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I understand that it is best to give a good oral presentation supported by slides with minimal text. Questions like this have been asked before, but in the context of a "normal" presenter.

My ability to communicate in front of an audience is however so impaired by my nerves during a presentation that I think I can communicate more information by making nearly self-explanatory slides.

What is your advice on this in case of unusual limitations or problems of the presenter? Problems such as:

  • nervousness up to the extent that language gets incoherent,
  • people who do not speak the language required for the presentation well,
  • people with voice problems.

I understand this question can be a general debate of taste or style. But in general the objective in communication is the exchange of information by means of imperfect/corrupt media. If it’s difficult to repair or replace the media, it seems to make sense to change the mode of transmission. In an academic setting such as a conference presentation, or even a keynote, how acceptable is it to make the talk supporting the slides, in stead of the slides supporting the talk?

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    Anything that helps you to better get your message across is OK. But one could argue that you're really trying to cure a symptom here rather than the cause of the issue. A better solution that would benefit your career and your personal growth much more is to become a better speaker, and the only way to do this is by practicing it until it becomes a routine - even if it's a very strenuous path, it's a path certainly worth going. – lighthouse keeper Sep 13 '17 at 12:31
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    @NajibIdrissi I agree that being bad at speaking is the natural state of most humans. But just to be clear, the symptom here (which the author hopes to cure by preparing the slides in a distinct way) is the inability of the audience to follow, whereas the cause are the bad speaking skills. My point is to focus on the cause rather than the symptom. – lighthouse keeper Sep 13 '17 at 19:35
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    Perhaps you could avoid conferences and present your results elsewhere? – user2768 Sep 14 '17 at 8:24
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    @NajibIdrissi Being nervous "to the extent that language gets incoherent" isn't "the natural state of most human beings". Yes, most people get a little nervous before giving a talk, especially early in their career; but very few get so nervous that the talk becomes incoherent. The incoherent talk is a symptom of the nervousness and, in the long term, it's the nervousness that needs to be addressed. – David Richerby Sep 14 '17 at 9:06
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    Last week I attended a conference session where all presentations were given by Russians who didn't speak English (or German). They used the proposed strategy for their slides (which had been translated) and presented (badly, they were essentially simply reading) in Russian. I followed maybe half a presentation before I gave up because I was exhausted. – Roland Sep 14 '17 at 10:47
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Slides with a lot of text or equations aiming to be self-explanatory tend to:

  • visually overwhelm the audience and don’t provide visual guidance – which is more relevant in talks than in written text as the audience needs to multitask to some extent, listening to the speaker and reading the slides at the same time;

  • contain more information than the audience can digest in the given time – regardless of what the speaker does;

  • have overly small text and graphics;

  • be read verbatim (which usually is a bad idea).

Mind the tend to: Neither are these issues inevitable, nor are they tied to the slides being self-explanatory. Rather, they are what often happens if an inexperienced speaker tries to make slides self-explanatory. In fact, I would consider most of my own slides self-explanatory and I am rather confident that my talks do not suffer from the above problems.

Hence I think your strategy to make your slides self-explanatory is fine – if you avoid the above problems. In detail, I recommend:

  • Avoid complete sentences, as they are bad for discontinuous reading such as usually done in talks.

  • Make sure that the main structure of each slide is easy to grasp.

  • Find a reasonable trade-off between not putting too much information on one slide and showing slides long enough. If possible, use some test audience to ensure that your slides can be comprehended within the allotted time.

  • If a slide is complicated, build it up step by step in pieces that can be assessed by the audience within seconds. Be careful not to overuse this feature, e.g., by uncovering a list item by item. The audience likes to read ahead, in particular if you are rhetorically challenged.

  • Self-explanatory does not mean containing all the details. In most cases, you barely have sufficient time to communicate your main message – only show what is essential to this message or at least make sure that sidenotes are visually distinct. For example, if there is a standard way to choose the temperature at which you conduct your experiment, you usually don’t need to write this on your slide. If you know that there are some people who cannot stop themselves from asking about this or it may be interesting for some members of the audience, give this information on the slides in a smaller font size or visually separate (and don’t talk about it).

  • This is a nice summary of practical advises. The test audience of people who understand the problem, but at the same time want to help to improve the presentation as much as feasible is probably the best point. – Hjan Sep 19 '17 at 9:31
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One additional idea to consider—you may want to treat what you're going to say as a "script" and memorize it. There's a lot of research that shows that reciting a speech (or similarly, acting or singing on stage!) uses different parts of the brain than normal everyday speech. You may find that it bypasses your nervousness and allows you to get through the talk.)

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    Yes. I write out the first 3 presentation slides, the last slide, and any other tricky parts of my presentation verbatim. I do my best to memorize. I practice several full run throughs with an audience of friends. If nothing else, it helps me to get the right order of points and key phrases. – Dawn Sep 13 '17 at 16:30
  • The asker doesn't mention having any problems with normal conversation. So wouldn't it be better to make their presentation feel more like normal conversation, rather than less? – David Richerby Sep 14 '17 at 14:25
  • The question doesn't really state what happens. I presented the idea in case it's an issue. But your suggestion might work as well. (I did say it was "to consider," not "to adopt!") – aeismail Sep 14 '17 at 14:36
  • I like the idea of activating other parts of the brain, like in singing, or making the speech in poetry mode. I will think about that. – Hjan Sep 19 '17 at 10:21
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If you have severe problems with speaking, is it okay to use more text and equations on slides?

