Monday, June 7, 2010

Michael Smith's Blog

Hi, folks! I just added a link to Michael Smith's blog in my blog roll. It looks like a notable blog. He's one of those indefatigable and extraordinarily prolific academics whose prodigious productivity is a mystery to me. I don't understand how can anyone get so much done, even working 16-hour days.

If I excavate, even just for a few weeks during the summer, then I can't write any articles because I spend all my "free" time during the next academic year writing the excavation report. Some people have lower teaching loads and better financing than I do, but still....

Moving on, I noted with interest Smith's April 18, 2010 post about bad presentations at the SAA. I had a very similar experience at the meetings, and in frustration I wrote a little essay about it on the flight home. I didn't post it at the time because it seemed too cranky, sort of the equivalent of the old man sitting on his porch yelling, "Hey you kids, get out of my yard!" But Mike's post has encouraged me to add mine. Here it is:

Don't Be Boring

The SAAs were fine this year, and I heard some good talks, but I found myself growing ever more impatient with the poor quality of many of the presentations. I'm not referring to the intellectual or scientific substance of the reports, but rather the clarity and dynamism of the speaking itself. More papers than ever are read verbatim from a prepared text. And people are reading them in a low, halting mumble.

What the heck are we doing? Papers should never be read. They have to be explained. If you can't stand up and explain your research, then you probably shouldn't be presenting a paper. On Friday morning, I fled from one talk so bad that it was "not even wrong," but when I went next door to another session I wanted to hear, a graduate student was reading in a low mumble something about percentages of broken rocks. I ditched that and crossed the hall to a session on eastern Europe, thinking "I'm part Hungarian. This will be interesting," only to stumble into a talk being read in a low mumble with a Slavic accent. Now exceedingly frustrated, I walked into the forum "Tips, Tactics, and Techniques: Facilitating Interactions between Archaeologists and the Media." Ironically, one of the themes of the discussion turned out to be how archaeologists can't communicate. I view this partly as an intellectual and substantive problem. I think we often hide behind jargon and passive constructions because we are insecure about our status as scientists; for the same reason, we often avoid the really interesting questions because we fear the inevitable controversy. How is it that so many of the most popular books about archaeology are written by non-archaeologists such as Jared Diamond and Charles Mann?

But here I don't want to focus on the substantive issue but rather the stylistic one: How can we present papers better? It's probably presumptuous of me to offer this advice because no one has ever given me reason to think I'm a great presenter myself, but most of the suggestions below seem pretty commonsensical to me. Moreover, you don't have to be Dave Letterman to recognize what's not funny. I should say in advance that I’ve violated all the suggestions I offer below, but I’ve also gotten better over the years. Practice certainly helps.


1) Speak audibly. If the audience can't hear you, what the heck are you doing there?

How: a) Project: many teachers have learned through practice to speak loudly without shouting. If you're not accustomed to doing this, you should...b) use the microphone. For the microphone to work, you have to speak directly into it. If you turn your head away to look at the slide precisely when you make your crucial point proving that Neanderthals subsisted on foie gras, no one will hear you. c) If you're not sure if people can hear you, by all means ask the audience if they can hear you in the back. If that seems awkward or unprofessional, believe me, it beats not being heard. The interaction with the audience also helps draw them in and makes them feel that you care.

2) Speak clearly. If people can hear you but still can't understand you, what have you accomplished?

How: a) Speak slowly, b) enunciate carefully, c) speak naturally, and d) don't read a formal text. Formal written language differs from natural spoken language in syntax and cadence. That's why it's almost impossible to read a paper so that it sounds natural and therefore is easy to understand. It's really rare to hear a paper read so that it's truly understandable.

3) Explain. Don't just say stuff. Explain it.

How: a) If you really want to communicate your ideas, you need to outline them in an orderly fashion so that the listener can understand the chain of logic and supporting evidence. I'm not saying you need to explain what debitage is. You are speaking to archaeologists after all. But you can easily lose the audience if they can't follow your train of thought. I'm sure you all know how to put thoughts in a logical order, but the decisions about what to explain can be tricky. I think that people often leave out vital explanations because they're rushing to fit too much into their talk, which brings me to my next point....

4) Focus. You only have 15 minutes, so how many points can you make clearly? Most papers try to pack in way too much information. Better to make one point clearly than 12 poorly because you tried to jam too much into the talk. When you try to fit too much in, chances are you will end up with a jumble of ideas that are poorly supported or inadequately developed.

How: a) Cut down your presentation ruthlessly to the bare essentials. Remove every idea and fact that is not essential. b) Simplify, simplify (Thoreau). c) Then ask yourself, "Does the audience absolutely need to know how much chromium is in my fine ware?" The answer may be "yes," but to be sure you must first ask yourself the question.

5) Eschew numbers. How many numbers can you hear before you lose track of them? You can only present a very few numbers and you must be very clear about what each one means or else you're just talking to yourself.

How: a) Say "We found a lot of this and a little of that, and the difference is statistically significant." Then point at the slide that shows the frequencies or proportions, the test statistic, and the p-value. b) Never read a formula. Show it on a slide and parse it or explain it verbally. Speaking of slides....

6) Use clear graphics. If the audience is trying to figure out an illegible map or confusing graph, they're not listening to you. Just clicking through slides pro forma without looking up is not good. If the pictures aren't important enough to require your attention, why should the audience pay attention to them?

How: a) Don't show slides with dense text. They're hard to read, and if the audience is reading, your voice will fade into the background. b) Explain what the pictures and graphs are. How many times have you seen a slide and asked yourself, "What the hell is that?" or "Wow! That's beautiful! What is it?" but the speaker doesn't explain. c) Take a look at a couple of the many books on this subject. I like Edward Tufte's famous books, such as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Envisioning Information, but there other good books as well.

7) Humanize it. We all have a story to tell, and stories feature people, not cyborgs or processes.

How: a) Who are the people you're citing? Where are they from? Are they American, Mexican, or Chinese? Were they Nazis? Communists? Postmodernists? b) Show a picture with people in it, and then tell us who they are. c) Tell an anecdote even if it's not central to your narrative. The audience will pay more attention to the story than to your paper and will remember it longer.

8) Personalize it. The audience will be much more engaged if they feel that they know who you are. Show your face. Drop a veil. Expose yourself a little and take a chance.

How: a) Speak in the active voice, not the passive. b) Unless the research was done by someone else, or by robots, use the first person. If you did it, say so. "I measured these bones and, guess what, they were bigger than the other bones." c) Say what you think, and take credit for your thoughts. It's okay to say, "I think this is cool", or "beautiful," or "interesting." Enthusiasm is contagious and engaging. What's the chance the audience will find your research exciting if you act like it's boring?

9) Use humor. Try to be entertaining, but without pratfalls or scatological allusions. Humor is much more difficult than it seems or else we'd all write like Kent Flannery. Nevertheless, most of us have the capacity to be witty or charming but we suppress it out of awe for the solemnity of the occasion.

How: Try a) starting with a joke, or b) ending with a joke, or c) telling a joke somewhere between the beginning and the ending.

So, come to the next meeting and give a paper. Stand up. Speak your mind. Tell us what you think.

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