Presentation matters

10th May, 2008

Dear Economist,
I have been invited to give a presentation at a conference. Naturally, I’d like to look as good as possible. I have been given some flexibility over length, topic, timing and so on. What advice can you give me, and is it best for me to open or close the proceedings?
Jeremy L, London

Dear Jeremy,

Anyone can tell you the obvious stuff: don’t use boring bullet-point slides and keep it simple. Obvious, but most people, at the expense of their audience, ignore this advice.

Let me instead focus on a less-obvious insight, discovered by the economist Lionel Page and his wife, the psychologist Katie Page. The Pages looked at years of results from talent contests such as X-Factor and American Idol, in which contestants perform and viewers vote as to who they’d like to see again.

The Pages were able to measure whether it was an advantage to appear first or last, or immediately after a flop or a show-stopper. Because most singers appeared several times, the Pages could take account of the fact that the show’s producers might deliberately open and close with strong performers. In effect, they looked at what happened to the same contestant when they appeared earlier or later.

The bottom line is that it’s OK to go first but better to go last. A partial explanation is that these acts are easier to remember. Obscurity doesn’t seem to attract you, so make sure you’re closing the show.

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