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Thread. I go to a lot of meetings where I have only a modest level of knowledge about the field. Which is great, because then I learn a lot. But I don’t understand the main point of many talks. #DarkConfessions #scicomm
For a long time, I reckoned this was just me, and my ignorance of community-specific jargon. Also, #ImposterSyndrome. Editors have it too.
Anyway, I began to confess my lack of understanding to other audience members, and ask them for an explanation. Turns out, many of them also did not understand the talks. At all.
From a series of interactions like this over many years and many meetings, I now think that a vast chunk of scientific presentations do not communicate a clear, main conclusion – even to fellow specialists.
So, following on from my earlier thread about papers (since published in @NatureCareers nature.com/articles/d4158…) I have some suggestions for presentations.
Maybe I am now being insufferably pedantic, or just making suggestions designed to make my life easier. But I hope that at least some of this would help in communicating to any audience. I should also point out @scottstgeorge is a huge inspiration for all that follows. Here goes.
Decide what you want to accomplish. If you’re on the job market, maybe the goal is to demonstrate your amazing technical chops, or that you’re smart and have done huge amounts of work. If so, much of what follows may be irrelevant. But if your goal is to get an idea across ...
... consider presenting less to accomplish more. Talks often present too much information at the expense of communicating an idea or main conclusion. Too many graphs, tables, numbers, words, equations, and slides. Here are 10 suggestions on how to clarify your message.
1) Tell the audience the main conclusion at the beginning of the talk. In doing so, avoid jargon. Make at least this one part comprehensible to anyone with a scientific background.
2) Limit slides. Slide decks are like all-you-can-eat buffets. You could go back for more, but should you? If you see ANY potential that at some point you will say, “I’ll skip this slide”, start cutting. Most talks, I think, could present a clear main point with half the slides.
3) Limit words. Consider how many words you’ve put on a slide. Do you really expect the audience to read all of that, while paying attention to you? Probably not. Instead, aim for just a few key words to amplify, not repeat, what you’re saying.
4) Use one graph per slide. It can be crazy-hard to grasp the meaning of even one graph, much less the eight or more you’ll see on many slides. Instead of blasting the audience with a dizzying array of information, explain one graph thoroughly. Explain units and colors.
5) Take pity on viewers at the back of the room. By limiting slide content, you can now use big fonts. Big enough to be legible from 10 m away!
6) Avoid tables. In the MANY cases in which speakers present a table with > 50 numbers, they only want you to look at ~ two. Therefore, dump the table and display those numbers in a huge font. That will be memorable.
7) Avoid equations. Yes, equations are the currency in many field. But to me, the paper is the place for equations and talks are the place for communication of ideas. So, unless absolutely necessary, consider replacing equations with a discussion of the ideas they represent.
8) Confuse non-specialists. For a while. Think of a talk like an accordion. Begin expansively, at a level anyone could grasp. In the middle, squeeze down to highlight the nuts and bolts that will excite specialists. At the end, broaden to bring back the rest of the audience.
9) Limit use of the laser pointer. Your cat might enjoy endless application of lasers, but for the audience this can be really distracting.
10) Don’t touch the screen. It’s tempting to make your point by tapping/rubbing the screen, but this just makes the screen go wavy, distorting your message.
Will a minimal presentation make you look weak/non-quantitative/unintelligent/grandiose/unaware of caveats? No. Done right, a simple presentation will allow your audience to actually understand what you've found.
From my last bunch of suggestions on paper-writing, I know that not everyone will agree with these ideas on presentations. Is there anything with which you disagree? Or, what else should be added?
The main feedback I've gotten so far is that a limit on slides may not be justified. I agree. In fact a huge number of slides can work really well. With a huge caveat. I offer the following food analogy. @Peters_Glen @scottstgeorge
Consider two meals in a high-end restaurant. In one, you enjoy an appetizer, main course, and desert. Fine! This is the strategy I propose as a starting point.
In the second, you are dining at a three-star restaurant and are served 20 courses. Each is interesting, surprising, visually attractive, and easy to digest. Can you make a talk like this? Yes! You can even present 30 slides in a 12-minute talk, but each needs to be minimal.
The problem is that most talks are a 20-course meal, in which each course could feed a family of four. So as an initial step, I do feel that limiting slides is *one way* to increase the clarify of presentation.
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