And Now, a Powerpoint Presentation, Redux

Sci was at a conference last week. It was a REALLY good time. As Sci advances in grad school, I feel I am beginning to come into my own, and it’s a good feeling, esp when you can walk around feeling like you have a posse of fellow grad students and post-docs who all want to collaborate.
It’s an exciting time, learning the latest stuff, seeing the newest methods, and meeting famous people. It’s the craziest thing running into some of these professors. I’ve read all of their papers, I desperately try to meet all their grad students and postdocs, and my only goal is to see the famous person and say something GENIUS, something that will make them remember me and think that I’ve got promise. And then I meet them, and I say…I say…oh CRAP. Once in a while, though, the genius does come out, and then I feel that verily, Sci has BLINDED YOU WITH SCIENCE this day.
Last year at a similar conference, I ended up compiling a list of things that one should REALLY try to avoid if at all possible when giving a conference talk. There are more to add, every single time. Behold, the bad, the ugly, and the presentations guaranteed to give your eager listeners a headache:
The 19 things (and counting) you should NEVER do in a powerpoint presentation.


1) Do NOT spend your entire presentation with your back to the audience (I cannot tell you how many times Sci see this, presenters spending the entire time staring up at their powerpoints, gesturing vaguely with their arms).
2) Never use pale green on a white background to emphasize a point, unless you want to emphasize our eyestrain. Similar for neon yellow with pink. YIKES.
3) There is no reason to give a “I will talk about intro, methods, data, and conclusions” outline when you talk will be 20 minutes or less.
4) Make sure you can pronounce brain areas better than our recent president. It is not pronounced “nuke-ulus accumbens” (AUGH, REPEAT OFFENDERS!!!)
5) You have a WHOLE SCREEN! All to yourself, you lucky guy! Use it! Do not make your graph a tiny square in the middle that no one can see from the third row back.
6) If you don’t know what to do with your hands, do NOT use then to wave your laser pointer at the screen all the time. You end up with the dreadful, circling laser pointer, like a buzzard over your data. It’s one thing to circle the data your talking about, and that’s good. It’s quite another to have it circling your entire slide, slowly, over and over and over. Use when you need to, and the rest of the time, PUT IT DOWN. BACK AWAY SLOWLY.
7) There is NEVER an excuse for a semicolon in a powerpoint; Ever.
8) If you must use a screen capture, have the grace to crop the image so that we don’t have to see the remnants of your Google toolbar.
9) Check your powerpoint for misspellings before you talk in front of several hundred people. If you screwed up it might be “extreem”.
10) Try not to leave your mouse arrow hanging out in the middle of the screen for 3/4 of your talk.
11) Avoid the happy trigger finger for your slide advancer. Damn! You just gave away that really cool graphic on the next slide! For the fourth time.
12) DO NOT write it down, read it aloud, and follow it with your pointer. Honestly, at this point you might as well not be there at all.
13) If your hand is shaking, don’t try to hold the pointer still over your slide, we’re all going to see it and realize how incredibly freaked out you are. Or, being neuroscientists, we will try to diagnose you will Parkinson’s.
14) I realize that you might have a monotone voice in your normal daily life, but TRY to vary it up when you give a presentation. We’re exhausted, and all the caffeine in the world is not going to make us alert when you sound like the teacher from ‘Peanuts.’
15) There are things called ‘crutch-words’. You should…um…know what your…um…crutch…um…words are…um…they can be really…um…distracting.
16) There is such a thing as too much animation. Just because *flash* your powerpoint *fly in* can do it *underline* doesn’t mean *wave like a flag* that it SHOULD *spin*. Also, if you have animations, know where they are so they don’t catch you by surprise and make it obvious to everyone that you’re giving a talk that was actually written by your post-doc.
17) I realize that big bad famous profs give a lot of presentations, but please have the courtesy to prep a little. I’m saying, if the presentation is 20 minutes, give a 20 minute talk, not a 40 minute talk that you won’t make it through and have to skip through the last 20 slides worth of data. We will either assume that, despite your experience, you can’t manage your time, or (more likely) that this is your “stock” talk, that you give all the time, and you (or your post-doc) couldn’t be bothered to put something new together. It’s not THAT hard. And here’s a hint: you know it’s going to be too long when you start giving your outline and you’re already 10 minutes in.
18) Even if you did it at the last minute, KNOW your SLIDES. I actually heard a “hey, how did THAT get in here…”
19) And never, never, please never, begin or end your talk with a variation on “it’s my first talk, and I’m totally nervous”. *eyeroll*. In the best case scenario, we should not be able to TELL it was your first talk. We should assume you’ve got lots of experience. Being told that you don’t know what you’re doing doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Statements like that don’t earn you sympathy.
Next up: presentations, the data blitz edition.

