How to stop boring your audience: a short guide to presentations

(Disclaimer: This is a post based on personal experience [read "agony during conference talks"] and therefore only moderately objective. With all of the advice below, I'm not saying that you should compromise your professionalism by acting or looking like a clown. But keep in mind that scientists [assuming you'll be talking to scientists] are humans too and want to be entertained in one way or the other. If you have a completely different opinion on all of this [e.g. Comic Sans is the greatest font EVER], write about it or leave me a comment. I also apologize for the occasional use of semi-appropriate language.)  

“What the f*ck was that?” Apparently, these were my words after I had witnessed the worst talk ever in the history of scientific conferences in this solar system (can’t speak for other solar systems but seriously, they’ll have to work bloody hard there to get THAT bad). While I had already forgotten about this statement, I recently got called out for it at the ESA meeting in Sacramento, when I ran into the dude who was sitting in the audience with me that day. I knew he looked familiar. Why am I telling you this? It is not to prove that swearing and coarse language is a good way of being remembered (although maybe a little bit). Rather, I am digging out these slightly hazy memories to prove a point: there are two ways of giving a talk that people will remember. On one hand, you can suck. At this stage, I am unsure whether or not leaving your audience in an elusive state between cringing embarrassment, acute narcolepsy and infernal rage represents a smart career strategy, but for now I’m going to go with: it probably isn’t. On the other hand, you can be awesome. How you ask? Welcome to my magical mystery tour through the tunnel of entirely subjective presentation-horrors.

(For the purpose of this exercise, we need a dummy project. Let’s imagine you went to Antarctica to study the most graceful and beautiful animals on the planet. Why study penguins? Because. Now watch the video again and pay particular attention to the guy that’s coming from the center back at 0:12, waddles around the standing fella and then proceeds to slide through the picture on his belly. This is not only adorable, but your scientifically trained eyes have also noticed that, unlike most of the other dudes, he doesn’t have any shitstains on his white belly. Good on him, clean chap. But, what you really want to know is if the belly sliding might actually be an adaptive behavior of penguins to clean their tummy (yay for spurious correlations). You then proceed to wrestle a few hundred penguins with poop on their belly on a boat, drive to the nearest city that has a bobsleigh track and one by one, send the your penguins down the track. Like little penguin rockets. God I’d love to see the ethics proposal for that. Anyway, you collect them on the bottom and lo and behold, their bellies are white as a sheet. Success. You then grab a handful of clean and filthy penguins, chuck them in a pool with a bunch of leopard seals and sure enough, all the ones with dirty tummies get eaten, while the clean ones live. Eureka and yay for clean bellies and countercamouflage. Clearly, penguins perform belly-slides to wash the crap out of their feathers in order to avoid getting mangled by nasty mammals. Terrific. After all this work, you wrote up the paper and then decided to go present it at a conference. It’s presentation time…)


1. Your story

OK, we’ll start with the easiest one. Your story. This is easy, since you have it all worked out, right? You got your introduction, your materials & methods, your results, your interpretation and your conclusion, all neatly packed into your paper. Piece of cake, just turn it into a presentation.

But alas… Bullshit. If you found yourself consentingly nodding while reading the above you got issues. Lots of them. A presentation is not a scientific paper. It’s your time to shine. Realistically, the average paper gets read by about 3 people or so (at least that’s what I seem to remember from a twitter post recently). That means, if you have 3.5 people in the room when you present (imagine the 0.5 of a person now), you’re already exceeding the number of readers your paper will have throughout your lifetime, so stop boring the living hell out of your audience and present your research in an engaging and exciting way. I mean, for Christ’s sake, there’s a reason why Steven Spielberg hasn’t picked up on article five in the latest issue of The Journal of Theoretical Biology (no offence to article five – might be a ripper actually).

But just how to do this? Easy-peasy. Sometimes. Sometimes a bloody hard nut to crack. Think of analogies (if you shit on your suit you’re in trouble). Think of a detective story (why did penguin A survive, while penguin B got mauled? Maybe it has something to do with a mysterious behavior…). Think of your grandma (not sure why I’m saying that). Cripes, if everything else fails, think about the last goddamn Tom Cruise movie you watched (how an inordinately small penguin saved the post-apocalyptic world – OK, not helpful at all. I'm sorry I made you think about a Tom Cruise movie.). Anyway, just give your audience a plot that they can be excited about and don’t present your research as a paper. And one more thing. Do NOT EVER start your introduction with: “As we all know, our climate is changing…”. If you ever do that, then the reason why the audience isn't yelling at you or sobbing in despair is that everybody just threw up in their mouths…

 2. The first couple of slides...

Speaking of introduction… See that?


Tweety-tweety-tweet. I’m bored out of my mind already, so I’m on twitter or some other platform that let’s me escape from the eternal boredom of the next 15 minutes. So is everybody else in the room that hasn’t passed out instantaneously and is slowly drooling on their neighbors as a Pavlovian response to the great dreariness that is your first slide. How about something like this.

