Publications Versus Presentations

I was at a meeting this week, the GEM Workshop in Portsmouth, Virginia, and I am watching many people give talks in the sessions. Many of the talks are very clear and concise, but some strike the nerve of one of my pet peeves. Regarding those, I just have to say: ARGH.

My point is this: the content, format, and style of scientific presentations are fundamentally different than scientific publications. I get annoyed with people giving presentations that look like a copy-paste hack job of converting their paper into a Powerpoint document. Let me explain.

In a paper, you start by citing the relevant literature to build up to an unresolved question to be addressed by your study. You then step through the details of your methodology, covering it in sufficient detail to allow others to trust your analysis and even reproduce your work. This is followed by objective analysis your results, followed by a discussion of the new scientific findings and their implications, and conclude with a brief summary. You can make multiple points in a paper, as long as they are justified by the results and analysis. Readers of the paper can spend as much time as they want on any section, and zoom in on the details of any figure, and flip back and forth through the document as much as they like. That is, the reader is in control of how they absorb the material.

With a presentation, the opposite is true: the viewer has no input into how the material is absorbed and the presenter is in control of the flow of the content. It takes some work to be effective, and it is not a simple translation of Word into Powerpoint. For instance, you do not have to include many (if any) citations, and you only have to give a cursory explanation of your methodology. Some people spend a lot of time on these sections and it isn’t the best use of your time at the podium. In addition, please don’t show a paragraph of text on a slide; the audience will read it instead of listen to you. Because the audience cannot go back to a figure, the presentation and interpretation of the results should be intermixed. In showing the figure, though, don’t leave a lot of white space around it. Conference rooms are big and there is no reason not to maximize the figure size and make it readable from the back. If the axes aren’t readable, then please over-write them in larger font. Another ineffective presentation technique is to squeeze many plots on a single slide; the audience will be distracted by the other plots and not listen to you. It is better to break it up, put each plot on its own slide, and walk the audience through the plots one at a time. Even more importantly, though, the audience is hearing a lot of talks at the meeting, and so a presentation should be very focused, usually on just a single main point. The results should all be directed at this one main point, and extraneous material should be removed.

So, please, presenters, think about your audience when you formulate your talk. Specifically, maximize your figure sizes, minimize unused space on the slides, increase your axis labels and annotations to make them readable, avoid full paragraphs of text, and focus on the content on a single main finding. It requires some work to prepare an effective talk, but it will be worth it.

Conversely, regarding manuscript submissions, they are more than just a cut-and-paste reformatting of your presentation. A lot more work needs to go into the Introduction and Methodology sections, in particular. The Intro needs adequately set the stage that the question being posed is not only unaddressed in the present literature but worthy of attention, and the approach should be thoroughly presented to allow reproduction of the results (or cover this topic with citations of such comprehensive presentations). You can get away with a less polished study in a presentation, but not in a manuscript submission to JGR-Space Physics.




3 thoughts on “Publications Versus Presentations

  1. Pingback: Figures in Talks Versus Papers | Notes from the JGR-Space Physics Editor-in-Chief

  2. Pingback: Communicating Science To Scientists | Notes from the JGR-Space Physics Editor-in-Chief

  3. Pingback: Carefully Plan Your Figures | Notes from the JGR-Space Physics Editor-in-Chief

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