New Ideas in Academic Presentations: PICO at the EGU

I’ve been deliberately vague about the research I do, since I’m trying to remain at least somewhat anonymous for now, but it’s in the realm of geosciences, and after a side trip, I’ve come back from the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna. This year, the EGU introduced a new type of presentation: along with the traditional oral and poster presentation styles, they added the PICO (Presenting Interactive Content) as an attempt to bridge the gap between the two. Here’s the official EGU video explaining the format:

PICO presentations have two parts: first there is a rapid-fire string of two minute/two slide talks by all the presenters in a session, and then there is a block of time where presenters can give a longer, more in-depth and informal presentation on one of the large touch screens in the area. Audience members can scan through the full presentations on the screens themselves, and presenters can circulate and solicit feedback on their work.

The first part serves as an elevator pitch: ideally, it gives a quick sketch of the presenter’s work, and entices the audience to listen to the full presentation. The second part allows for the presenter to get direct feedback from the audience, gives the presenters a focussed audience (since they can seek out the presentations that interested them, rather than milling through hundreds of posters), and increases the range of visual aids available. In many ways, it combines the best parts of oral and poster presentations, and I think it’s got a lot of potential.

But it’s a new format of communication in a realm where new and innovative methods of communication are few and far between, and from what I saw, this format was largely a missed opportunity. The two minute talk seemed to throw people the most: rather than editing their material severely for the pitch, many people put every detail into their slides. I saw slides with half a dozen paragraphs, half a dozen figures, and a few with both. Even on a giant projection screen, it’s unreadable, and when it’s flashed for a minute, it’s a detriment to the presentation. If I tried to focus on even one thing on the screen, I tuned out what the presenter was saying. Visual aids should be just that: aids. They should support communication, and here communication is not throwing every detail at the wall and seeing what sticks.

The longer presentations were generally better, but I thought many of them read as “powerpoint slides that accompany a oral presentation” rather than a presentation which can stand on its own (in case an audience member flips through it on their own) as well as a guide or aid for the presenter for a full, informal talk. Since this was a new format, I suspect no-one really knew what to do with it, but I think that it’s an opportunity to try something new, rather than reverting to old approaches.

One of the really powerful things with this format is that it makes it much easier to build a presentation that’s interesting and accessible to a range of audiences. I can’t be the only person who wanders in to sessions on things I know little about but sound interesting, but often I wind up confused and/or bored in those sessions because the presenter, not unreasonably, assumes that their audience is familiar with their field and adjusts their level of detail and jargon accordingly. But even for an audience of peers, a two minute talk is not the time for fussy details and specificity, so ideally the elevator pitch component would be accessible to a wide audience, encouraging people to come at least get a zeroth-order approximation to what people are doing in fields beyond their own.

But the real flexibility comes in with the longer presentation with the touch screens. Most of the people I saw at these presentations flipped through presentations on their own (maybe with two or three other people) even when they were talking with the presenter. The very small audience size and the electronic medium means that the presentation doesn’t have to flip linearly: the presenter can give an accessible, jargon free presentation, and where there are more details relevant to people who work on related topics, can put a link that says “Click here for more details” that leads to a side branch that contains details or data. This way the details are there for people who care about them, and interested audience members can ask or investigate, but they don’t clog up the presentation for people who don’t care about them.

This structure means you can reach a wider audience with a single presentation, which at a scientific conference, is obviously important. It also makes the presenter think about what’s essential information and what’s fussy details, and to think about how to effectively communicate that. To be clear, I’m not saying fussy details have no place in academic presentations — science is about details and precision, and that precision is important in communication too. But someone with no previous knowledge of your work won’t be able to understand your work effectively if the way it’s communicated is all details. I’m also not saying that I’ve cracked the code for academic presentations: while I think I’m improving, I still often use too many words and too many unnecessary details in my presentations. I think giving a PICO talk, which made me think about how to strip my work down to the bare bones for the two minute part, was a very helpful exercise.

But from what I (very informally) gathered, the reaction to the format was mixed. I’m interested to see whether the EGU uses it again next year, and if it does, what adjustments (if any) they make to it. I’m also curious to what extent the hesitance to embrace the format (or at least what I perceived as hesitance) are influenced by the wider-spread reluctance to avoid short, snappy talks for fear of them either TED-ifying or oversimplifying the material.

Somewhat relatedly, there’s a recent post on University Affairs criticizing the Three Minute Thesis competition:

For me, the 3MT [Three Minute Thesis] certainly prompted the question of whether academic researchers should be in the business of embracing an era of short attention spans, a world in which you should be able to say something succinctly or not at all.

To my mind, this isn’t an either/or sort of thing: it’s quite possible, and very useful, to be able to communicate the essential gist of an idea as well as the fully developed idea laden with nuance and detail, and both tacks are useful in different situations and for different audiences. PICO presentations are set up to highlight both tacks, which forces presenters to approach their material differently than traditional presentations. Much of the criticism of the Three Minute Thesis competition in the piece seems to be that people do it badly, and I’d argue that that’s incentive to do *more* of these sorts of talks, not less. I can’t speak for all academics, for sure, but there’s little formal emphasis put on developing communication skills, written or oral. Neither are skills that everyone naturally has, so having more venues and opportunities to learn how to be an engaging communicator are useful. (I do, however, agree with the author that grant money should not be tied to these sorts of competitions.)

To that end, the EGU’s new format has even more potential, since it’s not a complete jump to the slick world of snappy ideas. It encourages people from outside the field to sit in — my session comprised of three completely distinct topics, and I’d’ve never gone to either of the other two topics’ talks had they not been bundled with mine. But most importantly, it’s a way to get academics thinking differently about communication, and communication beyond their peers. To that end, I hope the EGU keeps the format and expands the number of sessions that use it.

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