CFCs: What makes a good presentation?


Posted on behalf of Mushy:

The flippant answer is this: I do.

The proper answer deserves perhaps a little more discussion.

When I finished my PhD, as I have discussed previously, I spent quite a while holidaying on the state*. During this time, one of my thoughts was that I could set up my own business making presentations for academics. I looked into this matter pretty seriously. Armed with a copy of ChemDraw, and another of PowerPoint, I had the building blocks of my empire and eventual happy oligarchy. It was not to be. When I started looking for a market for a professional slide-maker, I was quite surprised to find out that no such market existed. I was even more surprised to find that there was no appetite for this market.

During the years of my studies, I was forced to sit through infinite interminable lectures given by speakers both in-house, and external. Although some were splendid, in most cases it never ceased to amaze me that people so meticulous and caring over their chemistry could be so slapdash when it came to communicating it to their peers. To me, this negligence was to miss the whole purpose of science. What point is there in carrying out research if its eventual communication is carried out in such a manner as to make it inaccessible?

Although I was lucky to work in a field which lent itself to the aesthetic, there are tips which apply to any presentation given in any field of science.

Tell a story. In most cases, you have 45-50 minutes to introduce yourself and your field to an audience of strangers. Ask yourself what you want to say, and how best to say it. Presenting 45 minutes of results tables—although impressive in its own right—does not make a good talk. It will, however, make a good paper (see below). If you can use the time of your presence to capture the imagination of your audience, they’ll go and read the paper themselves after you’ve left.

Less really is more. Of the many hundreds of slides which I produced, the one which I remember having the most impact was in a group literature review meeting. After waxing on about a field of chemistry too obscure to remember, I segued into a slide with the line “So what use is this work?” I then removed the old acetate, and replaced it with a completely blank one. I think that made the point fairly well. Although an extreme example, it got me thinking how easy it is to camouflage a great result with unnecessary text on a slide. If a slide is cluttered with paragraphs of 10-point font writing, it’s easy for your audience to miss-or to misunderstand-what you’re trying to tell them.

Papers are not presentations. When people read a paper in a journal, all they are doing at that time is reading. There’s nothing to get in the way of that activity, and we can do it well. To create a successful presentation, different considerations need to be borne in mind. Humans—especially males—are only really good at concentrating on one thing at a time. If you want someone to concentrate on what you’re saying, have little to nothing on the screen. Conversely, if you want a person to concentrate on the screen, say little to nothing. Both tactics are hard to grasp, and quite daring to pull off successfully, but can be extremely successful.

Think about fonts. Although seemingly trivial, the font in which your presentation appears can have a huge impact. Much has been written on font choice, although a good rule of thumb is this. Serif fonts—such as Times and Palatino—work well from a printed page. For viewing from a screen or projector, sans serif fonts—such as Verdana and Arial—are particularly well suited.

A picture is worth 1000 words. But if you don’t have a picture, please don’t substitute it with 1000 words instead. There’s few things worse than spending 45 minutes of your life reading spectacularly wordy slides whilst the lecturer reads them verbatim. Written prose differs spectacularly from the spoken word in its construction, so don’t try and orate a sentence which looks good on paper, and vice versa.

That’s enough preaching for now. If anyone is interested in any of this, leave a comment, and I can write more. Failing that, if you think I’m writing a load of old tosh, then I’m more than happy to hear your views also.

– Mushy


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