28 Responses

  1. The semicolon is much maligned and misunderstood but really quite elegant and concise; if the semicolon has no place on a slide then neither does the comma or the full stop.

  2. I agree; the semicolon is beautiful. Maybe her point is that we should use separate bullets instead of semicolons? That is a point with which I would agree.
    Good list, though. I’ll show it to my middle and high school students before their class presentations.

  3. I was at an international conference where a student introduced his talk by saying “this is my very first presentation….in English”. This actually garnered him quite a lot of sympathy from the audience (which was comprised of a rather small and encouraging sub-field). Of course, it didn’t hurt that the guy gave a stupendous presentation despite his over-enunciation. The over-enunciation was a little distracting but no one was going to come away with the excuse that they couldn’t understand what he was saying.

  4. I remember a great example of the “my first talk… in English” mentioned in @3. There were a lot of talks by folks who really didn’t speak English well at all but were too prideful, nervous, embarrassed, oblivious, or whatever to acknowledge the fact. It was basically pointless to try to understand what many of them were saying, so the audience was skimming papers, napping, whatever.
    Then this one grad student gets up, smiles, and says something like “I’m not very good speaking English, so tell me or raise your hand if I need to repeat something.” Amazingly, 90% of the audience was rapt with attention through his talk. Not so much content (it was OK), but because he had primed them to actually try and understand what he was saying.
    I’ve been tempted to use that as a trick, but I’d have to fake an accent… probably not convincing from a Caucasian native English speaker.

  5. I too am a bit amused by the semicolon comment, and would be interested in seeing exactly where it was used. I would tend to expect that that talk had lots and lots of text on the slides…
    Anyway, yeah, scientific talks…holy crap do most scientists not seem to put much care into them. Now, I don’t think I’m a very good speaker, but at least I try to present my talks reasonably-well. There are just tons of mistakes that I see in talks over and over again. Everybody else has to see them too…why do they keep making them?

  6. I had to laugh when I read these points. I wasn’t laughing at them: I was laughing because at my school’s “resident expert” on teaching and learning consistently tells faculty that “Powerpoint has wonderful animation tools: you can’t use them enough: it keeps your audience engaged”. several of us have long known she is clueless; it’s amusing (and comforting) to learn from external sources we’re correct.

  7. Sci is a firm believer in proper use of the semicolon, but also knows for a fact that most people don’t know what that proper usage IS. I saw a presentation with a semicolon on EVERY OTHER SLIDE. There is no excuse for that. If you have a semicolon, it means your slide has a big block of too much text, and needs to be broken up. I feel the same way about commas and full stops. Bullet points, please.

  8. Good list. The time limit one is IMO the most important. Going well overtime is arrogant and disrespectful, especially at a conference. I’ve actually heard graduate students say that they use up all of their alloted time, and then some, just to avoid having time for questions. Personally I feel hour talk is much better when it’s actually 45min with time for thoughtful questions. There are often really smart people in the audience that can help a speaker clarify the message or make it more relevant to the audience through a good question. I will remember your take home message much better if it’s not cluttered with less relevant data and/or rushed through.

  9. The laser pointer circles drive me bonkers. I end up just watching the pointer instead of paying attention to what’s on the slides or what the person is saying. And pointing to each word on your slide? I feel like I ought to be reciting along with you.
    To the people whose hands shake: keep your arm close to your side and use your other hand to help steady the hand with the pointer in it.

  10. The laser pointer circles drive me bonkers. I end up just watching the pointer instead of paying attention to what’s on the slides or what the person is saying. And pointing to each word on your slide? I feel like I ought to be reciting along with you.
    To the people whose hands shake: keep your arm close to your side and use your other hand to help steady the hand with the pointer in it.

  11. (1) NEVER apologize for ANYTHING during a presentation.
    (2) I was once at a talk on daily sleep rhythms, and the stupid motherfucking presenter had a MOTHERFUCKING CLOCK ANIMATION AT THE TOP OF EVERY FUCKING SLIDE WITH THE HANDS SPINNING AROUND WILDLY!

  12. Sci,
    Haha, somehow I was expecting it was something like that! Yes, too much text = bad, bad presentation. Hell, I’m often not a fan of even using full sentences on my presentations. Sure, this may make the power point files nearly incomprehensible on their own, but that’s what the talk is for!
    I’m also a big fan of keeping my talks short and sweet. You can communicate vastly more effectively if you can get things across in ~20 minutes than if you take a full 40 minutes. Peoples’ attention spans often just aren’t that long.

