Springtime in Vienna - an invasion of geoscience!
Springtime in Vienna – an invasion of geoscience!

By Evan

As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel room in beautiful Vienna, recovering from the after party of the European Geophysical Union General Assembly 2013. The conference is one of the largest meetings of geophysical sciences (with a large helping of geochemistry!), with over 11,000 participants.

My session on glacial isostatic adjustment brought out some of the big shots of the discipline, something I was warned about before arriving (egos abound!). It was great to meet all these people who have published influential and important papers on ice sheet models, sea level change, and the rheology of the Earth (i.e. how the Earth deforms under the shifting loads of water and ice). It was interesting to get people’s views on these matters, and have feedback on my own work. Luckily, everything went smoothly!

Now, onto the matter of the art of presenting. I went to many sessions on tangentially related subjects, and sometimes the talks were not as good as the ones in my own. I have some advice for those who want to have an effective presentation.

1) Time limits. At the EGU meeting, the presentations were set at 12 minutes, with 3 minutes for questions. Very few of the presentations I attended adhered to that limit, and pushed or broke 15 minutes. The issue here is not that you can’t have an interesting talk that lasts 15 minutes rather than 12, but that after attending a day’s worth of talks, it is hard to continue paying attention to longer presentations. While making my presentation, I aimed to keep the talk under 12 minutes. A good rule of thumb that generally works is “one powerpoint slide per minute”. I practised my presentation several times in the morning before my seminar, and made sure it was coming under 12 minutes. Because of this, I knew exactly what I needed to say. In the end, my presentation clocked in at about 10 minutes, something the convener thanked me for. Nobody is going to complain if your presentation is under the prescribed time limit.

2) Number of figures on the page. Another common problem in the presentations were the number of figures on a page. One presentations in particular that I saw had about 20 graphs on a page. How is someone going to be able to interpret anything on there! The cruel part is when the presenter says “as you can see from this plot”. No, I can’t see because it is too small and there is too information! I’d say no more than 4 plots should be on a slide, and it is probably even better to limit it to one or two.

3) Can’t read that text/scale. An important part of any map or figure is the scale. Some presentations had a bunch of figures, with really tiny text on the scale. This is especially problematic when the presenter does not fully explain what is happening in the figure! Even worse is when you can tell that different figures use different scales, but you cannot discern what they are. When I showed my presentation to my research group before leaving, my supervisor pointed out that people at the back of the room would not be able to read my scale bars. I had to go and redo the figures (not always the most trivial thing) in order to make things readable.

4) Putting things on the bottom. So your session is popular. Guess what, people in the back of the audience are behind tall people! It is not always possible for people to see the bottom of your slides, so it is a good rule of thumb to not use the bottom 20% of the slide for anything important.

5) “The interesting thing you can see here”. A common thing you hear a presenter say when pointing out a feature of a plot or map is this comment. I’ll be the judge of what is interesting. Virtually every time someone points out something that is “interesting”, it is either not fully explained why it is interesting, or simply put, it isn’t interesting.

6) Reading text off the slide. I can be guilty of this as anyone, but if you have a slide that is a wall of text, you don’t have to read it out line by line! People can read the text faster than you can say it, so summarize it for those who don’t bother to read it.

7) Practice practice practice. Yes, I know it is often the case that you make the presentation the day before or the day of the presentation. This can be good, because it means that the content is fresh in your mind, and you get the latest stuff you have been working on in your presentation. However, it is pretty clear when someone presenting has not done even a small amount of practice. Generally, these presentations are the ones that exceed the time limit, and result in rambling. You can also tell when someone hasn’t practiced when they spend a few moments pondering the content of the slide. As my supervisor says, if you can’t hook someone in, they will go back to reading their emails. By practicing, you can generate a flow, and exert your confidence and get the attention of everyone in the room.

8) Wall of equations. Even worse than the dreaded wall of tiny text is the wall of equations. Yes, us geophysicists have taken math courses, but a presentation is not the time to refresh our memories. The more vector operators and Greek letters there are, the less likely you are going to be able to keep the attention of the audience. Focus on the results of your work, not the path to getting there. We can always read your paper later if we need to derive things on our own. If you are going to show an equation, it should be accompanied by a large figure that shows exactly what it is telling us.

9) Look at the audience. Yeah, you are nervous, and aware of the large amount of people staring at you. The audience sympathizes! However, if you start turning your back to look at the screen to avoid the terror of this, then we can’t hear you.

I hope these hints are useful to people. Thanks Vienna!

Athena, goddess of Wisdom in front of the parliament buildings in Vienna.
Athena, goddess of Wisdom in front of the parliament buildings in Vienna.