Why should you write less in your presentations?

For work I sometimes get to go to conferences and see many presentations in a few short days. However, when I go to these presentations I often find that everything I need to know is written on the slides and that I do not need to listen to the speaker to fully understand what is being discussed. When this happens I tend to read ahead on the slide and might potentially miss valuable information that is spoken whilst doing so, as well as getting a bit bored whilst waiting for the next slide to appear. I expect that many of you have also experienced this and when you read about presentation technique you frequently get to hear the phrase ‘death by PowerPoint’ which relates to this phenomenon.

What can you do to avoid this?

It might seem drastic, but the way to avoid this trap is to put significantly less text on your slides. Rather than detailing your objective on a slide you could include a prompt (e.g. ‘What was the objective?’) that you would then talk around, or you could include a figure or table but not your thoughts on the table. This way people will have to listen to what you have to say to be able to fully understand what is being presented. An extreme version of this is the Takahashi method where only a single word or short phrase is on each slide to act as a prompt, forcing the speaker to talk about what they are doing and engage with the audience. The Lessig method is similar.

But what if I forget what I am talking about?

It is better to have notes and to practice your presentation to make it as smooth as possible and have it memorable, rather than having a boring presentation. People will forgive you glancing at your notes to remind yourself of a pertinent point and will feel more engaged. These can be included as slide notes in PowerPoint or written separately as a text document.

Where can I find out more about making my presentations better?

I found the book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (Voices That Matter) by Garr Reynolds to be extremely informative, and their is a blog by the author this book that is good. It can be found here.

Also slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations: The Art and Science of Presentation Design by Nancy Duarte is excellent. There is a free multimedia version of her book Resonate online which is about visual storytelling to improve presentations.

Why might networking be beneficial?

I personally find the idea of networking at events to be daunting and when I attend congresses I will be the person standing on their own looking a bit lost. However, when I do talk to people I will find that I will have a great conversation and not be at all terrified. What is holding me back is fear of the unknown and worries like: What if they do not want to talk to me? What if I sound like an idiot? What if I have nothing to say that they want to hear?

This fear of the unknown has held me back at many times during my life. I have not joined clubs that I maybe wanted to; I have not spoken to somebody and regretted it later; I have resisted using a technique that eventually turned out to be extremely beneficial to a project. If I had been courageous enough to do these things, the first time the opportunity presented itself I can safely say that my life would have been completely different. Nowadays, I have taken a few steps towards overcoming this problem, the first of which was admitting to myself the reason why I was not doing things that I wanted to.

Indeed, talking to people I do not know at events has become a bit easier since I realised one thing. That one thing was that many of the people I could talk to at events are in exactly the same position as me. They do not have anyone with them to talk to, but worry about talking to strangers. If they are at the same specialist event as me then we likely share some interests and this can be used to initiate a conversation. If this is a congress and they are presenting a poster, then often you have to be present at least for a while and will often be keen to talk to anybody. The exception to this I always feel is the big names in the area, who will know lots of people and will have lots of people wanting to talk to them. There might not be an opening for you to introduce yourself. Nevertheless, once again there is a way, you can use your own contacts to introduce you. It might be that you have a colleague who knows them, or can introduce you to someone who does. Often specialist communities are quite small and you will likely have some degree of connectivity. Even if you don’t, by talking to other attendees you may meet someone who could eventually introduce you to a person who could change your career.

Networking does not have to be done in person, and can also be done online. If someone has done work that interests you and you have questions you want to ask, you can always write to them and let them know. They will appreciate your effort and if you are discussing the work then they are more likely to respond to you. This can lead to a ‘conversation’ and a connection to someone who you have never met in person.

Why you should publish in many venues

Many venues should not mean many journals. Journals are only one possible venue for your work and by limiting yourself to them you limit the potential reach of your work. Other scientific outlets are conferences/congresses, presentations to universities and societies, scientific blogs and magazines. If you are planning on publishing your work then one potential route would be to present it at a conference, either as a poster or an oral presentation, before writing it up for a journal article. Once the work has been presented at a conference it can become part of a talk to give at other universities or societies, and this talk once it has been given several times could be written up either as a review of the work of your lab for submission to a journal or magazine, or published on a blog.

By presenting the work in these different ways, a number of different audiences can be reached and introduced to your work. They can also be excellent as opportunities to network and grow your circle of associates, possibly helping to bring about collaborations and secure funding. I would therefore suggest that if you are early in your career you should be trying to get your work seen and heard of. You might not be able to be invited to present your work to another university or interested group. However, you should be submitting your work, once it has reached sufficient quantity and quality, to congresses, or offering to talk about your work to undergraduates or other research groups you know. These might also have the added benefit of providing new thoughts and ideas on your work from people with fresh perspectives, as well as identifying any holes that need to be looked into.

Another way to be able to talk about your research with more people is to volunteer for societies and attend local interest group meetings. This may bring you into contact with influential people you will not meet in any other way.

