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Friday, August 26, 2016

Tip of the week: cut the narrative "down," but build the slide presentation "up."

I typically argue that a slide presentation needs to be built "up" from a core narrative.  That is, define a simple narrative and add slides consistent with the time you have and the ability of the audience to understand complexity.  Try developing a 3 minute presentation, a 5 minute presentation, etc.  In other words think about what you can add, not what you can cut.

But the process of defining that core narrative works the other way.  At first you are likely to develop a narrative with lots of jargon and complexity.  Try it out on a close colleague and he/she will tell you parts that they don't understand.  Then try it out on a colleague with a little less specific knowledge of your research.  Keep moving "down" the ladder of expertise until you can explain the narrative to what I call the least knowledgeable target listener.  Not everyone, but the least knowledgeable person you hope to engage.

This two way flow is illustrated on the following slide.  The blue arrow illustrates the narrative, the orange the slides. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

tip of the week: "i've got three points to make but I don't have time for all three!?"

The title of this "tip" comes from a question I received at a recent lecture.  After arguing that slide presentations have significant limitations in the amount of data that can be transmitted, a somewhat distraught audience member asked the above question.

My first answer is that if you try to convey all three points rapidly, you will probably convey none of them.  Talking faster or cramming in additional content does not work in a slide presentation.

A second response is to ask if the three points are related and whether they can be synthesized into a single overarching argument.  The process of presentation creation is all about synthesis, so ask yourself if you've fully integrated these three points.

Finally the last resort is to explain one of the three points and offer a teaser, "if I had more time I would give you two additional reasons..."  The interested audience member will track you down after the talk. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Tip of the week: a presentation is not a "how to" manual

 I can't tell you how many presentations I've seen where a speaker will describe a product (often a new web application) and then show multiple slides giving a detailed explanation of how to use the related website.  Presentation slides are not a good way to tell the audience to "click" at the top vs. the bottom of a web page, or for that matter to walk through any type of detailed "how to" instructions.

A presentation might motivate your audience to go to you website, but it is not a good tool for teaching them how to use it.  Use your time to inspire your audience about the product and get them to open the relevant webpage, but don't try to give them detailed user instructions.  It simply doesn't work.

If your goal is really to teach people how to use your website, then be sure they bring their laptops to the meeting and have them "click" through things in an active mode.  Give them a problem to negotiate rather than blathering on with slides. 

I attend a lot of presentations where an administrator describes a new web tool (HR, finance, facilities management, that kind of thing).  It's usually a 25 slide presentation with lots of detail about the associated website.  They would be much better giving a 3 slide presentation, having the audience turn to the website, and then have the audience use the website to solve a hypothetical problem while the speaker can answer questions.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tip of the week: The slide title should tell the slide story

Don't be shy about using the title to direct the audience toward the overarching message of the slide.
Every slide should have one overarching message and the title should relate that message.  Remember presentations are not easy for the audience to understand so you need to guide them to the points you want them to comprehend.

The slide below shows trial accrual for six years.  I could have used a bland title like, "Accrual to trials 2006-2011."  However I really want the audience to focus on what happened in 2011 and want to pass a message about why there was a drop in accrual. 

If this were a journal article I might have used the more objective title.  In a journal article you'll have a spacious caption to explain what you want the audience to get out of the figure.  The reader has more time to digest the data. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tip of the week: Managing audiences with diverse expertise (Audiences 3)

As I discussed on the last tip, individual audience members will vary in their expertise and there will be uncertainty about who will actually come to your talk.  How do you manage this?

The first step is to identify the least expert person you care about reaching.  It is probably impossible to simultaneously address someone in your subspecialty and a lay person, but you can still meet the needs of a fairly broad spectrum.  Prior to the talk, identify the range of people you want to reach and the least expert part of that range.  For example, if you are giving a job talk, the range may span the individuals in your subspecialty to the department chair who hasn't been in the lab in 15 years and doesn't know your specific area.  You've decided ahead of time that you will not try to reach a pure lay person.

So in the above example, draft a simple narrative (see September 21, 2015 tip) that the least expert target audience (department chair in the above example) can understand.   Work out the language that allows you to explain that narrative to the department chair in a short amount of time.  You don't need to include actual data in the narrative, but you do want to transmit the conceptual points.

