Great talk but poor slides

April 5, 2009

I attended the Open University North West Associate Lecturer’s conference in Manchester yesterday. Overall, it was a good, well organised event. The highlight of the day was the keynote address given by Professor Robin Williams, entitled “Communicating Mathematics”. This may not sound very promising, but he delivered a very entertaining talk with lots of god examples on the different methods that have been used to communicate mathematics to audiences – both specialist and non-specialist.

The difficulties of getting a complex message to a diverse group was stressed and lessons from the history of the Open University were provided.  His conclusion was that research to expand knowledge is important but it was also vital to engage with non-specialists and communicate the findings to the general public. This is something that the Open University has done in recent years for a number topics in science and maths with its involvement with programmes such as “Coast” (which has been a highly successful series), “Rough Science”  and “The Story of Mathematics” produced jointly with the BBC.

His talk was excellent, interesting and well delivered – but his visual aids were very poor. The particular problems I noted were

  • The room was very large and the seating arrangement meant that many of the attendees were quite a distance from the screen used to project his slides. The screen was also really too small.
It was difficult to see the slides from the back of the room

It was difficult to see the slides from the back of the room

  • The slides themselves were old fashioned viewfoils. Some of them hand written. Given that the use of high quality projected slides has been the “standard” for quite a few years, this in itself does not create a good impression. It can suggest that the speaker has “cobbled together” his talk.
  • The projector wasn’t really powerful enough for such a large room so the slides looked very dim
  • The typeface used for the words on the slides was too small. It would have been difficult for someone sitting relatively close to the front to read them – it was almost impossible for someone at the back of the room
A small font size makes the words difficult to read

A small font size makes the words difficult to read

  • The slides were portrait while the screen was landscape. In a number of cases the bottom of the slide was not projected on to the screen
THe bottom of the slide is not projected onto the screen

The bottom of the slide is not projected onto the screen

I’d much rather sit through a good talk with poor visuals than a poor one with flashy slides. Nevertheless, where visual aids are used its better if some time and attention is paid to them so that they are effective.

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