Repost: SfN Neuroblogging. And now, a powerpoint presentation.

Nov 08 2011 Published by under SFN Neuroblogging

I have a growing list, the more conferences that I go to, of things that one should REALLY not do when giving a conference talk. Sadly, I see these things all the time. The good thing about this is that when I see a really good presentation, my socks are knocked off and I am inspired. The bad thing about this is that I have to see all the bad stuff that leaves my eyes rolling. Every year I add to this list, and there's ALWAYS more to add. Behold, the bad, the ugly, and the presentations guaranteed to give your eager listeners a headache:

The 21 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". If you are a PI, make sure you can pronounce your people's names (YES, I have seen this), and DO NOT make fun of their names if they are unusual or foreign (seen this, too, you'd really think you wouldn't have to warn people).

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. This can be aided by holding the pointer and then holding your arm with your other hand, or by moving the pointer in a slow glide, not trying to keep it in one place.

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. Speak slowly. Enunciate. And do not let your voice drop in volume at the end of your sentences. This is a really common, most people don't realize they are doing it.

20. Unless you have a good reason, do not begin or end your talk with "and that's my FIRST TALK!" I have seen people start a talk with "it is my first talk" as a way to explain they do not speak English well (or another language if they are speaking in that language). THAT is a good reason, and people are always very understanding. What I'm against is the young students bounding up there and saying, at the end of their presentation "it's my very first talk!" in a LITTLE BABY VOICE. Yes, I saw this. What do you want, a cookie?

21. Don't dress in a way that's distracting. Most people would instantly think of ladies and tiny skirts and cleavage, but I'm thinking of the guy who wore a dress shirt, partially unbuttoned (like three or four down), so that his chest hair could froth forth in truly luxuriant fashion. I don't remember a word of his talk, but BOY do I remember his chest hair (obviously, some people cannot help that, but most of them would not intentionally unbutton their shirts before a talk, either). There are also interesting stories of dudes in kilts...

Anyone else got any tips? Do's? Don'ts?

27 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    Great list, Sci! The animation KILLS me. That's #5b in my list/post on the topic from a while back, most fo which are do's. #1? TELL A STORY.

    • scicurious says:

      YES! TELL A STORY! I know a lot of people who train their peeps to say things like "I will try to convince you that" at the beginning, and "I hope I have convinced you" at the end, to frame it as a convincing argument, and I think that can work to. But telling a story makes it SO much better.

      "Once upon a time, there was a nasty mean disease. We wanted to learn more about it, so we tried these things, and we fond this. And now we shall go forth with our shiny sword of SCIENCE and kill that meanie old disease dead. The end".

      Except with data.

      • Love this article...some very tough love and like you I still cant believe people continue to make these mistakes.

        Oh and never start your stories with 'Once upon a time'. Or 'let me tell you a story'. Or even worse 'Let me tell you a true story'

  • Janne says:

    Let me add:

    7 (revised): Yes, there is, but know how to use them. Semicolons can work really well for lists:

    * List items with no punctuation at the end look odd;
    * ending items with comma makes them too connected;
    * semicolons followed by a stop will naturally connect a group of items.

    * See, that wasn't so bad?

    • scicurious says:

      They can, but when you have lists with bullet points, I really feel they are superfluous. Don't you think?

      • Janne says:

        You can skip all punctuation at the end if you want. Or use full stops, or commas. For presentations it's all a matter of taste more than hard and fast rules. But I do feel that a semicolon is a very good choice when the bullet points are semantically connected, like I did above.

        Of course, I like semicolons in general; I may be biased.

  • gerty-z says:

    haha! I can remember ALL of these things happening at conferences that I have been to. The crazy-ass laser pointer drives me batty, in particular. I also have to disagree with Janne: semicolons are just wacky.

  • Jason Dick says:

    I think you largely mentioned these, but I thought I'd just post them as "do's" instead of don'ts":

    1. Practice your talk before hand. At least once. Preferably more than once. Make sure you are extremely familiar with the talk, because when the pressure is on you are going to have a much harder time thinking on your feet. So be prepared by practicing. Usually the plain/train ride on the way to the conference is a very good time for this.

    2. Your slides should be visual aids to help explain your points, not simple repetitions of your points. As Sci mentioned, simply reading off the slide is fantastically boring. Speaking and presentation slides are very different forms of communication, and demand very different content. Slides should be short, to the point, succinct. Full sentences are often not necessary. If you can get away with no words at all, do it! The slide itself should present a rough outline of the point you want to make, preferably with some sort of visual aid or other concise bit of information that isn't easy to get across in speech.

    3. Do not overload the audience with information. Simple lists of data just are not interesting. Neither are extremely dense collections of equations. Try to boil the point you want to make down to its essence, discarding information that is not required. If you are worried that questions might be asked about some particular point, add some slides after the end of the talk to refer to if those questions are asked. But keep the talk itself as succinct and to the point as possible. Do not fall for the trap of feeling that everything you have worked on should be presented. Just go for the heart of the issue and discard as much as possible in getting there.

    4. In the spirit of the previous point, try to keep it down to no more than one idea per slide. And plan to spend at least a minute on each slide. If the audience is presented with too much at once, their minds will rebel and they won't get a thing you're saying. Keeping it to about a minute per slide gives enough time to absorb the idea before moving on to the next.

    Anyway, that's what I have.

  • K.B. says:

    If you are a PI bringing all of your grad students to present Very Similar Data at the same small regional meeting, make sure that they vary their %*#*@ talks a wee bit.

