Saturday, 5 February 2011

Pointless Presentations and Inert Information

Pulpit Rock, near Ardlui (on the banks of Loch Lomond)

During an Art and Design conference I attended recently I had the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data that was being transmitted and I began to question the point of trying to commit any of it to memory. Perhaps the event should simply have been reduced in range and scale, but it seems to me that there's another perspective one could take on the situation. Imagine that instead of focusing on the dissemination of volumes of information, greater emphasis had been placed upon the feeling generated by each presentation and that, in addition, a few vital questions had been raised. Information is only ever valuable if we can use it, otherwise it’s simply an accretion which serves little purpose other than to obstruct or overcomplicate understanding.

The common flaw shared by many of these presentations was an insufficient consideration of the underlying question/s or issues which the information was intended to address or respond to. Most of it was simply descriptive rather than propositional or discursive and, as such, could be disregarded. It was pointless, inert.

“…my custom whenever I am invited to speak in some place, to develop some consequences of my views which I expect to be unacceptable to the particular audience. For I believe that there is only one excuse for a lecture: to challenge.” –Karl Popper

Many of the presentations involved a narrative of some kind, and narratives, as we know, have the power to draw us in on an emotional level. Unfortunately however, the emotional tenor of these presentations had been almost entirely extricated. It was as if the presenters distrusted this and were denying it in preference for chronology or other forms of superficial flow.

Has passion become so intrinsically suspect that people would rather ignore or repress it than risk the accusation of emotional embellishment or manipulation? Certainly, an emotional tone or delivery can be used to persuade or deceive and we should be vigilant about such things but does this mean that presenters have to surgically remove it from their presentations? And do we therefore face a future of conferences and academic presentations full of monotone facts and figures?

I’m more than willing to accept that we don’t need a wave of emotionally laden presentations – I couldn’t think of anything worse. Far better would be surprising, challenging or provocative information because it’s surprising, challenging and provocative stuff that demands an effort of consideration on the audience’s part. Surprise, in this sense, is the foundation of learning: when we are surprised there’s an opportunity for something new to be understood.

So if we want people to engage, then a little challenging information allied to some genuine conviction wouldn’t go amiss. After all, if we care about what we’re presenting, then it makes sense not to conceal our passion too thoroughly, otherwise our audience is likely to suspect that we’re either bored, or simply wish to string them along for the ride. Meanwhile they’ll either be happily daydreaming or wondering why we couldn’t make our presentation a little more stimulating.


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