A Communication Exercise: randomize slide presenters

07 Sep 2023 Gregory J. Stein

Last month, my lab had one of the best group meetings we’ve ever had.

I asked my students to prepare presentations in the style of Pecha Kucha—a slide deck of 18 slides that automatically advance every 20 seconds. On the day of the presentation, I randomized the presenters: they would be giving each other’s slides with only about 5 minutes of preparation time. Each of my students watched as their colleagues presented the slide deck they had painstakingly prepared over the previous few days.

The result: chaos, laughter, and an incredibly productive discussion about how to make effective slides.

Why randomize the presenters?

There is immense value in watching recordings of your own talks. I routinely tell my students to record and watch their own presentations as they make them–and before they cross my desk—since it will help them see details that they don’t notice while they focus on presenting. However, this approach is still only a half-measure, and it is still difficult to put your self in the shoes of another who is entirely unfamiliar with the material and grasp how well they understand the material. Even when watching your own recording, you still bring with you implicit knowledge about what you are trying to communicate. Instead,

Watching someone else give your presentation, you get to see how they interpret your slides, information you can use to improve the presentation in a way you likely would not be able to on your own.

In general, it is not necessary for slides to contain all the details you wish to communicate, but it is important to be conscious of when details are intentionally not on the slides versus accidentally omitted.

Why use the Pecha Kucha auto-advancing slide format?

I needed a way to encourage my students to commit to the presentation more than they would for an “ordinary” group meeting, so that the slides would be more self-contained than they usually would be, giving the presenters a chance at giving a reasonably effective presentation with minimal prep. The Pecha Kucha format was a novelty, and so was ideal for this purpose.

Moreover, in the absence of auto-advancing, I feared that students presenting a slide deck that was not very clear would tend to ramble, grasping at what they thought a slide was about rather than presenting what was actually on the screen. The Pecha Kucha format, in which slides auto-advance every 20 seconds, disallows rambling.

Finally, the very limited amount of time encourages one idea per slide in a way that non-auto-advancing slides do not. In advance of the meeting, I reminded my students to design sparse and effective slides, in which (i) slide titles quickly and clearly communicate the main message of the slide, (ii) there is only a limited amount of text on screen at once, and (iii) figures are fairly minimal and communicate only what is needed to convey the point, advice I regularly give.

See also my blog post on the differences between figures designed for papers and for presentations.

Keeping the randomness alive

The meeting was incredibly successful. Even those presentations that were not as effective served as a learning opportunity to the designers, who used the experience to improve the slides going forwards. In addition, the meeting built up lab camaraderie and spawned a productive discussion over the group lunch that followed the meeting about particularly funny and interesting moments as well as strategies for generating better slides overall.

This sort of event is one that can only be done once, since the surprise and uniqueness is a core part of the fun. However, I still plan to add some elements of randomness to research update group meetings to encourage updates to be of a higher quality and more self-contained. I now bring a 20-sided die to my meetings: if it lands on 1 or 2, the students must present each other’s updates, if it lands on 19 or 20, I will present all their updates, just to keep everyone on their toes.

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