Careful attention to study design, execution, and analysis are of paramount importance in achieving excellence in research. The very best science, however, is meaningless unless communicated effectively to the scientific community. Consequently, aspiring investigators must master the skill of delivering effective presentations. There are several principles to consider when designing a presentation.
Principle 1: Target your audience
It is crucial that you target the audience. The level of detail, particularly in the Introduction and Methods sections, should be tailored specifically to the characteristics of your audience. Consider the level of the group, as the details in your presentation will differ depending on whether you are speaking to students vs. residents vs. senior surgeons. Similarly, consider the expertise of the group. You will want to include a substantially different level of detail when presenting to a broad, multidisciplinary group than when presenting to a group of experts in your field.
Principle 2: Your slides are not your lecture notes
The purpose of your slides is to enhance what you are saying, not to replicate it. You can certainly use your slides to remind you of the key points you wish to make, but you should not use your slides as a teleprompter script. Create slides solely to reinforce your messages to the audience. If you need notes to help you remember what to say (I do!), create a separate set of notes on paper or an electronic device. I use the PDF reader on my iPad for this – it works great and eliminates having to manage a stack of papers while speaking.
Principle 3: Use images to enhance your message
Use high-quality photos, diagrams and graphs to enhance your message whenever possible; images are vastly more effective for conveying information than text bullet points.
Principle 4: Design your slides for the back of the room
Slides should be designed so that they can be easily understood from the back of the room. Font sizes need to be large enough to be read by the entire audience. As a rule of thumb, avoid using font sizes below 24-point. Keep tables simple and make figures large enough so that everyone can appreciate the important details. Instead of apologizing for a “busy slide” or saying “I know this doesn’t project well,” commit to creating slides that everyone will be able to see without straining.
Principle 5: Use color combinations that are readable
Color combinations need to be selected carefully. Poor color choices result in text that cannot be read or graphics that cannot be seen. Red text is particularly hard to read on the ubiquitous blue background. Remember that color combinations that seem fine on your computer screen often fall apart when projected on a screen.
Principle 6: Do not overcrowd your slides
Keep content as visually simple as possible to make it easy for the audience to focus on the key points. Avoid clutter and suppress the urge to fill every square millimeter of the slide. Empty space is OK.
Principle 7: Build complex content gradually
When introducing complex content—such as a study-flow diagram or a molecular signaling pathway—build the content gradually to help the audience follow your thinking. Start with the first item and add additional items sequentially as you begin speaking about them.
Principle 8: Use animation to guide the audience
Use animation to direct the audience’s attention to important aspects of a slide. Use arrows, box outlines, and other features to guide your audience to specific areas of tables and figures as you are discussing them. This type of judicious animation obviates the need to use a laser pointer. In contrast, superfluous animation that doesn’t directly enhance understanding should be avoided at all costs; unnecessary animation distracts your audience and impedes effective communication.
- Be sure to practice your presentation in advance, both on your own and with colleagues. Do this at least once with a projector so that you can see what your slides will look like on the big screen when viewed from the back of the room. Adjust your content and delivery to be sure that your presentation will be able to fit within the allotted time.
- Anticipate and prepare for questions from the audience.
- Be sure to bring back-up copies of your presentation (and ideally your laptop, just in case).
- It is critical to preview your slides on the system being used at the venue. Be sure that all of your formatting remains intact on the meeting’s system.
- Check the podium prior to your session. Familiarize yourself with the equipment and be sure water will be available if you think you might need it.
- During the presentation, pace yourself so that you stay on time.
- Afterwards, critically assess your performance; think about what you could do better and keep working to improve.
These principles stem from the direct influence that the work of Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte has had on me as I have worked on improving my own presentations, and I highly encourage you to refer to their books and blogs for more information; they are tremendous resources for ideas and inspiration. I started with Garr Reynolds’ “Presentation Zen,” an eye-opening book that completely changed the way I approach presentations. His follow-up book, “Presentation Zen Design,” has also been invaluable. Nancy Duarte’s complementary books, “Slide:ology” and “Resonate,” focus heavily on how to communicate ideas through visual stories, and are both outstanding. Both authors provide further insights on the web and Twitter; see www.presentationzen.com and @presentationzen for more from Garr Reynolds, and www.duarte.com/blog/ and @nancyduarte for more from Nancy Duarte.