So You Got Accepted To Present at a Sports Analytics Conference

First of all, congratulations if you got accepted. Kudos to you if you got accepted to a conference like RITSAC, a very well run and well curated conference. This is a wonderful accomplishment, and you should be proud. Tell your friends and family. Celebrate. Bask in the adoration.

Well, maybe not that last part. But you get my point. Your work clearly has some perceived value and is based on solid reasoning and data analysis.

So now what?

If this was simply about thorough and technically sound data analysis, you could have just written this up, published it on a blog, and been done with it. But no, presenting at a conference is about providing your audience with more than they could just get from reading your write-up of the results.

And that is actually your first tip: don’t just write up your results in slide format and think you’re ready to present. No one is going all the way to RITSAC to watch you read something off a screen. Give them something more.

Hopefully the rest of this post can help you do just that.

It used to be said that “information is power,” but in today’s world information is just more noise. What we need are people that can analyze and interpret data and information into insights, and, most importantly, communicate them well.

In essence, there are two elements of an impactful presentation that your audience will remember and take away with them: the content and the delivery. Both are equally important.

Content

Let’s start with the content. Sure, you did a lot of work and boiled it down into the abstract you submitted, and it was accepted so that’s what you’ll present. But chances are, that still leaves a lot of leeway about what you actually talk about during your 15 minutes of fame.

Yes, you may have specific results or findings to present, but the context and the way you explain those results will have a significant impact on how they are received. To this end, you should consider these three elements: 

  1. Know your audience. Who are they and what do they want? What can you give them? Think about your presentation as if you were in the audience. And I mean really think about. Think back to other conferences you have attended, not even sports analytics conferences. What were you be expecting when you went into sessions? What presenters did you like? What did they do? What presentations do you still remember to this day? Why?
  2. Know what you want to get out of this opportunity. What do you you want to happen as a result of your presentation? What do you want people to do with the insights you give them? Maybe you have multiple goals. Be strategic. Tailor your content to meet your objective.
  3. To get your message across, you need well curated content that is distilled down to simple messages. You probably have huge amounts of data, and hundreds of lines of code, and really fancy graphs. Congratulations. But I guarantee you no one is going to remember them after they leave. What they will remember are the few simple points that you construct your presentation around. Every piece of data or example that you provide should reinforce those points; if it doesn’t, don’t include it.     

So if some element of your presentation does not support your key messages, or what you want to get out of this, or what your audience wants to know, then leave it out. When it comes to getting your point across, less is definitely more.

Persuasion and storytelling

Ok, now that you know what you are going to say, let’s spend some time thinking about how you’re going to say it.

When it comes to preparing presentations, probably one of the most prevalent ideas is that one should build up facts to support the conclusion in a linear fashion.

Traditional Linear Presentation

Presentations based on data and analysis are even more likely to be structured in this way. We are so conditioned to this type of approach when writing up findings that we think it’s also the best way to be persuasive when communicating in person.

But if you think back to the things you have learned or that really stuck with you from a presentation or speech you attended, chances are that you will remember the ideas from speakers that told a story more than those that just threw numbers and facts at you. I often like to bring up System 1 and System 2 thinking when discussing decision-making process. In that context, the deliberate and rational System 2 approach that engages the prefrontal cortex is preferable to System 1, which involves the much faster, intuitive thinking processes of the limbic system that are ruled by emotions.

While System 2 is preferable when you are making decisions, when you are are trying to be persuasive, you want your audience to stay in System 1. As soon as you throw data and facts at your audience, and ask them to start reasoning, you engage System 2 and their rational brain will start trying to counter your facts and pick holes in your reasoning.

Stories, however, help to bypass System 2 and go straight to the limbic brain. A well crafted story will engage the emotional side of the brain, which doesn’t need as many facts to be persuaded. We will learn much more from an entertaining and passionate speaker that engages us on an emotional level.

Think about the iPhone in your pocket, and the fervor with which some people talk about Apple. When Steve Jobs first introduced those products, he didn’t dwell on technical details. It was about getting you to imagine the feeling of having a thousand songs in your pocket.

