Scientists: Use PowerPoint as a Tool, don’t be a Tool for PowerPoint

Some months ago, when I was running a workshop on communication I asked the audience how many of them remembered a television advertisement from their childhood — almost every hand in the room went up. I then asked them if they remembered any talks from the last scientific conference they went to — you guessed it, not a single hand in the room. How is it that we can remember unimportant advertisements from our childhood whilst the material we apparently live, breathe and love is not memorable a few weeks or months later? Extend this to how memorable our messages are to the public or politicians and all of a sudden, we have a very significant problem. In fields such as climate, vaccination, and health more generally, this inability to land memorable messages can have very significant consequences.

In this article, I want to focus on one aspect of communication — the delivery of a presentation using PowerPoint as a tool. You will notice here that I use the word tool to describe PowerPoint; I give it no more credit than a microphone or a laser pointer. Unfortunately, though, PowerPoint has become a beast from which very few presenters can escape. In fact I would argue that most of the time presenters accompany their PowerPoint slides — they have become the tools, and the result is a range of presentations that are simply forgettable at best and memorable for the wrong reasons at worst.

Before we talk about how we should be doing these sorts of talks, let’s unpack some of what would normally happen in the preparation and delivery of a science talk with PowerPoint. A researcher will be given a time slot of say 15 minutes — some of you will have already made the calculation that this will mean 12 minutes of talk time plus 3 minutes of questions. Therefore, the standard 1 slide per minute formula will apply and we will get to work on the preparation of 12 slides. No thought will go into what we want the audience to remember, what the purpose of the talk actually is or any aspect of who the audience is. There will be two special slides, let’s call them 1 and 12, and these will contain the talk title and name of speaker and a list of acknowledgements or the words “thank you” respectively. The middle 10 slides will be jammed packed with as much information as possible. Depending on your particular style, you might like to use your slides as a script that you will read (don’t worry…..the audience will not read them…they are just for you!), or you might just use them as prompts — so more dot point format. There will be a rare few that might just have a picture or a piece of data on them. Chances are, half of the text accompanying any chart or graph will be too hard to read beyond the third row and for good measure most speakers will throw in a few slides that are either out of date or are clearly from a different event. I hope that none of this is sounding familiar.

What I am describing here is the worst-case scenario, but it is amazing just how many talks take on most of not all of these features. The speaker becomes a support act to the slides and the result is something that a few days later not one in 100 people will even vaguely remember. So the question is, how do we change this to make our presentations both impactful in the moment but memorable well beyond the end of the presentation?

The key here is for us to start thinking about what is happening in the audience brain and how we can actually use PowerPoint and the talk structure to maximum benefit. The first thing I want to point out is that we need to use carefully slides 1 and 12 (or the first and last slide). These two slides are on screen for longer than any other slides in the deck, sometimes 12 would be there for the entire question time. So having the words “thank you” on the last slide seems like a total waste to me. I would like to see something like “The three things I want you to remember from this talk are…”, or something provocative that the audience will not miss. Why waste this great marketing opportunity. The first slide is of less value, but still should have some ‘preview’ type value for the audience — let them know what’s coming. A lot of thought should go into these two slides.

The middle 10 slides are really a major problem. Firstly, the idea that we should have about one slide per minute is just nonsense. Is every novel you read the exact same length? You should use exactly the number of slides needed to get through the narrative. Of course we tend to do this in reverse — we tend to work out how many slides we want and then fill them, what we must do is work out what we want our narrative to be and then determine the minimum number of slides required to achieve this goal. The fewer slides we use the better.

Most presenters will be aware that when they put a slide up the audience attention will be 90% on the slide and what is on it. If there are words on the slides then the audience will be reading them rather than listening to the speaker. If there are pictures, they will be hypnotised by the pictures and will not look at the speaker. I take great issue with how little attention the speaker will get when they use PowerPoint. It’s very easy to become somewhat invisible. What we need to do to be memorable is work out how to command where the audience is looking and listening so that we deliver our message more effectively.

First thing to do is remove as much text as possible from the slides. My view is that beyond the odd heading there should be no text at all. If you want to convey something then tell the audience. Every second they spend reading is a second they are not listening. Avoid this at all costs. Second is to make sure that the content of the slides supports your story — don’t put anything on a slide that is not needed to support your narrative. You are the storyteller — every now and then, you might show a picture to back you up.

One of the most effective tools I use with speakers is to get them to insert black or blank slides into their slide pack at specific times. This can have a wonderful effect. Imagine you are clicking through your slides, the audience barely knows you exist, they are fixated on the slides, and then suddenly out of nowhere the screen goes black. What happens? Well in every case where I have used this as a tool, the entire audience looks longingly at the speaker. For that moment, the speaker is the centre of attention and can deliver a message that stands apart from the rest of the presentation. Personally, I like to put about one blank slide in every five slides I use to keep bringing the audience back to me. This is a simple but very effective tool.

If you are to use images or graphs in your presentation then it is essential that they are audience specific. One thing I really find irritating as an audience member is when I am told that something is too complex for me, but I should somehow marvel at it. The images I see should support the narrative — if I don’t understand them or they are too difficult to read then how can they be supportive? Always think of the slides as the support act — the speaker must have top billing for the audience.

