I had a student last year, a Russian working in tax accounting, who told me that when asked to give a presentation in Moscow to a large audience of her peers, she asked for a bluetooth microphone and freewheeled around the stage in imitation of the various TED presentations she had watched and enjoyed. The audience reaction, she said, was fairly positive but totally bemused – Russian tax accountants simply do not present like that.
I think it is fair to say that presentations are culturally inflected. Some cultures prefer the information-rich, bullet-pointed style; others the visually rich, impactful style so beloved of TED. I have often found myself urging students to strip unreadable tables of data out of their slides, but I am aware that the alternative is not always appropriate, but can come over as glib or superficial.
On a Thursday (the day our groups present to the school) we get all sorts of styles, but we also get a certain degree of convergence – not because groups are presenting on the same subject, but because they rapidly learn from each other. OISE has its own micro-presenting culture, in other words, which it is to be hoped enshrines certain simple and universal stylistic virtues (of humour, for example, or hands-free engagement with the audience, light-touch use of visuals and so on), but which can also fossilise certain vices or habits: there’s (necessarily) an awful lot of handing over to our colleagues, for example, a lot of broad humour, and an undue but wholly understandable emphasis, sometimes, on accuracy over communicative competence.
Perhaps in the end it is the whole notion of a presentation that is at fault. It is rare to see a good one, and even the good ones are not necessarily the most efficient way of promulgating information. They are either quasi-lectures, or quasi-advertisments. But there they are, inescapably part of the culture. And every so often you see a genuinely good one, even at OISE – a blend of interesting content, wit and, often, idiosyncracy. Such as this, which I watched this week with students, with the excellent Dan Ariely.