Public Service Announcement: How to use a laser pointer

It’s time for a little grumbling.

As a graduate student at a Big Research University, I go to a lot of seminars. Mostly, these seminars (besides informing me about whatever research these people’s graduate students are currently doing) have taught me a lot about how NOT to give a presentation. They might be boring, they might not have enough intro, their slides might be too busy. Sometimes, you get someone who is a very good speaker and that is a treat.

One of the things that annoys me the most about seminars is the way people move the laser pointer around like a crazy person. I am not talking about what happens if your hands shake when you’re nervous so that you’re pointing with a shaky dot (if that happens, though, keep your arm close to your body and hold your pointing hand steady with your other hand). I’m talking about flagrant misuse of the laser pointer. These abuses come in several categories:

The Sing-Along in which the presenter must be thinking: “C’mon everyone, let’s say the words all together–just following the bouncing pointer dot! I will point out each word as I say it so you can read it too!” This abuse is characterized by the presenter pointing to every word on the slide. The last time I had someone point to every word as I read them, I think I was in first grade. Really, I can read without you pointing to the words and frankly, it’s distracting.

The Circling Pointer of Death in which the presenter must be thinking: “To draw your attention to this figure, I’m going to circle it with the laser pointer over and over and over again!” I’m not sure what the purpose is of rapidly circling an object (or sometimes a word, this phenomenon often accompanies The Sing-Along) 20 or 30 times with the pointer, but I swear to you, I noticed it the first time you circled it.

The Laser Light Show in which the presenter must be thinking: “Hand-waving is better when accompanied by a laser pointer.” In this case, the presenter is wildly swinging the pointer all over the slide. They are not so much pointing at things as trying to write all over them with a bright red dot. It has the effect of making me watch the dot traveling all over the screen and completely ignore what is being projected onto the screen. Which may be the point.

The Movie Re-enactment in which the presenter must be thinking: “There’s no way the people in the back can see that brightly labeled GFP spot as it moves about the cell, so I am going to put my laser pointer right on it.” Frankly, I think this is the most egregious of the offenses. The others, I think, mostly owe their existence to presentation anxiety, but in this case the person has complete control over their pointer hand, and they are trying to be helpful, but what they have achieved is the exact opposite. What in God’s name was the point of labeling your object with GFP if you are just going to put the laser pointer right on it? You are obscuring your data! I would love to see the thing you are pointing at, but your pointer is in the way!

My advisor has a good policy regarding laser pointers. Think of the pointer as an extension of your arm, as if it were an actual wooden pointer stick of old. Would you be wildly waving such a thing all over the screen during the middle of your talk? Probably not, if only because your arm would get very tired. Would you point to every word on your slide? Not unless you were teaching your audience how to read. The trick to doing this is to position the pointer, press the button to point out whatever it is you want to point out, then LET GO OF THE DAMN BUTTON.

Thank you.