Thursday, March 8, 2012

Surviving presentation problems with visual aids

There always will be problems with visual aids used during presentations, so presenters need to learn how to adapt and recover from them. In 2010 Brian J. Ford discussed what can go wrong with overhead projectors, 35-mm slide projectors, and PowerPoint in an excellent six-page Microscope magazine article titled The Good Guide to Bad Lectures

Brian is a character best known as a radio and TV broadcaster, and  a prolific writer. He’s explained biology and microscopy to audiences ranging from the International/Microscopy Conferences (Inter/Micro) to folks on cruise ships. 

He reminded lecturers:

“You’re there to please the people, not yourself. The only individuals who ever should pontificate at a conference are those who may know their subject, but are profoundly worried about doing it well. Good lecturers begin as poor speakers. People learn more when things go wrong, rather than when they’re doing it right, and in time they improve.”

At Inter/Micro 2010 Brian had problems with PowerPoint where videos would only run for about a minute and then would freeze up. You need to play the whole video before concluding that the setup works properly.   

He told a great story about Lord John Butterfield to illustrate that your slides are not your presentation. Lord John once was supposed to speak on the history of medicine to a student audience at Cambridge University. The man setting up the slide projector tripped on the cord, the bulb broke, and slides were scattered far and wide. “It seems we have lost our slides,” he said. “But, no matter, let me tell you about these people without their pictures.” And then he did, calmly, briefly and clearly - based on knowing his topic very well.

Brian also described two occasions where he wound up lecturing about digital imaging despite not being able to show the audience any of his images (because the laptop and projector wouldn’t interface properly).  

After Walter J. McCrone had admonished him at an older Interl/Micro that: “No lecture needs more than 25 slides.” Brian proceeded to construct a one-hour lecture for the next containing 145 35-mm slides. A Carousel projector tray only held 80 slides, so he’d arranged for the trays to be changed during his lecture by Gary Laughlin. Batteries on the wireless remote died during it, but Gary took over seamlessly and manually advanced the slides without ever once being asked: “Can we have the next slide, please?” No one in the audience but Walter even noticed that the remote had died, and he congratulated Gary on his fine teamwork.   

The image of Pierre-Gilles de Gennes lecturing at Rice University in 2006 is from Wikimedia Commons. (He won the 1991 Nobel Prize in physics for discoveries about ordering of molecules in liquid crystals and polymers).

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