This is indefinitely better. You would say something along the lines of: "in the next 15 minutes, I will try to show you just how important personal hygiene is for penguins." Instead of watching cat videos on facebook, your audience may actually be intrigued and pay attention, just because they want to see what you're up to...

Because here’s the news: no one actually wants to know your name just yet. In all likelihood, you’re going to remain anonymous scientist X who just gave a sucky presentation. Nor does anybody really want to read your title, because guess what: it’s actually in the conference program and most people probably read it before they walked into your talk. You want to give your audience your personal details and the title? Do it after the first three slides once they swallowed the hook. That way, they may actually remember your name. And one more thing: don’t necessarily use the title of your paper. Be creative. Here’s a good title for a conference talk that people may actually want to see:


3. More than words

Surely, you know the song by Extreme. Here’s some advice. Put it on the next time you prepare a presentation. On repeat. Not because I'm suggesting you grow your hair out for your next talk but because within the ghastly cacophony of godawful presentations, the “let’s-slam-three-bulletpoints-with-a-bunch-of-text-on-every-slide-because-I’m-too-f*cking-lazy-to-come-up-with-something-better” unfortunately reveals its ugly face all too often. I mean, if anybody wants to read what you’ve been up to, they’ll go home, put on their PJs, cuddle their cat or dog, grab their laptop and read your stuff while they’re having a nice cup of tea and can go to the bathroom whenever they want. That said, the only thing that’s worse than sitting in the audience at stupid o’clock in the morning, reading some blurb that could be comfortably read on a couch at an appropriate hour, is having the same garbage read to you by the clown on stage. The reality is: at your average conference, the eager attendant can listen to approximately 15 talks per day (if ample caffeination is provided), equating to approximately 375 power point slides. Now we take the stupid three-bulletpoint slide and we nimbly-bimbly calculate that this exposes the audience to 1,125 bulletpoints per day, which makes 4,500 bulletpoints during a four day conference. 4,500 bulletpoints or a journey that is about as exciting as riding Grandma’s old pushbike through the Sahara desert or eating a spoonful of flour. Pardon, 4,500 spoons. Without a drink. What I’m trying to say is that text on a powerpoint slide, read word for word by the presenter, really is a heck of a lot drier than old cornbread. And the only thing that makes it even worse is if that text is neatly packaged into three or more bulletpoints. Doesn’t matter if you changed the symbols to little smileyfaces or stars, which I’m sure was a mighty big accomplishment.

“But, but, but, I need the text on my slides to know what I’m saying.” If that’s the case, please have a spoonful of cement (along with the flour) and harden the f*ck up. There are more ways of having notes and reminders that you don’t have to share with your audience than lovesongs by The Beatles. Just write them underneath your slides (hint: where it says presenter’s notes), prepare handwritten notes (there’s such thing as pen and paper), have it skywritten (if you’re presenting outside and have a lot of research funding to spare), or have your pointers tattooed on your forearm. I don’t care but please delete the goddamn novel from your slides. Instead, replace the pointless blurb with…

4. Visuals

Giving a presentation is your chance to introduce your valued audience to the “Ahs” and “Ohs” of your amazing research. That does not necessarily have to be cute, cuddly, or beautiful, but it does have to be visually pleasing and meaningful. Photographs are one way, but they reach their explanatory limits very quickly. On that note though, please don’t just stack different sized photographs next to each other. It looks like you’re about as professional as Bugs Bunny. If you have multiple photographs, make sure they’re the same size and actually somewhat in order. And give your photos a frame. A simple line around your picture that goes with your color scheme will make it look like the photograph actually belongs there, rather than having been shoved in your talk 5 minutes before presenting (which is obviously unheard of). Framing your photo takes 10 seconds but makes a world of difference. Another alternative to full photographs is to cut out certain parts of a photograph (as seen in opening slide above). Adobe Photoshop has a mighty fine magnetic lasso tool that allows you to trace an object and cut it out of a picture if it’s contours are clear enough (i.e. green tree frog in tree, snowy owl in the snow, and lady in leopard costume eaten by leopard probably won’t fair so well). If it works, make sure you edit it under >Select>Refine edge, then copy/paste it into a new document, delete the white background and export it as a .png file. This can add a nice and dynamic nuance to your slides.

But what is beyond photographs? If you don't have a vast collection of photographs and feel adventurous, try your luck with vector files and draw your own illustrations (see first opening slide above). You don’t have to be a Picasso or van Gogh to make pretty and evocative illustrations. If you’re lucky enough to be in possession of Adobe Illustrator, it’s simply a matter of tracing an outline, which requires about the skill-level of a sloppily-trained monkey. Bonus of using your own drawings is that you can match your illustrations to your color scheme. In this context, avoid pre-made clipart like the plague. It’s about as appealing as gonorrhea and as meaningful as drunk sex.

