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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Are You Talking to Me?


Communications Editor-in-Chief Moshe Y. Vardi

I recently attended a rather theoretical computer-science conference, and sat, as is my habit, in the front row. The speaker was trying to convey the fine details of a rather intricate mathematical construction. I was hopelessly lost. At that point I found the talk indistinguishable from Doug Zongker's celebrated "Chicken Chicken Chicken" talk presented at the 2007 AAAS Humor Session (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL_-1d9OSdk). Looking behind me to see how other attendees were reacting to the highly dense presentation, I was greeted by a wall of laptop screens; people were busily reading their email.

At the business meeting that evening, I asked "How many people could follow 100% of 100% of the talks?" Silence. "80% of 80%?" One brave soul responded positively. It was only when I got to "50% of 50%" that about 50% of the participants raised their hands. Of course, this statistic should not be taken too seriously, but, nevertheless, I found it shocking! About 100 people are spending four days attending talks, and only 50% understand 50% of 50% the talks? What is the point of this futile exercise?

I am reminded of Lance Fortnow's pithy description of a computer-science conference as "a journal that meets at a hotel." Indeed, if the point of the conference is simply to score a prestigious publication, then attending the conference and giving a talk is just a hurdle that one must overcome as a condition of publication. As I pointed out in my May 2011 editorial, "Technology Has Social Consequences," many conferences eliminated face-to-face program-committee meetings in the late 1990s to save travel expenses and hassle. Why don't we take the next logical step and virtualize our conferences in the name of efficiency?

I am not serious, of course. I actually like conferences very much. I believe they are a critical component of the scientific enterprise. Science is a social undertaking. For most of us, our scientific social network is truly global. Meeting at conferences is the only way to maintain our links, learn what is happening, and tell others about our latest and greatest. While some of the activity of a conference happens in coffee breaks and hallways, its core activity takes place in the lecture halls, and this activity better be effective, which means the talks better be clear, informative, and interesting. Why is it then that we put so much attention on ensuring the quality of the papers, and so little attention on ensuring the quality of the talks?

There are many ways in which we can attempt to improve the quality of conference talks. Some of these measures are easy and obvious. For example, graduate students should be taught that preparing a good talk is quite different from, though equally important as, writing a good paper. They should never give a conference talk without some dry runs with brutally honest feedback from their advisor and fellow students. Also, for their first few conference talks, graduate students should be video-recorded. Many will be rather shocked when seeing and hearing themselves for the first time. This advice applies not only to graduate students. While students often make the rookie mistake of trying to tell the audience everything in their paper, rather than tell the audience about their paper, they are not the only ones giving poor talks.

Conferences should, in my opinion, take active measures to improve presentation quality. A radical proposal would be to require authors to submit not only papers but also video recordings of their talks. The quality of those presentations would be considered in making program decisions. Less radical a move is to require authors to send draft presentations before the conference, and receive feedback from their session chairs. It should also be relatively easy to augment conference-management systems with feedback pages where conference participants can give speakers anonymous feedback on their presentations. (That would give attendees something constructive to do during poor presentations!)

At some conferences, I have raised the issue of poor presentations, and encountered unwillingness by conference officials to take any concrete measure. I am told my proposals are "too intrusive," which is truly puzzling. We manage conference programs with an iron hand, often ruffling many feathers by (sometimes controversial) program decisions. Why are we suddenly "kinder and gentler" when it comes to presentation quality? If conferences are important, then we ought to treat them as more than "journals meeting at hotels" and make sure the time we spend attending them is well spent.

Moshe Y. Vardi, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF


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Comments


Andrea Omicini

Typically, those conferences and meetings that really represent a (dynamic, growing) scientific community in some way have the best "performance" under this respect. However, this happens more often for small conferences or high-quality workshops, and just for few years: huge, long-lasting conferences have typically a too-wide audience to make it possible for most people to really understand the intricacies of research issues that are quite distant from their interests and competences, particularly when presented in a few slides.
However, while I share the concern that we should do something about the matter, I have to admit that after nearly 20 years of scientific meetings I am quite satisfied when find at least a couple of presentations per day that really mean something for me. This is usually enough to give new insights, even new directions, for my research--and to make my money and my time well spent, at the end of the day :)


Anonymous

I strongly disagree with this article.

also lots of subtle racism here
(see the cowardly
anonymous guy August 28, 2011 about asians
not speaking good english)

its not just asians who speak english poorly.

in my experience some of
the worst speakers of english are the non-british europeans.

please get used to the fact that asians (chinese and indians) are contributing a lot to this field!

we do speak english differently, there is
nothing that can be done unless one spends a lot of time on presentations
alone - i believe it is our duty to do
good research first and foremost

Dr. Giriprasad Sridhara


Anonymous

Rather than enforce, give incentives: we could award an award for the best presentation, and another one (which can be awarded to several authors) for the worst presentation.


