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.

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.