Speaking of color scheme. Don't do black and white. I know it's classy but hey, it's also as uplifting as the global financial crisis in the 1920s. And don't do yellow text on blue slides. Just no. In all honesty, finding two, three or four colors that vaguely fit together, provide sufficient contrast and don’t look like a pile of cat vomit on an old rug really can’t be that hard. And while we’re at it, Comic Sans, despite of what the name suggests is neither funny nor pretty but a very, very sad case of consistent aesthetical crime against humanity. Powerpoint has a whole range of half-decent fonts and if that doesn’t cut it for you, there’s plenty more. Surely, anybody can find something other than Arial, Times New Roman, or Comic Sans.

Finally – graphs. I don’t know about you but graphs that have been cut out of the .pdf file of a paper grind my gears. Surely, if this is your paper, you’ll have some other version of that graph, in which you can’t count the pixels and that doesn’t look like your 5 year old kid got hold of a pair of multimedial scissors and went nuts on your publication. Again, there is actually sleek ways to present graphs using Adobe Illustrator or a program such as Prism or, of course, R. But jeez, even drawing your graphs on a piece of paper and scanning it in will look better than a graph cut from a pdf.

That all sounds like a lot of work you say? It bloody well is. But, remind me, how many people read your paper on average?

A graph illustrating how many penguins with or without fecal stains got mauled by leopard seals. Publication quality graph? Probably not... More exciting than a dose of valium for your audience? Probably. Also, note how the graph can be used to explain the principle of countercamouflage...

5. Wow, Powerpoint/Keynote has some cool animations…

Yeah, right. Don’t overdo it here. Using too many animations in your slides is like Fast and Furious 14, The Hangover 8 or the 1,237th season of Friends. Someone should have tied and gagged the creators before it was too late but now we all have to deal with the misery. Sounds that accompany animations only make things worse and give you the aura of a teenager. However, there are in fact some very neat ways of transitioning between your slides, which are inoffensive and effectively give your presentation a style upgrade and a personal note. It was time for a positive and constructive sentence.

6. The grand finale

Finally, what to say and what to do. First of all, rehearsing your talk is key. There may be the odd person on this planet that can get up and speak completely free from the heart and do a good job with it – worry not, it isn’t you. Realistically, a good talk wants to be practiced. You need to know what to say when and how to say it well. Red flashlight here – what I don’t mean is: write down your talk word for word using written language and then memorize it in excruciating detail. Why? Because there’s a reason why there is no audiobook of Ecological Monographs. And because you’ll look like a fool who rehearsed every word of his/her talk. And trust me, they’ll know. Unless they passed out during your first sentence (see Pavlovian response above). The key is to rehearse your talk, but to speak in a natural way. If necessary, write down your talk in a colloquial style and then read it to you but, in any case, make sure your language doesn’t sound like you’re a walking textbook. I’m not implying that you should swear like a loaded sailor, although the occasional use of borderline-appropriate vocabulary with fecal connotations has proven to be quite effective in the past…

When it’s showtime, before you even start your talk, smile at your audience. If you’re uncomfortable speaking to them (which I can’t blame you for because people generally suck), imagine them naked, take a shot of whiskey before talking (preferably not as you walk on stage) or think of a penguin. No matter what, don’t show them that you hate them more than anything else in the room because it’s not very flattering. Once you found your way into your presentation, breathe a little every now and then. Have a drink with you and take a little sip when you show them the first slide that has a graph on it. People love to think that they’re smart and giving them the opportunity to explore a graph by themselves for a few seconds is a great way of fostering the illusion that they’re not as thick as they actually are. Another thing to be mindful of is the old laserpointer. If you have one, great. But please, do not try to make any circles, lines, figure eights or other precarious sculptures with it because it will look like the laser pointer has fallen into the furry and uber-excited little paws of the worlds most hypertensive squirrel which has just finished its nineteenth cup of coffee. Finally, use your hands, by all means. But don’t use them to point out things on your slides because in 99% of all cases, you are about five metres away from the screen, hunkered down behind a lectern. That means you’ll be pointing at an extraordinary big canvas somewhere in the distance that has your slide on it and not a single soul in the audience will know where you’re pointing.

And with that, I want to thank my collaborators, my funding agencies, my supervisors, my colleagues, my mom, my mom’s mom, the garbage men, Steve Jobs, Tom Cruise, Bugs Bunny, and anybody who has ever embarrassed him/herself on the internet… Does anybody care? Nope. Really? Ok… Just keep it short, you overly grateful bugger.


(Closing notes: although I'm far better at preaching what to do than doing it myself, here's an example of a presentation I gave last year. The talk was introducing a novel analytical technique described in my Journal of Animal Ecology paper, which is indefinitely less exciting than the penguin-poop story. Presentation reads from left to right in lines -- note that there are bits and pieces missing because they were animated to appear on the slide.)