Moshe Vardi

As a person with a heavy foreign accent in English, I am offended that an editorial on quality of presentations, which makes no references to mastery of English, is viewed as subtly racist.


Anonymous

An a big 'Amen' from me! The only consolation I can offer ANYONE (and it's cold comfort, I know!) is that we often get brought in my universities to help their staff and students make better presentations. Imagine how much worse it would be if we didn't! :)

Simon Raybould


Robert Okajima

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the February 2012 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/2/145403).
--CACM Administrator

Moshe Y. Vardi's Editor's Letter "Are You Talking to Me?" (Sept. 2011) really spoke to me. I have been frustrated by conference presentations that promise so much in their titles and abstracts but get lost in the presenter's delivery. If it is "too intrusive" for conference organizers to require video drafts of presentations, then possibly suggesting preference will be given to presenters who first document their presentation skills training, through, say, a course on public speaking, Toastmasters International membership, or other supporting details. Toastmasters can lead to an initial certification as a "competent communicator." One would hope competent communication is a basic goal of every presenter at every technical conference.

August Schau
Lewiston, ME


Robert Okajima

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the February 2012 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2012/2/145403).
--CACM Administrator

I could not agree more with Moshe Y. Vardi's Editor's Letter (Sept. 2011). Those who stand before a technical conference, especially a prestigious one, should appreciate they are taking part in a theatrical performance.

The ACM SIGPLAN conference on the History of Programming Languages held in Cambridge, MA, in 1993 was one such event. My written paper was long, with copious examples and all sources meticulously referenced. My spoken presentation was an entirely separate project. I edited over and over, presenting it to my tape recorder many times, then checking the timing. My script was annotated with the elapsed time (to within 10 seconds) where I should be at each stage. I indicated where I intended to give particular emphasis to some point and inserted stage directions to guide my presentation of each slide.

Those slides were brief, except where I deliberately intended to exemplify the stupidity of some complicated verbiage or indicate the style of some text rather than its content. The aide operating the projector had a copy of my script, so if the slides got out of synch (which they nearly did at one point) he could easily get us back on track.

At one point, after describing a particularly important issue, I put up the slide with the result of the vote, then stood back and said nothing, letting the audience absorb the consequences of the entirely unexpected result, which they duly did.

My stopwatch sat before me so I could check my progress. Thus when the increasingly agitated chairman passed me warning notes "5 mins left," "3 minutes," "1 MINUTE!" I happily ignored him and carried on. I reached my denouement with fully 10 seconds to spare. The response from the audience clearly showed my message had indeed got across.

I was followed on the podium by Niklaus Wirth describing his language PASCAL. He had a fine paper to present but no separate presentation so just read the paper as submitted, with the difference obvious to all.

During the post-presentation Q&A, Doug Ross of SofTech Inc. stood up and complained about my omission of his stance on some particular issue, but I was able later to show him in the main paper (which he had not read) the corresponding text describing that very matter, in slightly more detail, including reference to his dissenting view.

This was all an effort to put into a presentation but a matter of passionate concern to me, so I was happy to do it. I didn't do all my presentations this way but always viewed them as theatrical performance, aimed at helping people understand my material.

Charles H. Lindsey
Cheadle, U.K.


Robert Okajima

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the December 2011 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2011/12/142534).
--CACM Administrator

Moshe Y. Vardi's Editor's Letter "Are You Talking to Me?" (Sept. 2011) said conference attendees are sometimes unable to follow speakers' presentations and eventually give up trying. So how about if ACM and IEEE would run an experimental conference where session chairs are expected to ask questions during presentations when they themselves lose track or when audience members clearly stop paying attention. Note such an experiment would have to be done without undue disruption and not allowed to reflect on a particular speaker.

The biggest trade-offs would be the extra time presentations might require and the possibility of upsetting overly sensitive speakers. However, they could be addressed experimentally, initially at small, highly technical conferences with flexible break periods and by selecting only expert, personable chairs to manage the sessions.

Robin Williams
San Jose, CA

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AUTHOR'S RESPONSE

I agree that ACM and IEEE conferences should experiment to improve the quality of their talks. Some ideas can be implemented fairly easily, as in, say, asking conference attendees to give anonymous feedback to speakers. However, one must keep in mind that conferences are grassroots operations, and experiments cannot be dictated by association governing bodies. Rather, the effort to improve conference talks must be undertaken by conferences on their own initiative.

Moshe Y. Vardi
Editor-in-Chief


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