THE TEACHING ECONOMIST - William A. McEachern                 

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Issue 38, Spring 2010

William A. McEachern, Editor


The Allied Social Science Associations (ASSA) held their 2010 meetings in icy Atlanta in early January. The record cold kept attendees cocooned in conference hotels linked by sheltered walkways. The 56 organizations of the ASSA range from three that sponsored no sessions in Atlanta to the American Economic Association, which sponsored or co-sponsored 180 sessions. About two thousand speakers presented research over the three days. These meetings were less frantic than those in San Francisco last year, where sessions on the troubled economy were jam-packed and spilled into the hallways.

Most of us earn a living by telling others what we know. The ASSA meetings represent the premier forum for economists to tell their story, make their case, show their ability to think on their feet and communicate. Speakers typically have 10 to 20 minutes to present their research, only about a third of the time available in a typical seminar, workshop, or lecture. Thus, the conference model is the research equivalent of speed-dating. Presentations get compressed and some detail is lost, but it's an efficient way to tell two thousand stories in three days, and most come with a second opinion from discussants. During a typical time block in Atlanta, attendees could choose from among fifty or so sessions.

That's a rich buffet and worth the trip. But it could be better. I'm troubled by the growing use of PowerPoint® and similar slideware at these meetings. Slideware was everywhere in Atlanta. Used judiciously, such as to outline a talk or show derivations, graphs, or data, slides can offer continuity and save precious time. But when slides do the heavy lifting of the presentation and when marching through the slides becomes the primary goal of the talk, the thoughtful exchange of ideas suffers.

Some speakers came with too many slides loaded with too much information. They ended up speeding through them, as their slide shows turned into peep shows, with some slides flashing briefly on the screen. Some speakers put so much of their talk on slides that they more or less read their slides. In the worst case I observed, a presenter read slides word for word, one bulleted sentence after another. It was more reading than speaking, with an emphasis that was a beat too slow. The effect was both distracting and boring. I wondered whether the boring part had something to do with the subject matter. But then a natural experiment unfolded. This turned out to be the only paper I saw that was presented by a tag team. Once the energetic coauthor took over, the slide show ended and the paper came back from the dead.

Experiments by Eric Jamet and Olivier Le Bohec suggest that when written material repeats spoken words, this duplication impairs comprehension as reflected by subsequent retention and transfer (see their "The Effect of Text in Multimedia Instruction,"Contemporary Educational Psychology, Vol. 32, 2007: 588-598). Spoken and written redundancy seems to be a waste of everyone's time.

I'm not against reading a presentation per se. In fact, one of the best I saw in Atlanta was by a reader. But he did it in a way that seemed thoughtful and expressive, more speaking than reading, with good eye contact. And he did it without slides. Yet he gave the audience plenty of guidance (e.g., "here are five considerations..."). I had no trouble following him and taking good notes. So reading itself is not the problem. But effective readers are the exception; most are boring. Even President Barack Obama, considered by many a gifted orator, sometimes seems flat when reading from his teleprompter (hence the comic cadence delivered by his double on Saturday Night Live). Still, who among us believes that Obama's delivery would improve with PowerPoint slides?

Another problem with reading is that you don't have to think much to read, and that usually shows, as with the Atlanta presenter with the poorly timed emphasis. That, incidentally, is the same problem with taking notes from slides rather than from the talk itself; copying requires some attention but little thought. And if you are busy copying, you are listening less. Not much thinking is going on. Rather than take notes from slides, better to listen, process what's being said, then summarize in your notes. In Atlanta, I found it easier to take notes if I ignored word-filled slides.

Another problem with slide shows is that the technology doesn't always work. At several sessions I attended, presenters wrestled with hardware and software glitches. One panel had to borrow a laptop from a Wall Street Journal reporter in attendance. At another session, as one presenter desperately waited for his slide to appear, he was urged by the session chair to go ahead. He was clearly out of his comfort zone, but he had no choice. As it turned out, he did a good job without the slides, so good that when they finally showed up during the talk, they added little. Despite losing a chunk of time at the outset, he finished with time to spare (he couldn't believe it).

Along with the ascent of the slide show has been a decline of the hard-copy paper. At last year's ASSA meetings in San Francisco, at each of the eight sessions I attended, at least one presenter distributed hard copies of the paper or handouts of tables or charts. But this year in Atlanta, none of the 35 or so speakers at the eight sessions I attended offered papers or handouts of any kind (nor did I see any lying around from earlier sessions). I checked with some other attendees and none saw hard copies of papers. Granted, most AEA-sponsored papers are available on the AEA Web site, but no other ASSA organization that I checked posted their papers online. So only about 30 percent of all papers were available at association sites (about the same as last year), but it was not clear during a session which papers would be online. I heard no speaker mention online availability (though some of their papers were available this way).

The lack of hard copies may have contributed to another development. For the first time I heard a discussant lament that he was critiquing slides rather than a paper. Another presenter acknowledged that he came with little more than an idea for a paper. There is value to writing out the story—going through the thought process. Writing disciplines and informs our thinking. As the writer Flannery O'Conner once said "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I write." And a written paper offers the consumer of research a much better vantage point. When I read your writing, I read your mind. Not true with slides.

Slides are seductive because they offer the speaker a security blanket and give the audience something to look at, a bit of a sideshow. I would also argue that slides sometimes offer the illusion of understanding and the illusion that real thinking is going on. But if the speaker more or less reads what's also on the slides, and if an attendee who takes notes relies more on those slides than on the talk itself, the material can move from slides to notepads without passing through the minds of either speaker or note taker. Alternatively, the researcher could instead post copies of slides online beforehand, the potential audience could download them, and then everyone could stay home and avoid sliding around icy Atlanta.

All this reminds me of a Dilbert comic strip that appeared about two weeks after the meetings. While making a slide presentation to his company, Dilbert says in a series of frames, "If we migrate our enterprise applications to the Web, and outsource our sales and product development, the entire company can be managed by one monkey. Plus a second monkey to look at the PowerPoint slides of the first monkey" (1/18/10). As you may know, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert and his monkey business, majored in Economics. Slideware is winning the war of words with no shots being fired. Bullet points, yes; shots, no.

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