Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Conference (snore) Presentations

The annual meeting of the Decision Sciences Institute just wrapped up in normally warm-and-sunny San Diego (which was neither this week). I achieved the dubious first of having to attend three committee meetings in two consecutive time slots (which means I "session-hopped" committee meetings).  Let's see ... I left Lansing MI for cool, rainy weather and committee meetings ... remind me again why.  Two conferences in three weeks is a bit draining, and knowing I'm going home to grading doesn't improve my disposition.

So I'm in the proper frame of mind to make the following observations about conference presentations and sessions, in no particular order:
  • Assume that your audience is reasonably smart.  Don't explain the obvious.  If you're presenting a scheduling model for buses, don't spend time explaining to the audience what a bus is.  (That's not exactly what one presenter did, but it's very close.)  If your audience is really that clueless, they won't understand your presentation anyway (and quite likely they're in the wrong room).
  • Session chairs should enforce time limits ruthlessly.  If people want to discuss the paper with the author and the author has exhausted his/her time allocation, they can do so after the session.  Besides facilitating session hopping (the least important reason for this, in my opinion), it provides an incentive for authors to shorten their presentations.  Also (and this is frequently overlooked), it's harder for the next presenter to gauge how much time they have left when they start at an off-cycle time in a session that's already behind schedule.
  • The DSI meeting was plagued by no-show presenters (including one session where I went only to hear one paper -- the one that ended up not being presented).  Occasionally a presenter is missing due to illness or death in the family (the latter happened to me once at a conference).  Sometimes their funding falls through at the last minute.  More often they just wanted to get in the proceedings, or they saw they were scheduled for the rump session and decided not to bother. I'm generally inclined to believe that a no-show presenter actually did the audience a favor: if they weren't committed to showing up, how committed were they to doing a good job preparing the presentation?
  • As a presenter, less is more.  (And I confess to screwing this one up myself at the Austin INFORMS meeting.)  Leave time for feedback.  Other than the minor value of another line on your vita and the major value of qualifying you for travel funds, the main virtue of presenting a paper is to get feedback from the audience.  Dazzling them with your brilliance is beside the point, since the (presumed) future publication in a (presumed) top-tier journal will accomplish that.
  • Graphs are good; tables of numbers are not.  Tables of numbers in 4 point font (because that's what it took to fit all the numbers on one slide) are even less useful (other than to audience members who have not been sleeping well at their hotels).
  • If your slides include any complete paragraphs (other than memorable quotations), say goodbye to your audience.  They'll be off catching up on e-mails.  If you are reading those complete paragraphs to your audience, they'll be busy e-mailing they sympathies to your students (who presumably suffer the same fate, but more regularly).
'Tis the day before Thanksgiving here, and if my (delayed) flight actually manages to make up the lost time and not blow my connection in Atlanta, I will truly be thankful.  To those of you celebrating the holiday, have a good one!

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