And that’s the key to using storytelling as a form of persuasion: your story not only needs to relate to your audience and be relevant to the topic at hand, but it can’t be bereft of facts and details. In contrast to the linear, fact-based traditional approach to most technical presentations shown above, the most persuasive and memorable presentations will have elements of storytelling with facts sprinkled into the narrative:

Communication through Storytelling

When building your presentation using this approach, it is important to consider these four steps:

  1. Write the ending first. Everything else in your presentation should lead to the big finish at the end. If it doesn’t support the conclusion, don’t include it.
  2. Find a story that supports and/or leads to your conclusion. Have an insight about the importance of zone entries? Tell the story about how a team used a perfect entry to produce a winning goal in playoff overtime. Think teams should be more aggressive offensively on the penalty kill? Tell a story about a team that rode the PK to success in the standings. Etc.
  3. Hang your facts and supporting data off the story. Use different elements of the story to talk about the different aspects of your research, analysis and findings.
  4. Use the beginning of your talk to set the stage. Tell the audience where you’re headed and what they’ll find when you get there. If you leave them hanging, there’s a risk they’re going to be sitting there trying to figure it out while you’re talking. If System 2 is engaged, they aren’t listening.

Visuals and preparation

I want to end with a discussion of the presentation itself, which means what does it look like on screen and how are you delivering it.

When it comes to the actual slides that you use as a backdrop to your talk, remember that that is the key. The slides are there to illustrate what you are saying. They are not meant to repeat what you are saying. They are not your speaking notes, and they are not the audience’s notes to take away. If you want them to have notes, put a copy of your written remarks online.

Here are some basic tips for the look and feel of your presentation:

  • Do not use your slides as speaking notes. I will guarantee you that your audience will read them much faster than you, and they will not be listening to you while they are doing it. They probably won’t even be listening to you after they’re done reading them either, because you are just repeating what they already read.
  • Use full-screen images that support your speaking points, and perhaps even evoke an emotional connection to your story. Find high resolution images that don’t have to be stretched. If you do resize them, make sure it’s proportional so they don’t look stretched in one direction.
  • Minimize the amount of text on your slides. A simple tip is that no text should be smaller than 30pt font size. If it is, you probably have two much text on the slide and your audience will have trouble reading it. Use text to emphasize what you are saying, not replace it.
  • No bullet points. Ever. If you have multiple points that you felt you have to show on the screen in writing, put each one on its own slide. The more text you have on screen, the more your audience will be reading and not listening to you.
  • Simplify the data on your charts. Show just enough data to illustrate the point you are making, and only the point you are making. The more data you put on a chart, the more your audience will be analyzing it, drawing their own conclusions, and not listening to you.

Finally, a few words about your delivery and how to prepare.

There is widely cited research by Albert Mehrabian in the communications industry, which found that the physical (55%) and vocal (38%) aspects of a presenter have a much bigger impact on the audience’s perceptions of the speaker than the actual verbal content (7%). And that judgement is usually made within the first few seconds of the talk.

So how do you manage those expectations? The most important thing is to be confident and passionate about what you are saying. I can tell you that you should just remember that you are the expert on your research and findings, and you know more about it than anyone else in the room. But the best way to improve your confidence and how you carry yourself at the podium is to practice, practice, practice.

Once you have your content and slides done, run through it as many times as you can before the day of the presentation. If time is short, at the very least you should practice the first five minutes (for yourself), and the last five minutes (for your audience). If you nail the beginning and the end, it almost doesn’t matter what happens in the middle.

Hopefully by following these suggestions you’ll have the confidence to get up there and knock the audience’s socks off. At least that beats having to imagine them naked.

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One thought on “So You Got Accepted To Present at a Sports Analytics Conference

  1. As a person who does speaking engagements this is an invaluable article. It’s easy to use your slides as aides rather than key accessories. I fall into this trap often and have started from the beginning more than once. Save this and read it before each presentation you make.

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