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Conference nightmares

The many faces of scientific presentations

Philip Strange 27 July 2008

Talking shop: it's best to take the rough with the smooth

A large group of normally reticent scientists at the conference disco is an awesome sight

It’s that time of year again: time to spruce up your PowerPoint presentation or polish up your posters. Yes, it’s conference season! David Lodge in his campus novel Small World portrayed the life of a university professor as one long round of jetting to conferences, giving presentations and staying in posh hotels, liberally spiced with sex and booze. I have to say that this has rarely been my experience, but perhaps I don’t get out enough.

Conferences are part of the job for a scientist, but why do we do it? We go to listen, we go to be seen, we go to meet, we go to discuss our data. The usual conference dinners, discos or other boozy events are as important as the formal sessions. A large group of normally reticent scientists at the conference disco is an awesome sight, especially when they have had a few drinks.

I get bored quite quickly in the formal presentations, so a speaker must grab me immediately to keep my attention. When my mind wanders, I think of the nightmare speakers I have encountered. One of the most memorable presentations came from Dr “I put the talk together on the plane”. He had probably flown in on the morning of the symposium and, although the audience knew they were in London, the presenter seemed to have no idea what time zone he was in. He burbled through his presentation, no one got much from it and it was all rather embarrassing. And as this was all taking place at the Royal Institution, you could hear Michael Faraday’s ghost screaming. Apparently, the jet-lagged speaker is now an endangered species. Globe-trotting professors are now turning to a drug called modafinil to combat jet lag and they claim it helps them give better presentations.

Next up steps Prof “Macs are better than PCs”. I am a PC person and have never understood the lure of the Mac, but for many they seem something close to a religious experience. Now I don’t mind them practising this religion in private amongst consenting adults, but it gets on your nerves at conferences. At a meeting I attended in Italy recently, there were several presentations in which a number of PowerPoint slides were mystifyingly blank. The speakers appeared to be mystified too and understandably, the audience found these presentations difficult to follow. The problem arose because the presenter used a Mac and the conference was all PC-based. Haven’t the Mac brigade worked this one out yet?

Prof “Defeated by technology” provides good entertainment. The principal character in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty forgets his notes for an important lecture where he is using PowerPoint for the first time and is humiliated as a result. I remember well giving a talk at the Hammersmith Hospital in the early days of PowerPoint when, after loading the talk onto their computer, a message came up on the screen saying your talk is being modified by the MRC system. All my demure bullet point diamonds were changed to cheeky TV screens, thereby sweeping aside any gravitas I might have had. My favourite technology nightmare, however, comes from pre-PowerPoint days, back when slides were being used in a carousel projector. One presenter could not get the carousel to work and she was told to turn the carousel over and look underneath. She did this but forgot there was no lid on the carousel. She spent the next ten minutes reassembling her talk from the random pile of slides on the floor while the audience shuffled nervously and some escaped to the bar.

Next we have Dr “My manhood is as big as my PowerPoint file”. This speaker has been told that they have thirty minutes to speak and that there is a strict conference timetable. Thirty minutes are up and the speaker has only got through fifty of his ninety-odd PowerPoint slides. He speeds up and we have to endure five minutes of unintelligible science based on a quick run-through of the remaining forty slides. It does not take much effort to check in advance how long your talk is likely to take, so my sympathy levels here are very low.

Finally we have Prof “I am so cool it hurts”. They usually give excellent presentations because their charisma carries them through; they tell good jokes and they are usually fun to watch. I remember one such speaker demonstrating a point about the structure of DNA by taking off the belt that held up his trousers. This was done in such a florid manner that there was something aggressively Freudian about the gesture, but fortunately his trousers did stay up. Another memory is of a major plenary speaker who, having been introduced, removed first his tie and then his jacket with expansive gestures and delivered the lecture sitting nonchalantly on the bench at the front. How cool can you get? But this is nothing compared to one of my undergraduate lecturers who delivered his lectures lying prone on the front bench while smoking a pipe. I guess these people are frustrated actors, but they add colour to otherwise dull events.

So we scientists still keep going to conferences despite the presenters. Perhaps it’s the chance to travel to exotic locations; perhaps it’s the chance to see your friends. Or perhaps it’s the chance to add another nightmare presentation to the list.