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"Better Presentations", by Jonathan Schwabish

Jonathan Schwabish’s book “Better Presentations” is very good. The author wrote this paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives some years ago and I really enjoyed that then. The book expands on the themes of the paper.

He emphasizes the need to better tailor presentations to the audience. He has a simple set of notes to get one started (see the “Better Presentations Worksheet” here). A presentation in a research seminar can go into great depth, but a presentation at a large diverse conference or a presentation to funding providers should not. The less well acquainted people are with the topic, the more important is providing context about one’s research.

The most important point Schwabish makes is his explanation of the pyramid, the inverted pyramid and the hourglass. The pyramid is the traditional form of presentation where you first set the stage by mentioning your research hypothesis, review the literature, then introduce the data, explain your methods and - last - reveal what you find.

Most researchers have by now realized that this is not a good idea. People don’t know where the presentation is headed and what’s important. An alternative model comes from journalism: The inverted pyramid. Start with a bang and tell the reader all about what you’ve found out. And then you keep adding more details later on.

But, as the author points out, you can do both and combine the two to an hourglass structure. You start broad, provide context for who you are, what you’re working on and why. You set the right expectations of what your paper is about. Then go into more details and explain exactly what you’re doing. In the end, you zoom out again: What did we just learn that’s new and why does it matter?

I watch too many people run out of time at the end of their presentation and say, “Let me just quickly show you these two regression tables of robustness tests.” No! The end of your presentation is too important to waste it on a regression table. The audience is most attentive at the beginning and end, so don’t waste those moments on details.

I also learned a number of smaller points:

  • Get rid of bullet points and just start items directly.
  • Cooler colors (blue, green) pull away from you into the page, warmer colors (red, yellow) pop out.
  • Schwabish refutes the idea that you should only have X slides per Y minutes. He considers such metrics too crude and thinks it leads to bad design. It encourages people to put too much text on slides. It’s better to split thoughts into more slides because that’s what slide shows excel at.
  • He recommends breaking the white we normally use as slide background to a light gray. I’ve tried that, but it leads to other problems: Our statistical software draws graphs with white backgrounds, so figures stand out against the gray background and it looks strange. I think it’s overkill to change the background color in every figure we draw and it’s better to just continue using white as the background color.1

In economics, most of us use Latex Beamer and I don’t think we’re doing us a favor with that. It’s great to write equations, so maybe it’s the right choice for theory papers.2 But the majority of papers nowadays have a focus on empirics and include many figures and for these it’s not a good tool: Just try moving your Latex figure a little to the right, try making it full size or try adding a little text on top of your figure. And everything takes so much longer! You type \textit{} for italics and then have to watch your Latex compile … and fail because you’ve mistyped something or have forgotten a curly bracket.

I switched back to PowerPoint a year ago and I much prefer that now. The most tricky thing I find including regression tables from Latex.3 But most of those probably shouldn’t be in our presentations anyway and those that we do include can do with much less information (no standard errors, covariates, R², …) than we put into our papers. In conclude that using Latex Beamer is mostly signaling.

Anyway, the book by Schwabish is great and I recommend it.

References

Schwabish, Jonathan A. (2014). “An Economist’s Guide to Visualizing Data”. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 28(1): 209-234.

Schwabish, Jonathan A. (2016). Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers, and Wonks. Columbia University Press. (link)

  1. Eric points out that (in R) you can use no background color, by adding + theme(plot.background = element_blank(), panel.background = element_blank()) to your ggplot(...)

  2. Whether slide shows are the appropriate way to explain complicated theory is another question. For lectures, I’m positively convinced that it’s inferior to writing equations on the board, as that leads to a slower and more phased-in introduction of new material. 

  3. I now use the for-pay version of Adobe to convert regression tables from pdf to word. In word I can change fonts, then I copy tables and paste them into PowerPoint with right click “Picture”. This works perfectly for me.