When we give multiple talks, there is always a tendency to re-use materials. It’s certainly okay to reuse individual slides assuming the content is appropriate for a new audience but we should never ever just pull out a presentation off the shelf and re-use this. This is based on the assumption that it’s perfect and this is never the case. Either we can adjust the presentation based on how well it went the last time or we should adjust it because our audience is different. It would be very rare that we could ever use the exact same presentation again. The effort that goes into the presentation is very clear to the audience.

The purpose of every piece of information on every slide must be very clear to the speaker — there should be no gap fillers in what we use. Some time ago I had a great conversation with a colleague I was supporting was giving a very prestigious presentation. We went through her slide deck with great scrutiny and there was one slide that we could not initially agree on. It was a very complex image of a gene map for autism spectrum disorder. If you have not seen one of these just image something like looks a bit like a bicycle wheel with about 500 spokes on it, each of a different color and length and each with a little label too small to read. To work out whether the slide should go or stay I asked my colleague what the purpose of having it was. The answer was simple; she wanted to convey the complexity of the problem. My concern was the use of a confusing and too small to read diagram to show complexity. In the end, we agreed that she would spend extra time introducing the slide and its specific purpose and make an optometry joke regarding people needing glasses if they couldn’t read it. This was very effective and the slide was one of the more memorable that was shown — but great care was taken to curate the experience for the audience. A lesser version would have damaged the audience-speaker interaction significantly.

The key to giving great presentations with PowerPoint is to be deliberate. Know exactly the purpose of each slide, how the audience will perceive it, and what tools you need to use in concert with the slide to get the right reaction the audience. A good speaker will be the conductor of the audience’s attention. We must know where they are to look and when. We must take control of what we want them to remember days later and what we are happy for them to forget. We need to be sure that we can be the center of attention when needed — and when this happens we need to deliver solid and powerful messages that are well thought out. We are the movie directors in this space and we should never ever ‘just start filming and see what happens’.

Improving what we do

It is imperative that scientists use PowerPoint effectively when they communicate, but there is a lot more to a successful presentation than just the PowerPoint. Some of this is covered in my article on communication axioms. Of greater importance is the need to work towards continual but gradual improvement in how we present. If you just change 2–3 things each time you present with the goal of significantly improving over 6–12 months then the results will be significant. However, if you try to change everything in one go odds are the quality overall will probably go down. Additionally it’s important that we have trusted colleagues that can give us feedback. My article on The Architecture of Feedback explains how to do this in a way that is effective and won’t damage the ego.

Because we like lists

I know that sometimes it’s good to have a bit of a check list for presentations, so I here is my list of things to do both before and at the actual event.

Preparation Rules:

1. Rule of thumb — number of slides = ½ the number of minutes for the talk. E.g. 5 slides for a 10 minute talk. Better still, use only the slides you need.

2. Construct your slides like a movie storyboard — it must flow.

3. Don’t be afraid to have points in the talk with no slides (use a black blanking slide)

4. Minimise the word usage on slides — you don’t want people reading them and slides are for the audience not for you!

5. Make sure all aspects of slides are readable from the back of the room — don’t ever put a slide in a presentation that comes with an apology.

6. Run through the presentation several times to make sure you understand the transitions from one slide to the next — you should not be surprised.

7. Remember, slides are there to support the speaker — the speaker is not there to support the slides.

8. Make sure the organisers have your presentation and it works, especially if it has additional functionality.

9. Be prepared to give the talk without the slides — on occasion this will happen — never hurts to have printout (6 slides per page).

10. Make sure your slides are audience specific — don’t just recycle slides when you know they are inappropriate.

11. A careful mix of data/evidence and a narrative.

12. Breathe deeply and slowly before the event — if nerves are an obstacle, seek specific advice on this.

13. No Coffee, just water and small amounts.

The Event Itself:

1. A presentation should be a partnership between the speaker and the audience.

2. You are in command once you have the lectern — make sure you are comfortable before you start.

3. Look directly to the audience whenever possible — find the ‘interested people’ — not just the friendly ones.

4. Make sure your core message is clear — repeat this several times, so they remember it.

5. Use your slides effectively — they must ‘add’ to the delivery.

6. Do not stand behind a desk/lectern unless you have to — any barrier is a barrier!

7. Acknowledge the knowledge — your audience knows a lot, let them know you appreciate that and where possible use it.

8. Start and end strong — you are judged primarily in the first 10 seconds of your presentation.

9. Don’t lecture people — have a conversation, you might just learn something and the audience will enjoy it more.

10. This is a performance — it’s how you stand, walk, look, respond, interact…..the entire package counts.

11. Finish a few minutes early — this shows respect and preparation. Going over time is an F-you to the audience.

12. Give a clear ending so people know when to clap — ‘thank you for your attention”.

The Final Word

The need for all scientists, and more broadly researchers, to better equip themselves with communications skills is critical. We are losing ground in areas where there should never have been any contest — vaccinations for example. Taking a more sophisticated and deliberate approach to our presentations not only helps us deliver our messages more effectively in front of an audience, but it also redefines how we approach communication challenges in all areas of our lives. If we approach our communication tasks with the same scrutiny and detail that we approach our research work, we will have a much more significant impact.

Other articles by the author:

Scientists: Use PowerPoint as a Tool, don’t be a Tool for PowerPoint

How to be an Excellent Communicator — You Only Need 3 Axioms

The Architecture of Feedback

The Audience Matters — This is how to connect with them