Now you can add complexity and specificity that only experts can understand.  But you are adding it to a structure and narrative that a broader audience understands.  It is OK if the less expert audience members doesn't understand the methods underlying a slide or two because your talk is organized around a narrative they can understand.  Continually connect detailed messages targeted toward the experts to the points in the narrative you've created for the generalists. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

"Is it a scientific or a lay audience?" That's the wrong question! (Audiences Part 2)

When I teach my presentation course one of the first questions I get is whether we are preparing a presentation for a scientific or a lay audience.  This question is too simplistic.

I attend many scientific seminars at Stanford University and typically the audience is varied.  There are audience members with expertise in the speaker's specialized sub-discipline, with expertise in related disciplines, and scientists from very different disciplines who may have techniques  relevant to the speaker's research.  For example, one goal at the Stanford Cancer Institute is to engage Stanford's outstanding bioengineers in cancer research. 

In other words the typical scientific audience consists of members with a wide range of expertise.  For example, a job talk will contain members from your sub-disciplines as well as department chairs who have little background in your work, but will ultimately decide if you get hired.

Equally important, you probably won't know who is going to show up.

Similarly lay audiences can vary.  Give a presentation to a potential CEO donor from a tech company and he/she may not know your science, but they will want a hard-nosed analytical story.  Other lay audiences may just want to be "wowed."

So the audience is varied and you don't know how varied.  The next "tip" will offer a strategy for coping with this uncertainty. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Tip of the week: Create a presenation for the audience, not yourself (Audiences Part 1)

This is the first of three tips related to audiences.  

Most presenters create presentations for themselves rather than the audience.  Not on purpose, but in fact.  There's a few tell tale signs:
1) the speaker starts talking faster and flipping slides faster in order to get through all the slides in his/her deck. 
2)  the speaker shows overly complicated dense slides and only talks about a small portion of what is on the slide. 
3) A speaker uses all the time and has not encouraged the audience to ask questions or clarify what has been confusing.

Why are these signs of ignoring the audience in the presentation creation process?  Corresponding to the points above:
1) the audience never knows about, and will not miss, slides you don't show.  In general, 24 hours later, the audience won't recall more than 1 or 2 of your graphics.  It does nothing for the audience to ram through 80 complicated slides in 45 minutes.    
2) the audience has never seen your slides and when your slide goes up, they don't know what part of the slide to focus on.  If you're creating a presentation for an audience, you need to focus your slides on only those aspects the audience needs to understand.
3) there is no point in giving a presentation if you are not going to get some audience reaction.  Let them read an article instead.  No slide presentation is perfectly clear and even the most polished presenters can't anticipate where the audience will struggle.  Encouraging audience engagement is a sign that you've prepared your presentation for the audience and you care about what they are learning.

Putting yourself in the mental framework of the audience is the greatest single intellectual challenge in creating a presentation.  You have to remember what you yourself once didn't know.  Dry running with less expert listeners is a great way to help. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Tip of the week: Just say NO to templates and logos!

I heard about an organization that paid a graphic arts company $15,000 to design PowerPoint templates for them.  I would have done it for $5,000 by telling them that the best template is no template at all, just a blank page!  Big bold titles with black ink and a simple font.  That's all you need to know about PowerPoint templates.   

Remove anything from a slide that does not help convey the central message of the slide.  Logos or templates are a distraction.  You can include your logo on the title slide, but after that the audience will know where you work.  Less is more!  Be a minimalist.

Now you may think that a 3 word logo on every slide is not a significant distraction, right?  Wrong!  3 words/slides multiplied by 40 slides is 120 words.  You are asking the audience to read 3 or 4 extra slides in your presentation.  This kind of stuff wears down the audience gradually, imperceptively.  Audience slide fatigue is as unavoidable as death and taxes, but like death and taxes, there is no need to accelerate it. 

Please pass this post on to your marketing department or development office!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Tip of the week: talking faster is not an answer to time constraints

I was at a presentation a few weeks ago where the speaker went through about 50 data rich slides in about 35 minutes and finally looked up at the audience and announced, "I'll have to go faster if I'm going to get through all my slides."  He did and the entire talk was a waste. 

Talking faster is not an answer to time constraints.  Nor is it essential that you get through every slide.  24 hours after your talk, and if you're good, the audience might remember your overall message and one or two key slides, but not more.  Make sure you haven't gone so fast that they don't even recall that.

