by Selinda Berg
Schulich School of Medicine – Windsor Program
Leddy Library, University of Windsor
Librarians rely heavily on conferences as venues in which to share ideas, innovations, developments, and scholarly research. While conferences offer great opportunities to share information, it can sometimes be challenging when audience and community members want to make use of, build on, or even delve deeper into the content presented. Is there a way we can improve upon the ways that the information shared at conferences is disseminated and applied to our practice?
To the typical conference presenter, the conference process has gotten rather routine: Submit a 250-300 word abstract of the planned work (sometimes 4, 5, 8 months in advance); receive acceptance notice (hopefully); continue to work out the ideas presented in the abstract; and finally present the paper before both new and familiar colleagues. This is often followed by another predictable occurrence: Two or three days following the conference an email is received from an audience member requesting the slides from the presentation (I think now it is also becoming increasingly common for conference organizers to be burdened with trying to retrieve slides from presenters to share with delegates and on public websites.) For me, the request for my slides is both exhilarating (“Wow! The content resonated enough for someone to follow-up!”), and unsettling (“My slides? Oh no!”). This unsettledness does not evolve from an apprehension to share with others. My concern is that I am not sure how clearly my ideas are articulated or how accurately my results are presented through my slides.
Like many of us, I have embraced commonly accepted guidelines on effective PowerPoint slides:
• Minimal text: key words used only as a means emphasize and highlight points to the audience
• An image: A pleasing aesthetic which complements and re-enforces the content presented
• A quotation: A passage that is critical to the presentation but may not even align with my ideas, but rather be used as a point of reference to counter
• Data: Tables of data for which I provide robust explanation
Because my slides in no way provide or capture the complexity of ideas that I have presented, I worry about providing my slides without my interpretation of what is on those slides. People have taken steps to share the wholeness of their ideas by posting conference scripts up on research blogs and other open sites. I really like and respect this movement, however, it is not my general practice to write the kind of script that would be appropriate to share in such a way.
The reality is that the far-reaching use of PowerPoint has long been questioned and criticized. While I don’t agree with Tufte, one of the most often cited critics of PowerPoint, who compared the presentation software to a drug that is ‘‘making us stupid, degrading the quality and credibility of our communication’’ and ‘‘turning us into bores’’ (2003, p. 24), I do agree with Doumont (2005) who provides a counter argument suggesting that PowerPoint can indeed be valuable, but who also emphasizes that PowerPoint is first and foremost a companion for oral presentations, which typically have a different purpose than written documents. Slides are designed to be “viewed while the presenter is speaking, not read in silence like written documents.” I very much see PowerPoint as a companion for the audience while I am speaking, not as a standalone document to be read.
So in the end, I am left wondering if there is value in exploring a more formal and consistent process for sharing conference content so it is more trustworthy and usable. Thinking about this challenge, I have thrown around a few ideas and come up with one possible solution. But I still wonder what other ideas are out there.
In addition to the 250-300 word abstract 4-7 months prior submitted for accepted, perhaps also requesting/requiring that presenters provide a 500-700 word extended abstract (approx.. 1 page single spaced) either immediately prior to or following the conference to be posted as a type of modified conference proceedings that is common in other fields. Some library and LIS conferences including but not limited to EBLIP, ALISE, CAIS have embraced a longer abstract, but I am most commonly asked to provide 250 words which becomes the document of record for my presentation. The collection of the extended abstract during or following the conference event allows the presenter to ensure the ideas captured are in their final form, and also allows the information to be shared accurately and in the tone and manner that the researcher/presenter intended. Libraries’ increasing role in the management of institutional repository software, which often includes conference modules, makes managing this initiative both simple and accessible for library conferences. It also aligns with our values to make information and research more open and accessible.
For me, a 600-word extended abstract seems much more reliable and robust than a set of visually pleasing slides or a brief abstract created months before. I think such a gesture would help us build on the important ideas, research, and evidence presented at conferences, and of course allow for better citation of these ideas. Here’s a concrete example of this need: I was asked by an article reviewer to cite a conference presentation directly related my topic, that I had not attended, but the slides were available online. I so wanted to acknowledge the ideas but felt very uncomfortable citing something that I had such slight knowledge of and only had a visual glimpse into. I would have felt much more comfortable had I been able to view or access a conference record that was composed as a written—not visual—document, created with the intention of sharing the ideas and interpretations as fully and clearly as possible.
I have been to so many incredible conferences where the presentations have been innovative, robust, and valuable; I worry that the ideas of these scholars are not as accessible, usable, and reliable as they deserve to be.
How do you think we can ensure the valuable knowledge presented at our professional conferences can be shared accurately and reliably?
Doumont, J. L. (2005). The cognitive style of PowerPoint: Slides are not all evil. Technical communication, 52(1), 64-70.
Tufte, E. R. (2003). The cognitive style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.
This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.