    AKA The Most Boring 4 hours I Have Ever Spent.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    This seems like an opportune time to remind people that I have a FREE e-book (30+ page) compiling my presentation tips:

    http://www.utpa.edu/faculty/zfaulkes/Presentation_tips.pdf

  • JJ says:

    Never apologize in advance for a small mistake or a figure that (you think) is not perfect. First, most people won't notice the problem. Second, it's too late to worry. Do your best with what you have.

    I hate when people keep apologizing during their talks...

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    I have to agree with Jason in regards to the "wall-o-text" and it's outgrowth don't write exactly what you plan to say because then it looks like you're reading off the slide.

    I'll throw in unless you are a very dynamic speaker don't spend more than 5 minutes on a slide. Nothing worse than drifting off in a seminar and waking up repeatedly to see the exact same slide still on the projector.

    I'd also mention don't memorize your presentation word for word because if someone asks a question in the middle it's obvious you are going off a script.

    As an aside my departmental journal club would hand out evaluation sheets for presentations that included an explicit question about laser pointer usage: A) not enough B) just the right amount or C) made me seasick.

  • Katharine says:

    May I also add:

    If you use the standard white or yellow text on a blue background you make me want to claw my eyes out. Black on white is fine.

    • Dr Becca says:

      x 100000000000

      Who came up with the yellow on blue that got so popular? It is horrid.

      • Shelly says:

        I am not a fan of the yellow on blue either and there are PIs in my department that force their students to use that color scheme, even for posters. If they're your school colors (and they aren't at mine) then okay, otherwise pick something else.

  • BeckyPhD says:

    If you have a key figure or point slide that you will come back to, don't flip back through 6 slides to find it: put another copy of it in the place where you want to reiterate your point.

    You also should not include a slide with Figure 3 Parts A-N from your paper on one slide. Break that thing up so i can see it and tell which piece you are talking about. Also consider that, while some of that data is necessary for publication, it doesn't necessarily add anything to the story you are telling in your talk.

    Adding to the color use thing, be careful with red and green. Colorblind people will not be able to read your red text in a green box.

    Last but not least, do not put a dancing ckicken (or any other animation) in the bottom corner of every slide. I have seen this. I have no memory of that talk or even the person giving it because i spent the whole talk watching the dancing chicken.

  • bsci says:

    Parallel to @Dr Becca's "Tell a story," particularly for the 10 min SFN talks, there should be one and only one take home message. There isn't time for much more. If the presenter doesn't know what that message is the audience won't either. It's extraordinarily rare for someone to successfully summarize 3 years of experiments in 10 or even 20 minutes.

    Re #13: If you need to use a laser pointer on every slide, redesign your slides. A good slide should attract people's attention to where ever you were going to point the laser pointer. If you need to use a laser pointer (i.e. pointing out several spots in an image), but know your hand might shake, this is one of the places where simple animations can help. A few circles or arrows popping up are easier to see than a small laser dot & they don't shake. Just make sure they dont' overly obstruct the data and you really know when/where you put them so you can plan your words accordingly.

  • tideliar says:

    Re - wall o'text on a slide, another peeve of mine is the wall o'text that is then ignored while the speaker talks about something else. I can't read your fucking slide AND listen/hear your words - either/or.

    Some text/images is great, augment your comments with your slides, or else put up the text, set to auto-advance slides every ten seconds and shut the fuck up.

  • Janne says:

    As Becky says, don't put all your data in the presentation just in case you'll get a question on it. Put only the stuff you're specifically talking about in the presentation. Then put all the rest of the figures and tables after the end slide in your presentation. If you get a question that you best answer by showing them, it's easy enough to flip to those slides as needed.

  • MissV says:

    not sure if this was mentioned in the previous comments, but i always ask myself, "What's the point?" after each slide i design. And, if the slide doesn't have a point, delete it. Also, i'm pretty stringent with the 7x7 rule (7 words or less per line, and 7 lines of text per slide). And, what about your citations? You better believe I've seen people take credit for data out of other lab's publications. I was speechless when it was one of mine.
    I sat through a talk last week and the only thing i remember is how great ranch dressing is for dipping pizza crusts in. I don't remember the presenter's name, the lab or the topic at hand. why? because the "researcher," had no outline, no background, and no hypothesis nor aims. and the worst bit? he had mislabeled the x-axis between his controls and exposed somethingorother on some teeny-tiny graph. The only reason I looked up? the murmurs of a faux-pas.
    how to create value from all of this? 1. grad school class on HOW TO PRESENT YOUR WORK, 2. public speaking class as a requirement to graduation, 3. would someone do a youtube video, and make it a requirement to watch it and learn from it before doing a talk? (similar to those time-consuming CITI training certifications.)

    • Joat-mon says:

      Unless it is a summary slide, otherwise:
      1) the best slides are those with only data/image, and
      2) each slide should have a title that serve as take the home message for the data shown.

  • Jim Kornell says:

    This may be extreme, but I recommend thinking carefully whether you actually need slides. I have been SO refreshed when someone would decide to actually talk to us -- just look at us and act like we're their colleagues and tell us what they did. Obviously there are times when being able to show data or graphical representation or animated time series is great. But don't just assume you must have slides.

  • You may also be interested in this free eBook Eliminate Death by PowerPoint
    http://www.onethousandandone.com.au/latest-posts/who-wants-to-be-a-better-presenter/

  • [...] some really great advice humorously presented by the awesome Scicurious can be found here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  • Lauren says:

    I didn't always appreciate it at the time, but the professional communication course I took last year has been the most valuable experience of my graduate career.