Prepare for the presentation by having a strategy in mind for dealing with unexpected time problems.  You never know if the presentation will start on time, whether audience questions (which you want!) will change the flow, etc.  Come prepared with strategies to short-circuit some of the details while allowing the key message to be transmitted. 

Speeding up to meet a time constraint is something that seems to give some satisfaction for the speaker, it works against audience needs.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Tip of the week: the narrative supports the data, and the data supports the narrative

Recently a colleague asked me to look over his slides.  After reviewing this highly dense set of data and text slides, I told my friend not to "over think" the slides and concentrate on the overall message first.  I drafted a couple of paragraphs (in Word, not PowerPoint) summarizing a potential narrative for the presentation (see 9/21/2015 tip).

My friend thought the narrative was helpful but didn't see the connection between the narrative and the data slides.  He thought he could summarize the narrative on the first slide and then dive back into all the dense data and text slides.  What he failed to see was that the narrative supports the data and the data supports the narrative.

It's fine to summarize the narrative right up front, but the subsequent data should support that narrative.  The speaker needs to reveal the connection between the data and the narrative on every slide.  The narrative makes each piece of data relevant to a bigger story.  The data lends credibility to the narrative.  Data that doesn't support the narrative shouldn't be presented.     

Monday, April 18, 2016

Tip of the week: back to the "set up" slide

I want to bring attention back to the "set up" slide.  This was the topic of my November 17, 2014 tip, but every time I help someone with a presentation I'm reminded about the importance of the slide, or at least the logic that goes into the slide.  Presenters who have not worked out this logic tend to have presentations with no clear purpose.

Briefly, the "set up" slide is a slide that goes very early in the presentation (perhaps the first slide).  It sets up the over-arching question for the presentation and the logic that motivates that question.  As an example, here is a "set up" slide for my talk on how to do presentations.

The patter is as follows.  On the proceeding slide (the presentation title slide) I argue that too many speakers develop presentations for themselves rather than thinking through audience information needs and what the audience can comprehend, hence the title of the "set up" slide.   I will argue in my presentation that slides are inherently difficult to comprehend (bullet 1).  I will also argue that scientific information adds to the challenge (bullet 2).  I will also argue that most audiences contain listeners of varied expertise and the speaker may not have a good understanding of the range prior to walking in (bullet 3).  Given these problems, the overarching question is how to help the audience.

The "set up" slide gives the audience an immediate understanding of what they can expect to learn in this talk.  I articulate the overarching question in more detail later in the talk.

Whether or not you use a "set up" slide like the one above, or the one discussed in the November 17, 2014 tip, you need to work out an overarching question and a simple logic that motivates it.  I would create a "set up" slide even if you decide not to use it in the presentation. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Tip of the week: a 4th way to organize your presentation

On the September 21, 2015 "tip" I presented 3 options for figuring out what to include (and what not to include) in your presentation: 1a) write a script, 1b) give a short "chalk talk," or 1c) write an index card for each major idea.

Here is a 4th method (method 1d) I call the "Learning Tree."

Before getting started, figure out the single most important thing you would like audiences to learn from your talk (Learning Objective 1.0).   This should be a qualitative conclusion.  Then figure out the next level of ideas that will give them a deeper understanding of that first major learning objective (2a, 2b, 2c, etc.).  Keep going until you've figured out all the key points you hope the audience will learn  from your talk.  You can now make slides to convey those main ideas.

Below is an example from a talk I recently heard, which unfortunately was cluttered with many more objectives than shown on this Learning Tree

The main point the speaker was trying to make is that not all cells in a tumor are lethal, but that there is a subset of "cancer stem cells" that are important for the future course of the disease.  Most of the tumor contains cells that are less virulent.  As a result we need to develop therapeutics that specifically target these cells. 

A second level point he wanted to make is that he could distinguish cancer stem cells from other cells in the tumor by measuring the expression of two surface makers, XX and YY.  High XX and Low YY was a characteristic  on non-stem cells, low XX and high YY of stem cells.  He also wanted the audience to learn that only 1/300 cells in triple negative breast tumors were cancer stem cells and that the research in other tumor types had not been done yet (3rd level under cancer stem cells branch).

On the non-stem cell side (left had side of third level) he wanted the audience to understand that as XX expression moved lower (low-low) the cell was more likely to be permanently in the non stem cell state (not plastic).  Conversely as expression of YY rose (high-high), then it became possible for the cell to revert to a stem cell state.  

