By Dr. Carmen Simon

“In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality. Geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science–among them existence itself–become problematized and relativized.”

This is an excerpt from an article on quantum gravity written by Alan Sokal, professor of physics at New York University. Mr. Sokal submitted this article to a leading academic journal, which published it quickly, without much scrutiny. Because the information appeared sophisticated and intelligent, the editors failed to notice that the article was in fact a parody meant to test and trick them. You can imagine the resulting controversy. If you Google “Sokal hoax,” you can learn more about the lack of intellectual rigor and the “anything goes” approach to information distribution.

The Sokal affair, as labeled by Google, prompted me to reflect on the concept of superficiality and how it relates to presentations. How often do we create presentations that look and sound good but are in fact cognitively opaque? How often do we design presentations by staying near the surface? How often do we sacrifice depth and rigor for the sake of expediency?

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After creating and completing thousands of presentations, I am noticing a trend toward substance abuse: we sometimes provide too little information, thinking we are doing audiences a favor; or we provide too much unfiltered information. Most of this superficiality happens because we are often in a rush to deliver and don’t have the time or the energy to devote to thorough analysis. How do we avoid this situation?

1.  Be cautious of forced brevity, which breeds superficiality. I am always surprised when people tell others things like “You have to present topic x in 3 slides.” You have to admit the frustrating complexity in some fields. Or they may say, “We are looking for some simple rules in topic x.” In some areas, there are no simple rules. Many topics are complicated and situational. Don’t oversimplify them. If you have a strong connection with a complex topic, stay strong on your position on needing more time/space to explain its

2.  Assume accountability. Often, we deliver presentations on the surface “because the client/boss asked for it that way.” These circumstances lead to the erosion of individual accountability. It is tempting to blame the environment (“The Marketing Department told us to do it this way”) because it absolves us of any personal responsibility. The problem with this victim mentality is that the more we believe we don’t have control over our environment and the level of detail we provide in presentations, the more undisciplined we become. I strongly urge you: do not join the generation of “whatever” presenters. Find messages you believe in, and don’t compromise on the amount of depth needed to do them justice.

3.  Balance immediate action with quiet reflection. We give our audiences too little or too much unfiltered information because we are often in a rush. The hurried lifestyle of customers and supervisors pushes us to deliver quickly, often sacrificing balance and validity. Because of time constraints, we bypass discipline and look for shortcuts. Developing presentations too fast is like vacuuming too fast: you miss stuff. Take your time to understand the content, at least for those presentations that are important to your business. Reserve enough time to share your thoughts with others whom you consider your guardians for depth of thought, content validity, and reliability.

When your presentation rests on being superficial, it does both your audience and your message a disservice. Be willing to dig deeper into a complex topic, as long as you don’t overwhelm audience members, and avoid superficial presentations. Discover more ways to use brain science to create memorable presentations at our 3-hour virtual workshop on December 9th. Register here.

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