Powerpoints, Bullet Points, and Conferences

A couple of days ago, I sat next to a student on the train creating a Powerpoint presentation. She had started on a slide titled, “Germany’s Policy of Fulfillment” and was pulling out bullet points from a text book. Ten words per bullet, four bullets per slide, lots of slides, each on a small question. I’m not sure whether it was for homework or for a presentation.

In any case, the Powerpoint format doesn’t strike me as a very good way of thinking about the causes of World War Two. The low information density on each slide, as compared to an A4 page, and the inevitably simple structure of bullet points, makes it difficult to express complex or subtle arguments; instead, it encourages a kind of Buzzfeed-ish, “5 top reasons for WW2” listicle.

That said, I still end up writing bullet points in my conference talks about games, partly because it’s expected and partly because it’s easy. So I can’t criticise this student too much.

Part of me wants to do the cooler style of presentation, mostly skillfully performed by Lawrence Lessig, with slides composed of full-screen photos and single words or sentences. This requires much more preparation as you can’t simply read the bullet points from your slide (the worst kind of presentation); although I often worry that the images, usually pulled from Flickr or Google Image Search, are just a way to get cheap laughs (e.g. ironic photos, pictures of cats, memes, etc.)

On occasion I’ll do presentations without any slides at all, and just memorise my talk. Despite the fact that this takes just as much preparation as anything else, I get the feeling that my audience ends up dissatisfied, as if I’m not delivering value for money (or time), or making them work harder by having them just listen to me.

Ultimately, I think conference presentations are a pretty terrible form of imparting knowledge. It’s telling that we decry in-person lectures as being one of the very worst forms of education at schools and universities – non-interactive, non-personalised, and a pointless exercise in assembling 300 students into a single room – and yet we’re perfectly fine with doing the same at tech or games conferences. Is it because the presentations at tech conferences are so much better? I think not. Some are terrible; and some university lectures are wonderful.

Some information and stories are well-told as lectures; some as videos; some as podcasts; some as books; and some in other ways. My feeling is that good conferences are interesting and enjoyable not so much because of good presentations (because if I’m interested in the topic, it’s rare I learn anything genuinely new) but because of the special atmosphere generated by live experiences shared among hundreds of people in the same space, and the conversations that follow.

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