How knowing your target audience could improve your writing

Sometimes when you read a scientific article you might feel that the authors are belittling you or aiming way to high, and you will put down the article and find something else to read. When this happens, the first thing I tend to consider is whether I am the target audience for that particular piece of writing. If I am, it might be that the authors had not decided on a target audience when it was written or have targeted the wrong publication venue, or it might just be that I am particularly interested or uninterested in that subject and so either no more or less than might be expected.

Why am I telling you this?

When we write, we often write to express ourselves and our thoughts and ideas on a topic, writing what interests us and not thinking about the person who will eventually read it. This is like designing a pair of gloves that fits us exactly and trying to market it as being suitable for everybody. We must remember that the point of scientific writing, if we aim to get it published, is for it to be read and thus spread our ideas, not solely for the sake of writing.

What should be done to help write appropriately for the audience?

Before you write your first outline, you should decide who will be your audience; not in a vague manner, for example saying anyone who is interested in hand care, but as precisely as possible, for example hospital hand care specialists. Once this audience has been identified you want to know what level of knowledge they will have on this topic. In the example, hospital specialists will likely already have a high level of knowledge and so would not want to have the basics of hand care told to them. This will make them assume the article is not for them and reduce the likelihood of them reading it. So in this case you could start the article at a high level, covering only the most pertinent points for the topic being discussed.

On the other hand, if your audience is hand care trainees you will want to include the basics, as you cannot assume that all trainees will have the requisite basic knowledge to make sense of the article. If the basics are missing then you could place a barrier in front of much of your audience.

Using ‘personas’

In certain industries, the target audience is identified and idealized ‘personas’ are created to emphasise key aspects that need to be catered for. A well-known version of these is the broad terms given to people born at different times or target voter populations during elections (e.g. Mondeo Man). This allows broad generalizations to be made to highlight differences between generations and allow the average member of this group to be targeted, hopefully allowing the maximum proportion of this group to be successfully reached.

I would not suggest that you should create these personas but they should serve to remind us that a target audience will often have a lot in common and this can be catered for. However, if we write from the beginning with our audience in mind then our writing is more likely to be relevant, and read, by the people we want it to reach.

Why you cannot succeed unless you are ready to fail

When I was younger I didn’t enjoy trying new things and meeting new people (truth be told I still don’t enjoy this), so I didn’t join clubs that I might have enjoyed or speak to people I did not know. I lived my life doing the things I knew and sticking to them. I was afraid that I would try something and fail or make a fool of myself, and this even extended into my work during my PhD. I was loathe to try new techniques because I would have to admit I didn’t know what to do and ask for help. However, when I eventually did learn a new technique it might not work for what I was doing at that time, but could open up new avenues of research to explore and discoveries to make. I shied away from using HPLC and LCMS for these reasons and in the end they were what helped me complete my PhD.

What did I learn from this?

In the end I looked back at what I was doing and realised what I was missing out on; how this fear had made my life less than it could have been. I decided that I would try new things and be prepared to fail. I might not make a big impression, but am willing to approach people at conferences and try to start conversations, or learn a new skill that might help my work. By spending my life not trying things, I learned that even not trying I might fail as I have not even had a go. This new approach to life is not easy as I regularly fall back on old habits of avoidance, I am often the person standing on his own in a big group of people. It is at these times that I have to remind myself every day of the things I have accomplished by trying more things. I have worked with interesting people and learned new skills, and my life feels fuller because of this.

What should you do?

So my advice would be to put yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new. It does not have to be a large step, it might just be saying hello to someone whilst in the queue to get coffee or visiting a next door lab or office to introduce yourself. These little steps will steadily grow your comfort zone and each little success or failure will teach you something, even if it isn’t what you thought it would be.

Make sure you write regularly

Having told you not necessarily to publish everything in a traditional manner, I would recommend that you start trying to write regularly. This could be typing up experimental methods and results so that they are ready as soon as the decision to publish is made, putting together review articles or free-writing around a research idea.
This writing will hopefully improve your productivity, as well as helping to organize your thoughts and create new ideas, as well as potentially helping you overcome any stalling points in your research. It might be that you are trying to develop a total synthesis and you are stuck on a single step, by searching the literature and making notes on what others attempting similar transformations have done. This is likely something you are already doing, but by keeping written notes you will be have something that could potentially be the basis of a review article and you may notice connections that you wouldn’t spot if you just read and highlighted articles.
Finally, practice makes perfect and by writing more your communication skills should improve.

Might checklists improve your manuscript?

I started off as an editor, editing manuscripts to house style, as well as copy editing them to some degree to hopefully improve their readability. Each time I saw a document I would have to check for different aspects of style or language. Often this was not the most exciting thing to do, especially when I had seen the document previously. To ensure that crucial steps were not missed we had a series of checklists that could be used enabling you to tick of each task as it was done.

These checklists were not prescriptive with hundreds of elements, rather they had a few elements (typically up to 10) with the emphasis on steps that were often missed or left incomplete. For example when proof reading a manuscript the checklist items included:

  1. Check that all references are mentioned in the text
  2. Check that all tables and figures are referenced appropriately in the text
  3. Double check the title for typos

The title was included on the list because it is often difficult to spot a typo when you know what should be there, it is a short piece of text and it is often very large.

This use of checklists is discussed extremely well in The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right and I highly recommend that you read it.