I want a refund for your conference presentation

There is a problem with academic criminal justice and criminology, and it’s getting worse.

I’ve attended several conferences and meetings in the last three months. And the standard of presentation is deteriorating.

Ok, my girlfriend calls me a curmudgeon, and she is probably right. It’s probably been like this for ages. But conferences are expensive and my students and police colleagues bust a gut to get there. Students, adjunct faculty, instructors – they often spend their own money to attend. And cops and other professionals frequently have to take vacation days. All of them make a significant commitment. Unfortunately, it is clear that too many academics can’t be bothered to make an equivalent effort.

Look, I get it, you are busy with research, grading, supervision, slow-death-by-committee, inflicting wisdom on students, and plotting the early death of reviewer #2. But communicating is part of the job, and conferences can reach a greater audience than your draft article for the Bangladeshi Journal of Sheep Stealing and Criminology that probably won’t get accepted anyway. So please make more of an effort. Here are some pointers:

Have something to talk about. You aren’t so star-spangled awesome that we are hanging on your every random thought. There are only a handful of academics in the field who have an opinion that’s truly insightful. Chances, are it’s not you (or me). The rest of us should bring data/facts/analysis/interpretation. Academic departments don’t fund students to hear random, often unprepared thoughts. That’s what Twitter is for.

Think about what the audience wants. Too many presentations follow the same format as a journal article, but that can make for a dull talk. It’s about satisfying the needs of the audience with the results and takeaways. Have a structure that makes sense for a presentation, and don’t forget the ‘so what?’ If you cut and paste in that table because you felt that you had to, even though you don’t really know why, then take it out. We don’t care about a page full of statistical output in your presentation – or your poster.

Learn PowerPoint. Since when did it become a badge of honor to be lousy at the tools of the trade? Communication is supposed to be part of the job, yet too many academics take pride in being bad at PowerPoint. Sure, you don’t need it, but if you use it, learn how to put together a decent presentation. Your smug “my ideas are too ground-breaking for PowerPoint” shtick is getting old, and it’s an insult to the paying public.

No equations. Unless your talk is about your equation for life, the universe and everything (and equals 42) then no equations. Also, no statistics, don’t use all capitals, no whole paragraphs, no more than 6 bullet points, no illegible fonts below size 16, no stupid color choices that make text impossible to read, and no tables unless really necessary. You remember when you said “you probably can’t read that at the back” last time? Yeah, I’m talking to you.

Have some energy in your presentation. Unless you have a disability or have been “networking” a little too enthusiastically, stand up to present. At the very least, the people at the back of the room can see you. And try and summon some enthusiasm in your voice. You aren’t lecturing to your 10am theory class – people left their families and made a real effort to come see you talk.

Prepare and practice. When you run out of time less than half way through your presentation, it’s clear you didn’t respect the audience enough to make a modicum of effort. You threw together some random thoughts, didn’t practice and phoned it in. Can I get a refund?

Stick to your time. Your ideas are probably not so ‘theory of relativity’ groundbreaking that they merit taking up 20 minutes of other presenters’ time. After all, we came to hear them, not you. And finally…

Mentor your students. When I see a lousy student presentation, I always want to know who is the faculty supervisor. Because they have to shoulder much of the blame. If you can’t take the time to look through your student’s slides and watch a practice presentation or two, then you are abusing your tenure privileges by setting an awful example.

Look, nobody’s perfect, and I’ve probably broken all of these pointers more than once. Only the mediocre are at their best every day. But if we don’t lift our game as a field, we will continue to be irrelevant to policy makers and the public. When students that practice and put in effort put their professors to shame, then things have to change. And it starts with you (and me).