Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Will banning PowerPoint improve conference presentations? If not, then what will?

Banning PowerPoint probably will not improve things, since the tool isn’t really the problem. Last Friday Dave Paradi blogged about how the Embedded World conference plans to ban the use of PowerPoint anyhow. On Sunday Jon Thomas blogged that PowerPoint is NOT the Problem with Presentations Today. By the way, back in 2006 Dave also mentioned another conference that had banned PowerPoint.

Bad PowerPoint presentations certainly are a pain in the rear end. However, we can learn about how to produce effective presentations from the folks who know rear ends inside out – the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons (ASCRS).

James Church and Joyce Balliet, compared the quality of podium presentations at the ASCRS conferences in 1993 and 2003. These were seven-minute scientific presentations to an audience of ~1000. They studied 38 presentations from 1993 and 40 from 2003. 1993 was before computerized graphics, and in 2003 they were common.

You can read the abstract of their August 2005 paper: The Quality of Podium Presentations at the American Society Of Colon And Rectal Surgeons: Does A Decade Make a Difference? They scored each presentation for quality based on four common errors in technique (and running over time). One bad-quality point was awarded for each of the following flaws, which were added to give a quality score:

1) Presenting too fast for a slide to be comprehended
2) Reading the exact words of the slide
3) Using fonts that were too small to read
4) Orally presenting data different than the slide
5) Taking more than 7.9 minutes to finish

The mean quality score improved significantly, from 2.2 in 1993 to 0.8 in 2003, so introducing computer graphics like PowerPoint helped. This clear improvement both in quality and consistency is shown better via a plot of the percent of presentations with bad quality points versus the number of bad quality points:

The following table shows how those 5 individual bad quality points changed between the 1993 and 2003 conferences. Four of them improved significantly; presenting data different than what was on the slide did not.

Statistics on how the presentations were given are shown in the following table. Note that none of them changed significantly between 1993 and 2003.

What was the root cause behind the improvement in presentation quality? It certainly was not due to adopting Guy Kawaski’s rule of using just 10 slides. Both conferences used an average of 16.

They discussed a possible explanation at the end of the article. Back in 1996 ASCRS changed the rules for their podium presentations. They required that presenters submit a manuscript for their magazine, Diseases of the Colon and Rectum, before they were allowed to speak. Writing the manuscript forced the speaker to carefully consider the topic before presenting.

Any conference can improve by following a similar strategy. All it takes is some backbone by the organizers. When you make it clear that a presentation must say something useful and new, then you will get better quality. If you instead permit presenters to waste audience time, then some of them will with recycled marketing junk.

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