Pfft PPT

Creating PPT presentations is on my mind. (I don’t use PPTs in class, so this is not about lectures with PPTs.)

Recently, I have witnessed a midcareer/senior academic who should be at the top of their game (mid-to-late 50s, lots of accolades on the CV) deliver an abysmally bad talk during a seminar in the context of possibly bringing this person into a leadership position at our institution. I cannot describe just how bad the presentation was; it was embarrassing to watch. It was so bad that those who advocated for interviewing this person should (and do) feel very ashamed of themselves. And all the students in the audience will now lose six months of training on how to create presentations, because they will rightly ask, “If this senior person can do it, why can’t I?” All the figures looked like $hit; when my first-year graduate students make figures like these, they get a stern talking-to and repeated instructions on what not to do. Figures need to have axis labels and legible numbers on axes. When you have 5 scattered points on  graph (sans error bars, mind you), that doesn’t mean you should draw a freakin’ wiggly B-spline through all of them and call it an experimental curve. Your figures should not be falling off the goddamn slide like it’s the edge of a cliff. Do not show slide after slide of awful-looking experimental plots, taking us down the rabbit hole of your thought process, without actually ever telling us why any of us should give a $hit. People left the talk confused and irritated. There is no way this person is fit for a leadership position when they cannot make a PPT presentation. (Or maybe they just didn’t want the job at all and were self-sabotaging. Seriously, it was baaaaaawd.)

In unrelated news, there is this conference I am going to for the first time; it has a strong industrial presence. They have already annoyed me with a mandatory paper and the need to have it checked by my “industrial sponsor.” Now they want a presentation uploaded in advance. Today I find that they have a freakin’ template they want us to use, and the stupid template contains a mandatory stupid purpose slide (WTF is that?) and a mandatory stupid outline slide which serves no purpose (you know, like the stupid purpose slide) if it’s completely generic, like what these people want. Also, they specify font types and sizes and even allowed colors!

Then again, when  senior people give mind-blowingly awful presentations, maybe detailed templates created by anally retentive professional conference organizers are are exactly what we all need.

17 comments

  1. From the way that you are describing this presenter, they seem to be displaying the level of cluelessness that we customarily expect of aspiring administrators. I say hire him!

    (I assume it’s a him. I don’t want to be sexist and entertain the possibility that someone that clueless is a woman.)

  2. I hope he at least had some crazy animations and slide transitions in there…
    No but seriously: Seeing how hard it is for young people to establish (and maintain) themselves in science these days, it is difficult to fathom that folks like this are still taking up time, space and money. Or are these mid-to-late-50s people really the last of the mohicans that had a relatively easy ride?

  3. You are not thinking of adhering to all the templates and instructions for the industry conference, are you?

  4. I will adhere to some of the easy requirements, but definitely not all. For instance, they were even specifying thickness and color of lines on graphs, FFS — I certainly have no intention of redoing any graphs for this thing.

  5. So…I’m a grad student who really struggles with making good presentations. You mention some things not to do, but do you have any general tips for what a good presentation should look like? Like you, I’m also in a field where we generally use graphs a lot. However, presenters in our field tend to have a different problem…wayyyyy too much text on slides (and this is also something I struggle with).

  6. MC, great question. I think it deserves its own post soon. Are the slides going to be printed as handouts or not? If yes, then a bit more text is warranted than if not, just so they are more self-contained. But if no handouts, in general, 3-4 bullet points (not full sentences) per slide is generally the maximum. And keep things simple: black letters on white background, a clear sans serif font (e.g., Arial or Helvetica), minimal template frills (you could do a colored font for the slide title, or a colored top banner in which you put the slide title, and optionally a very small and discrete institution logo somewhere in a bottom corner, but nothing more — don’t waste slide area on unnecessary stuff and use a limited number of colors for the text in general; however, the first (title) slide can be a bit more irreverent and it’s common to use a nice image for its background). People don’t really read slides; if you pay attention to how you yourself view other people’s slides, you will notice that it’s a combination of listening to the speaker, looking at the figures, and reading only some words here and there from the slides. Note which parts of the slide your eye gravitates to (e.g., top left corner is quite important). Don’t go crazy with animations or slide transitions — they are usually unnecessary and should be used sparingly or not at all. If anything is moving in your presentation, there should be a good reason for it (e.g., embedding a video with time-resolved data in your slide is a good reason; text flying in/out or fading in/out — definitely unnecessary on every slide, use only for a special effect if you really have to). I see a lot of text on slides for some people who are afraid they will forget what to say, but that can be fixed by practice. You can take out superfluous text and put it in the comments box instead, where you can always look it up as you practice…

