Cat chasing laser pointer

Can we just put down the laser pointers please?

Photo © Hey Paul via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0.

I’ve been to three conferences this summer, and seen dozens of talks: some short and some overlong; some riveting and some dull; some good and some bad.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the good talks could be even better, and the bad talks a bit less bad?  There are some difficult ways to accomplish that, but here’s an easy one:  let’s all agree to leave the laser pointers to our cats.

I have to admit that as a piece of technology, the laser pointer is pretty cool. Or at least, the laser inside it is – the physics of producing a coherent and collimated light beam is fascinating.  And the applications!  We can put lasers to use measuring the distance to the moon, triggering hydrogen fusion, cooling atoms into Bose-Einstein condensates, reading DNA sequences, conducting bloodless surgery – or, apparently, pointing at stuff.

When put to use in a talk, a laser pointer isn’t so much a gadget for pointing at things as it is a gadget for pointing out things. In particular, it’s a gadget for:

  • Pointing out how nervous the speaker is. You’ve all seen this: a tiny nervous shake of the hand, amplified by basic geometry, becomes a laser dot that jigs and jags all over the screen, the walls, the ceiling, and the audience. Which, of course, just makes the speaker more nervous still. If you’re a bit nervous giving talks, that’s normal enough (although you needn’t be).  But why use a device that both advertises it and makes it worse?
  • Pointing out how poorly designed the speaker’s slides are. Think about it: if your slides are so complicated that saying “the panel on the left” is still ambiguous, well, you have options other than frenetically and inaccurately circling a little red dot around it.  Powerpoint and its kin (for all the derision heaped on them) are very, very good at this: you can bold something, or circle it, or zoom in on it, or point an arrow at it, or gray everything else out, or – well, you get the idea.  Better still: you can refrain from making your slides that complicated in the first place.  It’s a talk, not a monograph; and there are plenty of good resources to help with the design of simple and effective slides and figures*.

Now, I’m not completely anti-pointing.  If the screen is within reach, it’s not a bad idea to make occasional use of the pointer that evolution has hung from your shoulder.  But the benefit here isn’t so much clarifying a slide as it is getting you out from behind the podium.  A speaker in motion is more engaging than a statue, right?

We all see good talks and bad talks, and give them too.  My own talks aren’t going to win awards, but they’re better than they used to be.  I lay some of my improvement to this:  I used to own a laser pointer, but it quit working about five years ago and I never got around to replacing it. Once this was laziness; but now, it’s a firm belief that a broken laser pointer is the best kind.  Unless, of course, it’s for the cat.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) August 25, 2016.

EDIT: Great minds think alike.  Here’s Joan Strassmann making pretty much the same argument; but in addition she points out that laser pointers can trigger migraines.


*^Including (cough cough) my own book; but the work of Edward Tufte, among others, is better and more comprehensive.  It’s Tufte who said that tables and figures (and by extension, slides) should be designed to give readers the most information “in the shortest time with the least ink” and there’s nothing in there about laser pointers.

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8 thoughts on “Can we just put down the laser pointers please?

  1. Elina Mäntylä

    I don’t like to use laser pointers. One thing is that when laser pointing the slides the speaker is usually not facing the audience and especially if there’s no microphone, it can be difficult to hear what is said.

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  2. Michael James

    Hear, hear. I’ve noticed at recent conferences in my field that use of laser pointers is on the rise, unfortunately. I rarely see any speaker improve a talk with a laser pointer. I also rarely see a speaker whose talk is improved by having slides that build up piece by piece. I think it’s better to have lots of slides with very little on each.

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  3. Eric Lamb

    Having once been hit in the eye by a laser pointer (admittedly not in a talk, but by a toddler playing with her parents keys in the grocery store….), I would be happy to see the end of these infernal devices.

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  4. sleather2012

    In the talk I give to students on how to give a talk I tell the students not to use any sort of pointer under any circumstances. Your slides should be clear enough that you don’t need to turn your back on the audience to point things out and if it is a small bird or insect hidden in a bush that you want to point out then set up your slide so that at the push of the button a circle or arrow appears on the screen and points it out for you! Also of course as you say the pointer exaggerates your shaky hands and is just one more thing to fidget with. When I got my first academic post my Mother bought me an extendable pointer – I have never used it except to demonstrate to students why you shouldn’t use one 🙂

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