Saturday, February 4, 2017

Weird or bad talks I have seen

Two days ago I saw seven great scientific talks presented by students. However, I prefer not to blog about things involving personal names except when discussing a published paper or a public conference; in this case the students had to give the talks, and the symposium was somewhat internal.

At any rate, when I hear a good talk I tend to remember the science. That is just the point, isn't it? A good talk gets the message across. On the other hand, what stays with me from a bad talk is not the message but rather the way in which it grated.

With scientific talks on mind, I consequently thought I would write about some of the really weird or bad talks I have seen over the years, without giving any identifying information. None of these talks, mind you, were presented by students; all speakers were at least postdocs and often professors.

Mostly this is about what one might call slide design choices rather than content or structure, and I am not saying that all of them are horrible. Some were just strange in an amusing way. Again, whatever has really stuck in memory.

1. A classic that I have complained about in the past was one where the speaker had a black slide background with the text and even the figures (!) in various bright colours. Headache inducing after the first few slides. I cannot really recommend this approach.

2. Not quite as bad but not really helpful either was the choice by another speaker years later to show their crucial mathematical formulas in light colours on a light grey background. Although it is generally considered not the done thing to openly criticise a speaker in this way, this design choice actually caused comment even during the talk.

3. Rather distressingly popular in the first few years after PowerPoint became available but now less often seen is the overuse and abuse of its animation functions. I once saw a talk where the speaker used a different way of making text appear for every. single. bullet. point. One floated in from the right, one spiraled in from the left, one was assembled by each letter dropping in individually from the top, and so on. The talk was not helped either by the speaker's lack of confidence in their English. They interrupted themselves after every few words with a kind of loudly barked "uh-huh?" towards the increasingly concerned audience, apparently asking for constant feedback whether everybody had understood the preceding sentence.

4. One of the weirdest talks I have ever seen consisted entirely of numerous diagrams hand-written onto math paper that were subsequently scanned and pasted into PowerPoint.

5. The audience of an international conference I participated in was fairly amused by a talk whose slides consisted of 80% small font walls of text, with a far too tiny figure pressed onto the side here or there. The real kicker was that the speaker had asked a colleague to translate the slides from English into the local language, and the translator had left numerous comments in the text on the lines of "I don't know this term", "is this what you meant?", or "you need to look at this again". Apparently the speaker had not looked at the presentation at all after getting it back from the translator.

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