Most economics seminar presentations are terrible. Basically, we suck at presenting our work.
There are many guides to improving presentations that you can find online. There’s a recent set of suggestions by Jesse Shapiro on Greg Mankiw’s blog. These guides provide reasonable, uncontroversial advice and for the most part I agree with their suggestions (big font, lead with a question, have a bottom line, etc). Here I’m going to make some suggestions that I don’t often hear others making and which some of you might find controversial.
These are suggestions for presentations. I’ll have a post directed at advice for seminar participants soon.
Before I get going let me acknowledge that I am not the best presenter in the world myself. However, I have completed step 1 on the path to recovery – I have recognized that I have a problem. In fact I have completed step 2 – I am trying to do something to fix the problem. OK, here’s my list of suggestions:
1. FINISH ON TIME. So many other problems flow from this one simple blunder it’s hard to overstate how costly it is. By this, I don’t mean that you start panicking with 5 minutes left and then skip a dozen slides to get to your crappy conclusion slide. I also don’t mean talking really fast and blowing by each and every one of your 50 slides to make it to the end on time. What’s even worse is that we usually have more time than we really need. Seriously, how many papers require more than half an hour to present adequately? Finish on time – plan to comfortably cover a reasonable amount of material in the time you have. It’s best if you are worried about the possibility of finishing ahead of time (it will probably never happen).
2. Be as clear and simple as possible. Most graduate students actually entertain the idea that what they have done is so simple that the audience might figure it out during the seminar. This is almost never true. Presenters have a completely distorted view of their own work. They have been doing detailed meticulous work “under the hood” for so long that they have managed to convince themselves that everything they’ve done is trivial. It’s not true. The audience is completely unprepared and it is the speaker’s obligation to explain the material clearly.
Examples (with numbers?) are an excellent tool for clarity. Don’t present the general theorem, present the example and mention the theorem.
3. Use fewer slides. I’ve seen some recommendations that you can cover at most one slide per minute. That would be a ridiculous pace. I suggest no more than one slide every 3 to 5 minutes. That means that for a 90 minute presentation you get between 18 and 30 slides. Closer to 18 would be best …
4. What should you cut out? Let’s start with the “Preview of Results” slide. This sorry excuse for a presentation tactic is becoming more and more common but it’s really just a signal that you haven’t fixed problems #1 and #2. If you are going to cover the material clearly and on time you don’t need the preview slide. [Think of how this would play in the movie the Sixth Sense. Bruce Willis meets Haley Joel Osment and then we get to the “Preview of the Results: Bruce Willis’ character is a ghost.”]
You can also cut out the “Related Literature” slide. It’s important for a researcher to be aware of the related work. This doesn’t mean that you should put up a reference list in your presentation.
5. Slide Content: Put as few words as possible on your slides. Don’t write sentences (an exception would be if you are going to put up a quote). Your slides are not your presentation notes! The stuff on the slides should complement what you are saying. It isn’t a substitute for what you are saying.
Don’t use bullet points or lists if you can avoid them.
Use equations and math sparingly. Be choosy about the equations you are going to present and plan on re-stating the meaning of the variables for each equation. Presenting the “boilerplate” of the model is typically not a good use of time. Focus on the stuff that is specific to your work. It’s almost a forgone conclusion that the audience won’t be able to remember the notation (even if you have a notation slide). Choose notation carefully (C is consumption not capital, labor is N or L, marginal cost is MC, … ). I’ve had presentations that were disasters simply because of my poor notation choices.
The best things for slides are pictures, graphs, scatter-plots …
6. You are giving a research seminar – Don’t be “cute.”
7. Software: I know “everyone” uses Beamer now. Beamer is another really bad feature of economics presentations. It’s as though they went to PowerPoint, found the most drab, depressing format and then mandated that every economics talk had to be given in that style. The only thing Beamer has going for it is that if you write in LaTeX then you can enter the math easily. And this might not actually be a good thing (see # 5 on Math).
There’s a lot of stuff in Beamer that should simply be dropped. The drop-shadow behind the math panels, the little sphere bullet points, the little triangle bullet points, the terrible purple haze color palette that everyone uses, the slide counter (I think this is so the audience knows how many more terrible slides they will have to endure before the end), the ridiculous bubbles at the top which get filled in when you cover a section of the talk … it’s all hideous.
In fairness, the other options aren’t much better. PowerPoint is ok but you have to avoid the pre-packaged formats or you will end up running into the same problems that Beamer has. There are other options that will become better hopefully over time: I’ve never tried Keynote but it might be worth a shot. There’s Prezi and similar web-based presentation software, … whatever. Heck even chalk or a whiteboard. 
8. Speaking: Please don’t read your slides! (Remember, your slides are not your notes!).
Try to eliminate “filler sounds” – uh, um, you know, like, right?, I mean, what do I want to say here?, what I’m trying to say is, sorta, kinda, … Silence is better than this kind of stammering. Have the opening sentences of the talk essentially memorized.
One trick for refining your speaking ability is to record yourself giving a talk. Count the filler words (you’ll be horrified). This will give you a sense of whether you have a problem.
Another trick is to try to emulate good speakers. Here are two clips of Sam Harris [clip1 clip2]. TRIGGER WARNING: Harris is a “new atheist” who frequently makes disparaging remarks about major religions, he’s particularly critical of Islam; if you are offended by this type of discussion then you might want to find a different example. I’m including him here because he’s an excellent public speaker.
You’ll notice that he speaks in complete sentences with very few filler sounds. His eyes are always on the audience (most of the time he doesn’t even have slides). He speaks very slowly with deliberate pauses. The sentences and his delivery are carefully orchestrated (even though they sound improvised to an extent). A scientific presentation doesn’t have to be this smooth – Harris is a public / pop intellectual who is trying to get big picture ideas across to a general audience. This isn’t typically what we are doing in a research seminar but the techniques he uses still carry over to some extent.
 I was at a conference once where Randy Wright got up to give his discussion and he didn’t have any overheads prepared (this was back when people used overhead projectors). Instead, he decided to simply write his slides as he talked. It was the best discussion at the conference.