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Designing great presentations

Sep 2011 | Ilana 1,233 Comments

We all have to give presentations during our grad school careers, from lab meeting to committee meetings, posters and talks for conferences, and hopefully someday job talks.  The difference between a good presentation and a bad one could have a big impact on your career, or at least impress your PI.

Although I can’t do much to help you with the actual delivery of the presentation, except remind you to practice, I can give you tips for designing your slides to make a great impression.  The following information is derived from the book slide:ology; the art and science of creating great presentations, by Nancy Duarte, as well as my own experience and pet peeves.  Many of the elements also apply to posters as well as talks.

Although slide:ology is mainly aimed at a business audience, there are still a lot of basic tips that are applicable in all situations.  Just ignore the parts about branding and corporate vision.  The most important pieces of advice are to know your audience and be clear!  All the other tips relate to the need to provide information that your audience wants to know, in a way that makes it easy for them to understand.  This includes creating slides that will facilitate an engaging delivery.

One important thing to remember is not to use too many words on your slides.  You don’t want the audience reading the slides and not listening to what you say.  This tends to make the audience bored, as they read ahead of you and then wait for you to move to the next slide.  Try not to use your slides as a teleprompter to remind you what to say—practice your talk enough that you don’t need lots of words on the slides.

In science, what your audience really wants to see is the data, but don’t try to pack too much into one slide.  Nothing will lose your audience’s attention faster than cramming five tiny graphs onto every slide.  Choose the type of graph that most clearly communicates your results, and visually highlight what you want the audience to focus on.  Make secondary aspects fade into the background, for example by using muted colors to contrast with the bright color of the important result.

The area where slide:olgy really shines is in graphic design, with lots of information to help you make your presentations visually appealing.  The most important piece of advice here is to strive for simplicity and a clean look, to avoid distracting your audience and help them focus on what’s most important.

Arranging the elements on your slide can guide the eye in the direction you want people to absorb the information.  An imaginary grid can help with this.  For example, in a poster, line up all the elements within a column.  Make sure you leave enough whitespace to avoid tiring people’s eyes.  Be consistent in your choice of colors and fonts throughout the presentation. Use simple backgrounds that don’t detract or distract from your content.  If you use shadows or other 3D effects, keep them consistent.  Don’t make some elements 3D and others flat.

Color can highlight important results, and your overall color palette also conveys a mood to your presentation, so it’s important to choose your colors wisely.  Be consistent with what a given color means—data A is always blue, data B is always red.  Make sure your colors are easy to see on your background, and think about whether they’ll be distinguishable if the projector isn’t very good or someone in your audience is color-blind.  Examples of a variety of color palettes are shown in slide:ology, and you can also explore the many palettes in PowerPoint beyond the default.

Your text needs to be readable, so choose a simple font and make sure it’s large enough.  I try not to go smaller than 24 point for both talks and posters (with the exception of labels on figures, which can be a little smaller).  For posters, you should be able to easily read everything on your proof.  If you can’t, your fonts are too small.  The convention is that serif fonts (with the little tails on the letters, like Times) are easier to read for large blocks of text and sans-serif fonts (like Arial) are better for headings.  Since you should be avoiding large blocks of text in your presentations, I think sans-serif fonts throughout are best.  Don’t use too may fonts in a single presentation; stick to just one or two.  Bullet points are often overused in PowerPoint and encourage making your slides overly wordy.  If you have sub-sub-bullets, there’s a good chance you have too much text.  Be consistent in whether your bullets are capitalized, end with periods or not, and are complete sentences or not.

Make sure your graphs and other images will project well.  Use heavy lines (at least 3 point) to make sure they’ll be visible.  If possible, test immunofluorescence images on the projector you’ll be using, and be ready to explain what people should be seeing in them if they turn out not to project well.  Try to use your own images, but if you must pull a picture from the internet, cite the source.  Of course, also cite if you use a figure from a paper.

Make sure your material fits in the allotted time.  I find that having about one slide per minute usually works for me.  Background slides tend to take less time, and data heavy slides more time.

Here are a few of my pet peeves, all of which I witnessed at a recent conference.

-Comic sans.  Unless both you and your audience are under the age of 12, it’s inappropriate and unprofessional.  Nothing loses my respect faster than comic sans.

-Slides obviously cobbled together from a variety of old talks and/or from different lab members.  This makes it seem as though you don’t think your audience is important enough to warrant designing a presentation specifically for them.  PIs tend to be more guilty of this than students and postdocs, probably because they have more existing content to draw from.  It’s fine to reuse slides that you worked hard on, but take a few minutes to make all your slides match in terms of color, font, and other design elements.  PowerPoint makes this pretty easy; just make the whole presentation all one theme.

-3-D bar graphs.  They add no information and almost always make it more difficult to see the result.

-Over-animation.  Each bullet point does not need to swoop in from the top of your slide. It’s distracting.  Having elements appear (simply) as you get to them is fine and can help focus the audience’s attention.

-In a similar vein, fancy transitions.  There’s almost no situation that would benefit from anything other than the default slide transition in PowerPoint.  Those star wipes make you look like George Lucas in the Star Wars prequels, which is not a good thing.

Finally, remember that it takes time to make a good presentation, from putting together the slides to practicing what you’re going to say.  Try to start earlier than you think you need to.  Giving yourself lots of time to practice can help you reduce the amount of words you need on your slides, and also calm your nerves.  Good luck!

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