We wrote the title with the word ‘slides’. Yes, slides. Because let’s get one thing clear first; the fact that we dislike so many presentations is not because presentations or slides are bad. What’s often wrong is the execution of the presentation.

People are very visual, so a combination of a story with images works very well to convey information. A movie works best, but a presentation is the next best thing. As a consequence, there is nothing inherently wrong with PowerPoint or Prezi – besides perhaps the potential of the latter to make you a little motion sick.

There is no need to run with the latest gimmick when we can just improve our use of slides. This is easier said than done of course, because even though we all have been working with presentations for decades, this doesn’t make everyone good at using it. Maybe even the other way around (hello lecturer who recently moved on from overhead projectors!).

Use your slides as the illustrated background to the story you tell

At The Online Scientist, we have been working with professors that wanted to get their message very clear. They asked us to help them do that by giving their slides a make-over. In this blog we want to share some of those tips with you. This is very hands-on, and assumes you have your story crystal clear. If you feel like you need help with your story, it might be better to start with this blog with tips on how to write the story of your presentation.

1 Write conclusions, not descriptions.

It’s ‘good practise’ amongst scientists to put the title of a graph on the slide, as if that explains it all. Take this example: the original slide, while pretty clear otherwise, says ‘Prevalence in 2012 of diabetes amongst Dutch men and women 25 years of age and over, separated by their highest completed level of education.

And, make no mistake, that is exactly what that graph shows. No criticism there, and this has its function in a journal. But take the one on the right now: ‘Diabetes more prevalent among the uneducated.

If your audience wanted data and complex graphs, they would read your article

This simple adjustment brings the slide one step further in two ways. First of all, it’s taking the slide from being a presented version of the paper to a story. You want to tell a story, and this slide should help you do that. Presenting the raw data does not do that; you need to use those data to tell your story! And your audience would agree; if they wanted to read the graphs they could just go to Pubmed. The second reason to change your slides this way is that it saves valuable mental capacity in your audience. In other words: when they don’t have to crunch the numbers themselves, they have more attention left for you and your story!


2 No chart-junk!

This one is easy, but oh, is it important. If you create slides with charts or graphs, make them clean. We can all see in 3D, so it’s really not remarkable enough to use it in your slides. Get rid of the grid lines, shadows, patterns, outlines and what not. By getting rid of the junk, you’re giving your audience a very clear image of what you want them to grasp from that slide. Again, you want to waste none of their mental capacity on WordArt, so all of it goes to understanding your story.

Take these slides, with the same graph. The left one is hazy, and does not adhere to point 1 either. The right one is clear, descriptive and ready to be part of a narrative.

Example of chart junk in PowerPoint presentation slides

3 Get rid of things that do not support your message

What we just said about graphs goes for anything on a slide, really. If it does not serve the purpose (the goal and/or message that you defined when you wrote the story), get rid of it. This is true for images, clip-art (please don’t use that), graphs, pictures, animations etc. However, these elements should never be on your slide ‘because it’s so empty otherwise’.

How to use images and text in your presentation

Images can enhance a presentation, but they can also take focus away from your main message, confuse or distract people, and reduce their bandwidth. If the image does not add support the goal of your presentation or the main message (or if it’s clip-art), it’s better to leave it out.

PowerPoint is not a teleprompter, don’t use it to read text out loud!

This also has to do with the mental bandwidth of your audience. You don’t want to distract them with copious amounts of text that they need to plough through – let alone academic texts!

Your audience may be smart or in the same field as you are, that’s not an excuse to turn a presentation into an IQ test. Help them grasp it as smoothly as possible. If you can manage that, you have more time in your presentation to get your message across. Read more about savouring mental capacity in your audience.

Research has shown that one of the main annoyances when it comes to presentations is too much text on a slide. Another reason to limit the amount of text is to keep yourself from reading the slides out loud. The text is there to have an added value to your story, not to be the story.

4 Think about what your presentation will look like in the actual setting

Now, this may be simultaneously the easiest and the hardest thing to do. The easiest, because making your slides and text readable has nothing to do with the story – which is the hard part. On the other hand it’s challenging because it’s not easily done in the comfort of your own office.

Ideally, you have an opportunity to visit the room you will be presenting in. This will allow you to see what the colours, texts and other elements look like in this specific setting. In a perfect world you won’t need to do this, but we all know that no two beamers are the same, the proportion of screen size to the distance to the last row varies profoundly, and that – of course! – the sun happens to be shining on the table right in front of the screen at the time of your presentation.

Check out the scene of your presentation to prevent illegible slides

It’s difficult to give you specific advice on how to handle this, but the point is clear: try to see what it looks like before you’re up. With most multi-day conferences, you will have the opportunity to take a look in the room you’ll be using, and if you’re lucky you can try out some settings on the spot. If possible, try the presentation on the computer it’s shown on to prevent compatibility issues.

Don’t underestimate the power of this point; it’s easy to lose your audience on readability before you’ve even started, and that’s a waste of all your work. Good news is it’s quite easy to prevent it.

5 Forget about ‘conventional wisdom’

the-online-scientist-conventional-wisdom-powerpoint-presentationsBefore we help you design your slides like a pro, we need you to forget everything you might think is conventional wisdom about presentations. You may, for example, believe that the secret of a good presentation lies in things like ‘never more than one slide per minute’, ‘every slide needs a title’ or ‘end your talk with a slide that says: Questions?’.

Well…you’d be wrong. Of course, such rules of thumb might be useful in some cases, but more often than not they prevent you from making a lasting impression. We believe they don’t warrant the religious following that they often enjoy.

And if you use one or two words per slide (or a single image), do you really think your audience will be phased if there are more than one slide per minute? No. We’ve seen amazing presentations where there were more than 150 slides in 45 minutes.

The fact that PowerPoint gives you room for a title on every new slide does not mean you have to use it!

What you want is to create a presentation that feels comfortable with the audience. It needs to be easy to digest to savour their mental bandwidth. Using less words, less frills and no junk will help you achieve that, even if you break all of the common conventions.

A strong start and a catchy ending to your presentation

Then there’s some traditions about first and last slides. Don’t use your first slide to tell your audience where they are (they are already there), what day it is (they tend to know or not care), or who you are (they came, that counts for something!). Of course, when your H-index is not in the triple digits (yet…) you might want to introduce yourself, but it’s better to introduce yourself on the second or third slide if it’s necessary. A date really only is necessary for an online version of your presentation.

Don’t start with your name, date and location, and don’t end with a “Questions?” slide

Don’t let your presentation fade out with your last slide. Forget the slide with a cheesy image and in big font “Questions?”. This is confusing for the audience when there is no time for questions, or when the audience doesn’t have any. End with a slide containing your name and twitter handle, so people can follow you when they liked your talk and maybe repeat the most important message, so you’re sure it’s stuck in the heads of your audience.
If you follow these five steps, you can be sure that your slides become much clearer, and your presentation better. Yes, it takes effort that could also be spend on research or writing grant proposals. But that extra effort may also go a long way in audience engagement. And you never know where that may lead to…

If you want more, why not follow our workshop on Presentation Design? And don’t hesitate to contact us if you have questions or remarks about this blog. We’d love to help you out!

About the Author: Liesbeth Smit

Liesbeth combines her knowledge of science communication, technology and design to explain difficult topics to a wide audience. You can use her practical tips immediately in your (poster) presentations to create a bigger impact. She developed dozens of websites, infographics and animated videos, and regularly gives workshops about design at The Online Scientist.

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