Your conference audience doesn’t care about you.

When you give a talk at a conference or present a poster, to what degree is your audience invested in what you’re presenting?  This question occurred to me as I was gabbling away at a poster I was interested in while attending ESEB in Lisbon the week before last.  I was highly motivated by this poster, which touched directly on research that I was doing, but it struck me that of all the times I’ve given talks or presented posters, this level of audience interaction with the material was probably in the minority.  That’s not to say that nobody at your talk cares about your research:  they made the time to show up, so they are obviously (at least somewhat) interested.  But it’s easy to forget that your audience will see a dozen or more talks that day, that they will walk by a hundred posters in a poster session.  In short, their level of engagement with the subject matter of your talk or poster is not nearly the same as yours1.

This effect is captured brilliantly by this pair of tables in the fantastic free online book on typography, Butterick’s Practical Typography 2:

 

Always be ask­ing yourself: what does my read­er want? Because your read­er is quite different from you:

Writer Reader
Attention span Long Short
Interest in topic High Low
Persuadable by oth­er opinions No Yes
Cares about your happiness Yes No

Unfortunately, pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers [ed: read “scientists”] some­times imag­ine that the com­par­i­son looks like this:

Writer Reader
Attention span Long Whatever it takes
Interest in topic High Boundless
Persuadable by oth­er opinions No Barely
Cares about your happiness Yes Of course

The only read­er who might match that de­scrip­tion is your mother.

 

This is the one of the most important reasons why typography, design, and presentation style matter when you’re giving a scientific talk or presenting a poster.  The simple fact is, (most of) your audience doesn’t care about you:  if you make it hard for them to read what you’ve written or understand what you’re saying they will abandon you, even the ones who are interested in your work. Their attention is too limited and pulled in too many directions for them to suffer fools gladly.

Colin Purrington has a great example of a bad poster up on his blog:

It burns! (Click through for large version)

 

Colin has a great roundup of why this poster is terrible that I won’t recap here (it’s a good read all on its own, so go check it out).  But the point is that when faced with this sort of visual mess, people will simply give up and walk away.  You may have the most interesting science in the world, but if you make it this hard for people to read it, they won’t.  Your audience doesn’t care about you the way that you do.

So, you owe it to yourself and to science to go out there and learn some of the basics.  Where can you find out more?  There’s dozens of resources out there, but here’s a few from my pile of links:

Go forth, my minions, and do better!

 

  1. This is exemplified by that academic in the back of the room, writing their own paper on their laptop while attending your talk.
  2. have you not read this?  Go read it, now.  At least the section entitled ‘typography in 10 minutes‘.  Seriously, go do it.  I’ll wait