Meta meta talk

22.01.2012 18:12

I noticed that a lot of talks and presentations I attend, especially in the more academic circles, begin with the speaker showing a slide with the outline of the talk in form of a bulleted list and talks through it, explaining what he will talk about. With short talks this can actually take a significant part of the total time, especially if the speaker returns to that slide after each part, showing how far into the talk he progressed.

What is the point of that, short of giving the audience an opportunity for one last glance of their email client? The purpose of such an overview in printed articles is to give the reader some idea of the contents. This means that you can skip reading it altogether and move to the next article if the table of contents doesn't give you enough confidence that the article will be of use to you. Via page numbering it also allows you to skip directly to the interesting part, should only a part of the document be useful.

None of these uses apply to the spoken word though. You can't fast forward to the interesting bit and if you find that the talk won't be worth your time after the introduction it's usually considered quite rude to walk out at that point. As is browsing the web waiting for the part the interests you.

Some may argue that the table of contents makes the slide stack more readable in stand-alone form. I don't buy that - slides are part of the presentation and I don't think any consideration should be given on how useful they might be without the accompanying speech. It's 2012 after all and making at least an audio recording with cheap equipment shouldn't be science fiction anymore.

Posted by Tomaž | Categories: Ideas


I don't really know, so I can only speculate. Probably mostly inertia, occasionally trying to seed the idea by repeating it multiple times and in the right environment a signal to ignore or listen to next talk exactly like article summaries that you've mentioned.

Most development conferences these days have a lightning talk track which lasts about an hour (a day). At WWW07 you had whole day tracks in same format and you couldn't rely on schedule because it changed for various reasons. Personally I couldn't really track any more who's next and what the talk will be about so short introductions proved useful to remind me if I should listen or not.

Then again talks were so short, they really were not much more than a reminder of a paper they presented and presentation of authors so you could track them later on if you really wanted to know what they did and had to say :)

I couldn't agree more! A friend of mine gives lectures occasionally, and he says you should "tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them again (in your summary)". Yuck. Most people just want the "meat" and their minds will wander if you waste time. It drives me up the wall when they do this in company presentations. Just get on with it!

Posted by Merlin Skinner

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