  13. Sci,
    Haha, somehow I was expecting it was something like that! Yes, too much text = bad, bad presentation. Hell, I’m often not a fan of even using full sentences on my presentations. Sure, this may make the power point files nearly incomprehensible on their own, but that’s what the talk is for!
    I’m also a big fan of keeping my talks short and sweet. You can communicate vastly more effectively if you can get things across in ~20 minutes than if you take a full 40 minutes. Peoples’ attention spans often just aren’t that long.

  14. I’m slowly learning to orient my slides towards non-English speaking Japanese audience. But the principles are good for all audiences:
    1: One idea per slide
    2: One point per bullet (may be hierarchically arranged)
    3: 36 pts (don’t strain the resolution of either eyes or projectors)

  15. I’m with Mrs Whatsit – some people are crazy with their laser pointers, constant circling! For crying out loud, put down ther laser and STEP AWAY FROM THE LASER! I want to steal their batteries.

  16. I’m with Mrs Whatsit – some people are crazy with their laser pointers, constant circling! For crying out loud, put down ther laser and STEP AWAY FROM THE LASER! I want to steal their batteries.

  17. Even minor hand shaking is magnified on the laser image on the screen. Forget the laser and use your mouse pointer.

  18. You have an amusing and entertaining writing style, Sci. Nice job. Now, I have a question for you science heads out there. It’s easy enough to whine about flailing lasers, too much text, and freaky animations–and granted, such bastards should be shot–but what ideas to you have for being better visual communicators? How might a typical science presenter best use rich visual content to convey meaning–not just decoration–on slides. I’m in the middle of writing a series of articles for Microsoft on the subject and was thinking of grounding the next one in a medical or science context. Maybe you creative creatures have some ideas and we can put together some examples and quotes of your wisdom? Email me at: rlane@aspirecommunications.com

  19. I”ve been coming to the conclusion for a while now that the best powerpoint slides are minimalist: white, with black text is actually *OK*, fancy colors and borders are generally *not necessary*. They caught people’s attention when they were New and Different, but now that everybody has the fancy colors the reaction is more of a “meh”. And, if the choice of colors is unfortunate (such as light-colored letters on a dark background), you might as well be standing up there saying “You are getting sleeeeeepy, your eyelids are growing heavier and heavier . . .”
    And animations are over-rated. There are a few cases where they are useful (like, for example, when I am trying to show how a particular machine works), but this hardly ever comes up. I think more than one animation per presentation is generally excessive.

  20. Maybe you creative creatures have some ideas and we can put together some examples and quotes of your wisdom? Email me at: rlane@aspirecommunications.com

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!! Nice try, fuckwad! You wanna a consultant, you’re gonna have to pay.

  21. animations can be helpful if you’re showing a complex signaling mechanism… i used a fairly extensive one in my thesis talk/job talks and it went over GREAT. but it was tastefully done and not meant to impress people with my mad powerpoint animashun skillz.
    i prefer to underline key words in my talks. i think the sweeping circle doesn’t do anything to point out what i’m talking about anyway. our eyes are attracted to motion, so a sweeping circle tends to draw my attention AWAY from the intended focus.
    the other stuff, i’m 100% in agreement with. i usually cringe at some point during others’ talks…

  22. http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint
    but then…I envy you guys your ppt at conferences. at the national convention for the International Studies Association this year, the only technology freely available was an overhead projector (I didn’t know those still existed!), and that had to be requested days in advance. if you wanted an actual projector for a ppt, then you had to request it a month or two in advance, and pay a couple hundred dollars, some as a fee some as collateral, to get one.
    handouts were the only reasonable visual aids. and a fair few people didn’t even go that far

  23. http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint
    but then…I envy you guys your ppt at conferences. at the national convention for the International Studies Association this year, the only technology freely available was an overhead projector (I didn’t know those still existed!), and that had to be requested days in advance. if you wanted an actual projector for a ppt, then you had to request it a month or two in advance, and pay a couple hundred dollars, some as a fee some as collateral, to get one.
    handouts were the only reasonable visual aids. and a fair few people didn’t even go that far

  24. 13) If your hand is shaking, don’t try to hold the pointer still over your slide, we’re all going to see it and realize how incredibly freaked out you are. Or, being neuroscientists, we will try to diagnose you will Parkinson’s.
    Also applies to blog posts๐Ÿ˜›

  25. freespace: touche.๐Ÿ™‚

  26. freespace: touche.๐Ÿ™‚

  27. Excellent points, all. However, here’s an addition to #9 for all written documents: Before you call it final, read the document out loud to yourself, and don’t trust a spell checker. Check point #3 (you talk).

  28. Speaking of PPT presentations, here is a tip โ€“ you can use Smart PPT to Video Converter to convert your presentations to video. Itโ€™s great! Looks exactly the same as the original.
    Here is a link: http://www.ppt-to-video-converter.com

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