and awkward for the speaker.

This has gotten pretty long, so to wrap it up I’ll just say that, as with everything, your mileage may vary; that is, you may find that some of the above works for you, and some doesn’t. In general, however, you’ll find that the more your slides are illustrations of what you’re talking about, and not echoes or repetitions of what you’re saying, the greater impact they’ll have (and probably the more fun you’ll have preparing them).