Insiders, Outsiders & Good Talks: The WEA, Part 3

To conclude with from our previous posts about what sports economists are like and six cutting edge papers, when I look across all of the research and discussion at the WEA I want to call out a few of the major themes I thought were really interesting. They all point to growth areas for this work in the future.

These academic presentations were somewhat effective.


As I have said, I was the only non-academic at this event. When thinking about how effectively each economist presented their work, I do feel I need to be mindful that their intended audience is not people like myself.

For the audience of academics at hand, my sense is that almost every presentation met expectations by thoroughly presenting their theory, some details of their research approach, and their findings and conclusions. Almost all of them also did a good job commenting on the state of progress of the work–that is, is it preliminary and rough or nearly finished or already accepted for publication. These things helped the audience determine how to comment appropriately.

One specific comment I would offer presenters in the future is to recognize the difference between their paper and their presentation. These two means serve different ends. Given the format of a 15-minute verbal presentation aided by slide projection, I question why most of the math and statistics are included up on the screen in a way that is difficult to follow when the paper is available to provide that much more appropriately.

Another specific comment I would offer these presenters is that the most effective presentations appear to have been practiced beforehand and involved no reading of slides. This was very important because it allows some presenters to engage the audience with eye contact and a crisper, more energetic flow that seemed to engage the room in their story.

Presentations in general should be more engaging.

As I mentioned many presentations got bogged down in details and rushed toward the end. I would argue that all of the people I saw at the WEA broke some general rules that make verbal presentations using visual aids a lot more effective for any audience, academic or not.

I have already mentioned Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule–this is a good rule of thumb to strive toward, though in practice I find it is best to take some liberties. Better still I would turn next years WEA presenters to the insights of fellow academic and cognitive scientist John Medina. In his ‘brain rule’ for human attention subtitled, We don’t pay attention to boring things, he offers a 10-minute segment lecture technique that he uses. The salient points I would advise for the WEA’s 15-minute format are:

  • Break the presentation into two segments of roughly 7.5 minutes each. Given the technique Berri and Levitt use in their books, I would recommend the first half focus on the sensible questions posed in the context of conventional wisdom and the second half focus on the surprising insight revealed by the data and what it could mean for the sport.
  • Start with the gist: offer the general concept of the theory in less than one minute.
  • Take time to connect each detail that follows to the general concept. This may seem like it risks being repetitive or even pointless, but remember the presentation is not the paper–it is meant to serve the audience by getting its attention and helping their memory anchor around key points.
  • Make one point at a time. When the subject jumps around between too many fine points, you will lose part or all of your audience’s attention, even if only briefly.
  • Edit down any math or statistics by ‘zooming in’ to highlight key details. Clearly labeling slides so that they reference full data tables or information graphics would help the audience reference it in the paper. Avoid including full tables or finely detailed graphics.
  • Bridge the two segments by shifting gears and returning to the general concept in a way that “baits the hook.” Why do this? Because at 8-10 minutes of continuous similar information the audience is about to lose some of their attention. Medina recommends three characteristics for baiting the hook:
    • It has to trigger an emotion. Jeremy Arkes did a good job by including some funny personal anecdotes about playing basketball.
    • It has to be relevant.
    • It has to connect the segment before with the segment after.
  • End on time, or even a little before. Practicing so that you do not appear hurried is terrific for making sure you pace your work. In basketball terms, imagine Gregg Popovich setting your pace, not Rick Pitino.

We can and should develop a taste for good research.

As a layperson to economics, it is very important to me to ‘tune up’ my intuition for the things that separate good research from bad. Two things struck me most about how to tell the difference.

The first ties reminds me of that G.K. Chesterson quote, “The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder.” This is essentially the insight that opened chapter one of Dave’s, Stacey’s, and Martin’s Wages of Wins book–that economics suffers most from a lack of interesting questions relevant to the world. Alfred Marshall, father of neoclassical economics, and Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics, both point ways out of this by asking better questions and showing useful insights (without relying on the math to do the showing).

The second suggests that there are specific sets of proven methods any good audience member or armchair researcher can and should use when analyzing sports. Without a theoretical foundation supported by evidence meeting criteria like Dave suggested in his guide, statistical or economic research may be a charade of science put on to lend false credibility to a preconceived argument. It would amazing to develop examples showing how to tell good research from charades that ape some of what research looks like.

Being aware of the difference and then tuning up your intuition with a basic language of stats and econ would seem to have wide benefits to all sorts of people across all sorts of domains of work and knowledge. The fact that we can ‘practice’ using sports is just icing on the cake.

NBA Insiders vs. Outsiders.

The MIT Sloan Analytics Conference is composed of overlapping circles of NBA insiders. The WEA is composed of overlapping circles of sports economics insiders. The two larger groups do not overlap.

Of the two groups, only one seeks to change the minds of the other. I think a big lesson for sports economists is to continue to follow the lessons that inspired Wages of Wins in order to speak across the divide and make an effort to persuade NBA insiders to improve their behavior. As all of the papers in this conference show, that can be a very meaningful and worthwhile effort.

I would encourage every presenter at the WEA to at least consider the overall productivity of their work in a context broader than academic circles. Given the attention the media has given to ideas from various sports economists, people are hungry for these ideas. If there is a productive way forward, I think it points along this path of sports economists figuring out how to be more persuasive in their work in order to influence the objects of their study.

I think Sloan sounds like a blast too, but I would feel a lot more excited about it if the “sports research” presented there were actually science. I would also love to attend next year’s WEA conference again, but would feel even better about it if the science was applied by the sports they study.

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