How to Give a Bad Science Presentation

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We've all been to some *bad* science presentations over the years. Heck, I think I've given a few. No more! This 6 minute video (by 2 UM students) points out some common issues with Powerpointing and how to have your audience salivating for more of your data.

From the author:

I think there should be more of an acceptance of "walking out of talks" in science. I have been tempted so many times to get up and walk out in the middle of a presentation or even to heckle the presenter with "Did you actually prepare in any way for this talk? I take time out my day/experiments/writing to see this" As a graduate student I feel it's a bit too bold and sophomoric though to do such a thing. It will have to wait until I am old and cranky to get away with it. I've seen big shot professors stand in the back and walk out though if the presentations are bad though.

Hat tip Tim!


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Heh nice little video. I agree with most of their rules and try to apply them when I give talks. My own rule of thumb for slides is: One large image, one line of text. The text is usually the main conclusion of the slide, just in case someone is dozing off and needs the key point driven home.
It's hard at first to break out of the standard wall-of-text stereotypical PowerPoint, but once you do it a few times it becomes much easier, and in the end is pretty liberating.

With so little text on the slides, it's really important to have the structure of the talk clear in your mind so you don't stumble over the key points, however.

I've only walked out when the presentation was being simulcast, so the presenter couldn't see me walking away.

I've been told that all your most salient points should be either a bullet or within the figure somewhere. That's because people are so used to Powerpoints that they'll get confused if there's a major point that's not in the text.

The best counter argument is to think of the best talks you've ever seen. The speakers often do not rely heavily on their presentation software. My undergrad neuroscience mentor would lecture for two hours with minimal slides and handouts and simply teach using the socratic method. It was riveting. Granted that's a different form of teaching than presenting your data, but I would just suggest as an experiment removing bullets in your next talk. You'll notice people making more eye contact with you, which keeps it more "personable" and easier for people to pay attention.

I agree that bullets have become so ubiquitous that people use them simply because everyone else does, but that's really the point of our intervention video. At the risk of sounding grandiose, we need to change the culture of science to restore the emphasis on public speaking, effective communication, and argumentation. Powerpoint and bullets simply make it too easy to give a talk without adequate preparation.

I fully agree with the authors of the video on the points regarding text and how prepared you are for your talk. For my talks, most of the slides have no text other than a title. Other slides have text, but if they have bullets (like "three main conclusions"), they will be actual bullet points with just a few words following rather than a bullet with an entire sentence or two following. And these slides are very rare.

Where I might disagree is the notion of the outline, but as the authors pointed out, this depeneds on the length of your talk. A post-doc in my lab just gave a practice job talk today that was an hour long. He did not have an outline, but both my professor and I thought he needed one. The kind that he'd refer back to every once in a while to keep track of his progress on the talk. He had 6 experiments, afterall, and it would have been nice to see before-hand how they'd all hang together to form his main point.

I also think it's funny how there might be a symposium on a particular narrow topic with 8 12-minute talks in it. And each talk has this ridiculous background about the topic. You should at least realize that if you're slated to go 4th, you can cut all of the background because the previous people will have covered it! So I liked that part of the video as well.

I agree that we need to champion "no text" powerpoints as scientists. I'm a cognitive neuroscientist, so we do lots of human experiments on computers. So powerpoint is extremely useful in giving a talk, because you can show the behavioral task to the audience without having to describe it. It's at least as important for that aspect as it is for presenting actual graphs and brain images. But that's about all it's good for! The rest of the talk should be something you can say without the bullet points of aid.

I'm pretty lousy myself, but one feature I've seen that works really well for a good speaker is to have blank, black slides. In other words, when the points you are making do not need an illustration, remove it and have the audience focus entirely on your words rather than whatever pretty picture happens to remain on screen.

It does take a presenter with a fair bit of confidence to pull off, but it is amazing how much clearer the presentation becomes when you do not have a distraction to involuntary focus on.

The comments in this video are SO true.

The distinction between presentations and paper or report-writing has become completely blurred so that now the expectation is that your presentation is also a report on your work (with justifications, footnotes etc.), and an awful lot of details get crammed into very little space.

In particular, the first point is important - your most important asset in giving presentations is your voice. If your voice is faltering and unsure, you are lost no matter how good your graphics.

Great critique! Style of presentation definitely has a much greater impact on the audience than actual content. I once saw someone present with a single slide where the figures just kept appearing, overlapping and obscuring previous images. About three images in it started looking like a pollock painting. Five images in everyone was looking for the door. I have no idea what the man talked about but the hideous presentation style has stuck with me as a reminder that no matter how much text, or how small the could always be worse.