I was in a lecture hall when the lights went out, and loud rock music started. Three words appeared on a screen. One word at a time.
Following this dramatic start were two lectures on improving presentations. The place was Aarhus University, and I think the year was 2013. Now, five years later, I have finally banned bullets from my slides.
Why did ever start using bullet points in the first place?
Because everyone else is doing it, and I learned to present by imitating what I saw. But imitating only makes you great if you are imitating great people. And sadly, presentation techniques are rarely something scientists are great at. So I realized that I have to stop imitating and instead dig into what makes a good presentation.
I started reading books on the subject, and I became an active Toastmaster. Toastmasters is a club where people meet to practice and get skills in leadership and public speaking.
In my opinion, the type of training that I have sought out myself should be available to all scientists. Why? Because we are lucky to frequently get the opportunity to share our scientific results and along with them our love of science, and, most importantly, with a good presentation, we can inspire fellow researchers.
The quality of these presentations determines how much the audience will remember, so it can have a big impact on how much people know about your research. That is, all those who will not read your articles, but who will attend your seminars or conference talks.
And what do most of us do with this opportunity? We go straight to PowerPoint and cram our slides up with results. As a result, we make our audience suffer death by PowerPoint, and we miss the opportunity to inform, inspire, and excite. This is tragic. Science is amazing, scientists are amazing, and we all deserve more.
There are no quick fixes if you want to become a good speaker. But there are quick fixes for your slides. Just keep in mind that in a good presentation, the slides are there to support the presentation not to be the presentation.
Here are 7 quick fixes:
1. Kill the bullets.
2. Kill the sentences: we cannot read and listen at the same time. And we are there to listen.
3. Make your text and plot labels readable from the back of the room.
4. Declutter: Only one or two pieces of information per slide. That way you can guide your audience’s attention to where it should be.
5. Go big: make images and plots as big as possible. Full screen if you can.
6. Minimize pointing: design your slides to minimize the use of the pointer. That way, you can look at the audience, not your slides.
7. Explain, explain, explain—everything you show (and please minimize the use of acronyms).
We must always remember that our audience cannot pause us and rewind if they missed something. So to not lose them, we must keep our presentations simple and clear.
My next challenge is to design my slides in a way that leaves pointing unnecessary. That way, I can maintain contact with the audience instead of turning and pointing to my slides. This is challenging, as I have a habit just as the vast of majority of us of looking at my slides too often. I will have to practice a lot to beat my slide-looking habit.
Besides using simple slide design, I have two strategies for beating this habit. First, I give speeches at my Toastmasters club without slides for now. That way, I have nowhere to look but at the audience. I hope this approach will make me more aware of where I’m looking, so I can stop myself when I start giving my slides too much attention. Second, I get my speeches at Toastmasters filmed. So when I start using PowerPoint in my Toastmasters speeches, I can later count the number of times I looked at my slides. I might even make plots and use them for a later blog post.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, Toastmasters plays a big role in my approach to becoming a great presenter. But you can become good in other ways. First, use the slide tips above and simplify your slides. Second, practice your presentation and film your practice talks. Analyze the video for what works and what can be improved. Finally, seek feedback from others on your presentations.
If you used to have lots of text on your slides, and you follow my advice and remove it, you may find yourself in a scary situation: what if you forget what to say?
It turns out; your slides were there to serve as your notes. They were never intended for the audience. Well, just transfer the text to note cards and carry them with you. It’s much better to occasionally look down on note cards than to talk to your slides. And of course: practice, practice, and practice.
I’m going to end this post now, but there are many more facets to presenting science than I have covered here. And I want to write about all of them. To have a place to go into the nitty-gritty details, one detail at a time, I recently made a blog dedicated to presentation skills for scientists. You can find it at ninajensen.net.
As the very last word: Forget the 1-minute per slide rule. How long a slide is showing, should depend on how long it’s relevant to what you are saying. Adapt the slides to your speech, not the other way around. And remember: 100 simple slides are better than 25 overstuffed ones, and it will probably take the same amount of time to go through them.
Good luck with your next presentation!
Illustration by scientist-cartoonist Pedro Velica. Find more of his artwork at Pedromics.