    So much for now, I will write more later.

  7. My postdoc advisor was kinda like this. Brilliant, 1k citations/yr, under 40. Yet could not give a ppt presentation that anyone but specialists could get through. Tons of text and equations everywhere. And he was so soft-spoken and modest, even experts sometimes left without understanding what the key results were.

    Though he would never have plotted 5 points without error bars and some ridiculous high-order empirical function like your speaker. I think I would lose all respect for someone with a PhD if they showed me that with a straight face.

  8. I think the use of different text colors and animations in power point is a bit like using italics or bold font in writing. It’s totally fine to leave them out, and used in moderation they can be effective enhancements. The boundary between moderation and excess is in the eye of the beholder, so maybe start with none and build up slow. Think about what works in the presentations you like.

    Personally I like slides that are somewhat colorful – to a point. Colors grab the eye, so they’re a nice way to pull attention to your data. It’s worth the effort to make sure the colors in your plots or other images are playing nicely together and with any colored text you’re using.

    I can’t believe a conference is specifying the slide template for presenters! That seems like a great way to alienate all the people who now have to fiddle with the decks they’ve been using.

  9. I rarely give my slides as handouts, but still struggle with whether to put only figures/drawings on slides and rely on oral delivery, or whether it helps anyone to put bullet-points. When I see presentations with bullet-points they always seem mainly to be for the presenter her/him-self.

    I wonder what your opinion on animation in presentations is. My presentations are usually heavy with animations, embedded movies or online demos. I find this appealing, but never actually got any feedback on this aspect. I assume others don’t do it because they don’t always have the technical skills.

  10. The only thing about allowed colors, is that a surprisingly high percentage of the population is color-blind in certain ways: it is an under-realized problem. I was at a presentation yesterday, and afterwards talked to one colleague, who basically couldn’t understand some of the key (simple, otherwise well presented) figures because of her color-blindness. It would be good if people kept this in mind when putting talks together. I believe there are web sites where you can get your presentation “checked” for accessibility to the color-blind. Now, IF- and probably only IF- the required template and colors was for those purposes, that’s a good thing…

  11. @Rfon, I like having succinct bullet points on a slide. That way if I zone out from the drone of a boring speaker (or the mumbling of one I can’t hear—I’m going deaf), I can still catch up.

    I’ve yet to see an animation-heavy talk that was worthwhile. The animations almost always see to be a way of hiding lack of content.

    I’ve seen some useful videos (where the phenomenon being described referred to behavior or motion that is much easier to show than to describe), but videos seem to be the part of the talk that most often has technical difficulties. Most videos are not worth the risk of disruption to the talk.

  12. @gasstationwithoutpumps , I tell my group to always make the title of the slide contain a verb, and give the main point of the slide: “Transient UV-Vis spectrum shows charge transfer from A to B”. That serves the “catch up if you’ve fallen asleep” purpose, and also makes them think about (and declare affirmatively) what the point of each slide is.

  13. @gasstationwithoutpumps .. I probably shouldn’t overestimate my ability not to drone on 😉

    I agree it leads to technical challenges. I usually need to insist on using my own laptop and not the conference provided one. Even then, there are often wifi issues at conferences which means I can’t use online tools or trust embedded videos.

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