Finally on the lowest level of the tree, he wanted the audience to learn that in the high-high case a somewhat lower expression of X (mid-high) might result in spontaneous transformation of the cell into a stem cell state.  Howeverconversion would only occur in high-high cells when they were fed with a magical cocktail called ZZ.

Now the actual presentation can give real data, quantify all these qualitative conclusions, and give more precise quantitative definitions of high-high, high-mid, etc.  But the key is to understand qualitatively what you want the audience to learn before you begin making slides.  Use the tree to focus your slides on the evidence that support these conclusions.   Avoid bringing in other issues that are less important.  Make sure the audience learns the point on the tree, no more and no less.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Tip of the week: don't use slides to teach a course

The other day I attended a course session on diagnostic technologies.  The subject of the day was the mathematics of test validity.  It involved variables such as false positive rate, false negative rate, disease prevalence in the population, number of subjects in a trial, etc.  The instructor taught the course with PowerPoint slides. 

While there are numerous statistical subtleties in interpreting data, the basic mathematics involves no more than a bit of first year calculus.  Nevertheless it was confusing.  Unless a student is writing down the mathematics as it is presented, he/she will not absorb it.  Slides allow an instructor to present information too quickly.  It's hard to absorb the meaning of equations as a passive listener.

In the old days, a science lecture would unfold on the chalk board in a step by step manner.  This gave the student time to absorb the material and reinforce the learning process by taking notes as the instructor wrote on the board.  There was deeper connection between speaker and listener.

Slides are great for presenting a broad picture of research that has an interesting narrative.  They are a poor way to ingrain mathematics or a scientific theory in a student's head.  A slide presentation is better at inspiring interest than it is at teaching methodology.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Tip of the week: redo the "index card method" when you think you're done

On the September 21, 2015 "tip" I suggested an "index card" approach (among 3 options) to help define your overall narrative, prior to making slides.  Now, after you have made slides return to the index card method to rid your presentation of extraneous content.

The following figure summarizes the index card method pre- and post-slide making.  The red markings show how the method changes in the post-slide making period.

So now that you've made all your slides, make an index card for each slide (it was for each "idea" prior to slide creation) and write the "takeaway" message for each slide on each corresponding card.  Now give a summary of your talk (to yourself if necessary) using just the index cards.   I guarantee this will help you identify unnecessary slides and material that doesn't help convey the key message of the slide.  You may also find that rearranging the index cards creates a smoother narrative.

So even though we started the process by creating a coherent narrative, the process of making slides erodes that coherence (it's like the childhood game of "telephone," where a secret is told and retold and comes out different after a time).   Using index cards at the end will restore coherence.

There's an even broader point.  You're not done when you think you're done.  Every time you give a presentation you will find ways to convey the same content more coherently and concisely. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Tip of the week: how to design a poster

Many of the tips and the overall philosophy on this blog are relevant to designing a poster and helping you make an impactful presentation of that poster.

The first thing is to consider the audience for your poster.  Do you expect someone to read the poster while you're not there, or do you want to use the poster to support your oral presentation?  To me the answer is obvious and it is the latter.  Most poster observers are walking around, they don't want to stand there for 20 minutes reading alone, and they want to be guided through the substance quickly.  Moreover, you can always have a handout that someone can take with them if you're not there.  Like a slide presentation, don't use a poster to replace your journal article.

Below is an example of a 36" x 48" poster that supports my activities on this website (it might be too small to read as reproduced here, but you get the idea).  I've limited myself to 9 fairly simple visuals and provided enough simple text to help me talk a listener through the content and even to help a viewer if I'm not there.  Just like preparing a presentation, you need to think through the key summary points and not overwhelm the audience with detail.  Exclude all graphics that you don't plan to talk about.  Be sure you can talk through the poster in 5 minutes, 10 at the outside.  Remember, the idea is to get people interested in your work, not to give a comprehensive review.  Show the most important results on easy to understand graphics.

My presentation first walks the listener down the left most (blue) column, summarizing the problem statement, the overarching question, and the overarching solution.  The top gray horizontal bar provides more detail about the challenges, while the tan box provides two examples of converting bad slides into good ones.

I can get through this in about 5-10 minutes.  If the listener is interested, I will direct them to more detailed information. 


Keep your poster simple and clean.  An alternative to the above format is to have the poster center on a single overall "systems" diagram of your research (see October 15, 2015 "tip").  A single central figure can be a great device for a poster if you can use it to talk through the essence of your research.