Sort of: to be more precise, it's only "okay" to the extent that it may be the least bad option available to you or in general to a speaker who has the sort of difficulties you alluded to. But sadly I think that there is no such thing as "self-explanatory slides" -- the closest thing is called a "paper", and is something people can consume without going to a talk. The whole point of a talk is to use the medium of speech to communicate ideas in a completely different, and potentially much more efficient, way than through static, written material. To hear other people present their ideas through speech is the reason people go to talks.

Note that I am not trying to belittle your difficulties. I understand that just telling you you have to speak when maybe you can't is not helpful, so that's not what I'm doing. I'm just saying I think a talk with almost no speech is seriously unlikely to end up being a good talk no matter how hard you try, since you will be trying to use the wrong medium for the format to convey your ideas. It is like trying to play tennis with a ping pong paddle -- it can be done perhaps, but not well.

What is your advice on this in case of unusual limitations or problems of the presenter? Problems such as:

  • nervousness up to the extent that language gets incoherent,
  • people who do not speak the language required for the presentation well,
  • people with voice problems.

My advice is:

  1. If the problem is completely, hopelessly unresolvable, e.g., due to being related to a medical condition, then just do your best with the text and equations and any other tricks you can think of. Also consider giving fewer public talks and trying to build your reputation more through interaction with small groups of collaborators and students, and written communication media such as papers, emails, blogging etc.

  2. If there is any chance that your speech difficulties could be resolved someday, even if it might be extremely difficult and require years of therapy, voice practice, intensive language tutoring, or even surgery or other medical treatments, I think you might want to consider making the effort. Presenting your work in public is an integral part of academic life (and certainly one cannot hope to get a job that involves teaching, which are 99% of academic jobs, if one cannot demonstrate having that ability at least at a reasonable level), so your prognosis for a successful academic career with very limited public speaking skills would not be a great one, unless you are a genius of Stephen Hawking's caliber. Sorry I can't sound more optimistic, and good luck.

  • " job that involves teaching, which are 99% of academic jobs" Well, 99% of permanent academic jobs. – David Richerby Sep 14 '17 at 9:16
  • My sentiments exactly. You said it nicer than I would have done, though. Advice #2 cannot be stressed enough. – Phil Yardman Sep 14 '17 at 9:54
  • I understand that solving the cause, and improving presentation skills is very important. I really spend a lot of time on preparing, practising and reading about these things. (About 2 weeks full time for a 30 minute presentation, paper already accepted). The problem is a large difference in performance during practice and the real show time. During practice i am not nervous, so all goes well. I thought about recording it, but that is perceived as strange and i agree that it is odd. I heared of people-who take beta-blocker medicine, but i don't really dare to ask about this to my doctor. – Hjan Sep 19 '17 at 10:13
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I'm not sure if this is an academia specific question, but a general question about presenting. I'd strongly recommend against using more words on slides than necessary, which is what it sounds like you want to do.

As someone who has sat through lectures containing slides with big paragraphs in 12pt font, it's a surefire way to make sure you audience doesn't pay attention. You will lose their interest very quickly. They could, after all, read this on their own. What do they need you for? In addition, whether it's true or not, it could potentially appear lazy.

So ultimately, it's up to you whether you do this, just be aware that the majority of your audience will most likely tune you out.

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how acceptable is it to make the talk supporting the slides, in stead of the slides supporting the talk?

In line with what Dan Romik said, I think you need to think about what the point of a talk is. Here's a non-example from a conference I was at:

The speaker began by apologising that they were not really comfortable in English (understandable, not itself a problem). They then brought up their paper on the screen, and proceeded to read it out in a mutter (bad. very bad.).

As a result, people either got on with some other work, or sat pondering what they would have for dinner. I doubt anyone was interested in further interaction with the speaker.

Instead of trying to make the slides give the talk you don't feel able to, I suggest thinking about how best to use the talk time given the skills you have.

Eg.

  • Most people try to put too much into a talk anyway, so cut it down to a small number of key points. If you want to pass on lots of details, provide a handout that people can read at a more suitable time if they want to. A talk is not for that purpose.

  • Design the slides to help reduce your nerves. I like having slides because they remind me what I was planning to talk about, so I don't have to worry so much about remembering (or otherwise).

  • Use diagrams that show what you are trying to communicate, and add the explanation of it verbally.

  • Depending on the context and the topic, you might be able to make good use of audience participation. Set a question that helps the audience understand where the problem arises when you try the obvious solution; or shows up the bias many people bring to the question; or helps the audience see how your topic affects them. Achieving a good outcome this way won't be easy, but it could be worth the effort.

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I think you should be mindful that some of your audience members may have disabilities.

Some may have trouble hearing and / or may be deaf and you many not be aware of this: such an audience member relies on you writing enough material on the chalkboard / in your slides to follow along. OTOH, some may have trouble seeing / or may be blind, and you need to verbalize enough of the material for them to follow your lecture.

So, basically, it's not all about you, it's about the audience's needs, too. That may sound harsh, but perhaps that could help you forget about your own nervousness and instead focus on the audience being able to receive the information.

  • So, basically, you're saying to write everything possible in case somebody's deaf, say everything possible in case somebody's blind, and, ultimately, quit being bad at presenting and start being good. The last part, in particular, completely misses the point. The asker knows they need to stop giving bad presentations and start giving good ones; they're asking how. Unless you're Jesus, telling the paralyzed guy to just stop being paralyzed and walk doesn't actually achieve anything. – David Richerby Sep 14 '17 at 9:12

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