If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you probably noticed that I recently attended a science-y conference, since I spammed your feeds with hour-by-hour updates... sorry I'm not sorry! ;)
Being that I recently described what a technical conference can be like, now I want to share my notes from a workshop I went to while I was there, on what not to do in a scientific presentation, entitled 10 Design Mistakes that Ruin a PowerPoint Presentation presented by Ikumi Kayama. For more about her, and her business, click here! But first, how in the world did scientific presentations become so boring in the first place??
I mean, I love science, and I get excited talking about science. Doesn't everyone? So, why then, when you go to a conference, are there so many boring talks?!
Don't get me wrong, what is presented (that is, the actual science) is awesome! How it's presented is usually the problem.
You know what I'm talking about...
Title Slide: Presenter reads the title, says hello, and thanks you for coming.
Outline slide: 'First I'm going to talk about X, then I'll explain Y methods, and finish up with Z results and future directions.'
And then, that is exactly what they do.
Dr. Joshua Schimel from the University of California, Santa Barbara, author of Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded calls this the 'IMRaD' format. You've probably seen it before...in scientific papers: Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. When you're reading, you want a structure that is easy to follow and 'skimmable' so you can quickly get the information you need. This format can be pretty dry, but at least it serves a purpose. Somewhere along the line though, I think scientists just started taking what they write, and throwing it into a PowerPoint presentation.
In college, STEM students are rarely formally taught how to effectively communicate our research. Unless you went out of your way to find that class on public speaking, how to use PowerPoint, or how to write for a specific audience, the only examples we have for what not to do (or what TO do) are from those who are already presenting or publishing in our field. The kicker is that they probably learned (didn't learn) the same way we are! It's a vicious cycle.
You want your audience to be just as excited as you are about your latest findings, right?! So why would you use a format that could possibly make your results appear dry and boring?
Mix it up! :)
Here's what I've been trying lately.
- Audiences will read the title and my name on their own, so I try opening with a short anecdote of how I got started on the research project.
- Then, I hop right into the acknowledgements, showing everyone who collaborated on the project right away, instead of as more of an afterthought toward the end of my talk.
- For the background, I try to start really wide with a couple sentences about how what I'm going to talk about is important to everyone, and then narrow it down. I hope this ensures that everyone in the room has some context, and that even the experts appreciate the refresher. :)
- Now that I've told everyone why what I'm doing is important, I go into how I did it = Methods. Unless this is the focus of my talk, it's usually pretty brief.
- Finally, I finish up with a summary of what I found (Results - this is the data!), and the conclusions I made based on those results (this is the discussion!). I think these sections should probably be the bulk of a science talk, so I try and make 'em really shine! :)
There are a lot of other ways you can improve a presentation too! That workshop I attended went through some dos and don'ts of PowerPoint slide design specifically. I know what you're thinking: "Shouldn't the content of my slides be what people are focusing on? No one says anything about how my slides look, so what's the big deal?" Keep reading. :)
Here are some of the tips I found most interesting (along with my 2 cents), but a free version of the full presentation can be found here for a limited time!
1. Design your PowerPoint for the audience.
Just like an author writes with their readers in mind, when you're designing your PowerPoint, you want to keep your audience in mind. You want to make your slides, and the information on them, as easy to follow and understand as possible. It doesn't hurt to actually write out a brief biological sketch of everyone who you think might come to your talk. This will help you get an idea about how much detail you need to go into on which topics, and what types of questions to expect from your audience. Ikumi mentioned that it only takes about 8 seconds for an audience member to get bored with a slide, so keep them interested with only a few pieces of information at a time! You don't want anyone falling asleep or anything...
2. Font Rules: 6x6, 2 type faces max, no caps, one color and one highlight.
One of the biggest mistakes that presenters make in scientific talks is PowerPoint slides with too many words. Ikumi says that if you really feel the need to have a slide with text only, make sure not have more than 6 words across and 6 lines down. As for the style of font, Sans Serif only! She recommends Helvetica or Arial (no Comic Sans people!). General rule: the best styles are the ones that go unnoticed. There seems to be an increasing trend in using all capital letters for headings or titles too. This actually makes them harder to read. As does using too many colors, or colors that don't contrast enough. Ikumi's rule is to pick one color (that doesn't hurt your eyes when you look at it), and then pick one highlight that is also easy to see.
3. Charts/graphs: "Just say 'no' to rainbow", simplify, and use a value scale or textures.
When presenting multiple data sets on one graph or chart, it's tempting to use a whole bunch of different colors to represent the different data. Ikumi says "Just say no to rainbow!" Keep it simple by using one color and varying the scale, or the texture of the line (solid line, long dotted line, short dotted line, etc.) You can also change the marker to further differentiate data sets. Also, while it may be tempting to keep your slide count down by putting multiple charts on one slide, keep it simple and present only 1 or 2 at a time. This will help your audience stay focused and listen to what you're saying about one graph, instead of trying to figure out the next one in their head while you're still talking about the first.
4. Slide layout: Left to right, top to bottom.
This one makes so much sense but I never really thought about it! When I went back and looked at some of my presentations, I noticed I would often have things organized just so they would fit on the slide. Instead, Ikumi recommends starting your information in the top left, and having the most important or main idea from the slide at the bottom right. Our eyes naturally want to start and end at those locations anyway, so why not make it easy for them? :)
5. Skip the animations unless it's necessary for the information.
Speaking of what our eyes like...our eyes are trained to recognize movement, so every animation you add to a slide will draw your audience's attention there. Using animations for introducing text for example isn't usually necessary to get the point across, and therefore just distracts your audience from the content you actually want them to focus on. If you have a lot, or complex information to present, then using animations might help direct your audience through it slowly.
It might feel strange to be the one who starts doing things differently, but that's what science is all about! Discover a new way of doing things. Test it out. Share it with the world. Be the change! Effective communication in science shouldn't be an abstract skill. We have a responsibility to disseminate our research to a broader audience. It's easy to talk about your science in scientific jargon. But, do you understand your science enough to explain it to anyone and everyone? That's the hard part.
What are some tips and tricks you have come across when you're preparing your PowerPoint presentations?
What bad habits just drive you nuts when you go to a science talk?
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
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Science Conference Dos and Don'ts
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