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Last week I gave a brief presentation on applying for an NWO VENI grant, and of course once again sinned against all the  advice I myself usually give about giving presentations. Check it out online at PrOUt (the PhD network of Utrecht University).

If you search online you will find a lot of contra-intuitive and contradictory suggestions:

  • images distract / images help build associations
  • use a serif font / don’t use a serif font
  • reading a slide to the audience increases retention / reading a slide to the audience is annoying

This makes me think that I should probably concentrate more on avoiding errors, rather than aiming at designing the perfect slide using all possible tricks in the book. Minimalism should help to avoid most pitfalls.

The most important guideline, from which the rest follows almost automatically, is that you are the presentation, not your slides. Slides should support, not substitute, your talk. You should always be the focus of the audience, which should be able to grasp an appropriately supporting slide at a glance, without having to divert their complete attention.

Online you can find many suggestions about the maximum number of lines you should put on a slide (mostly 6-12). I’d suggest to take that as the maximum number of words: brevity is the soul of wit. In the age of Twitter, consider your slides as live tweets to the public.

On the other hand: there is no minimum number of words. Often the best slide is the one without any text at all. Since a slideshow should support your spoken words, it is the ideal place to put all the information that would be impractical to speak out loud: images, graphs, musical scores, etc. In sum, everything essentially visual. In such cases, you can step back and directly comment on what you are showing on the slides, but these should be part of the flow of your talk. In general, keep your focus on the public to the same degree that you expect them to keep their focus on you: Look at them, not at the slides.

A presentation might not seem like it, but it should be seen as a dialogue, not a monologue. Consider it as a rare chance of being able to speak your mind without (hopefully) anyone interrupting you. Treat the public in the same way as any individual conversation partner.

Again, I frequently find myself ignoring all these suggestions. I end up just reading the text from my notes, merely glancing at the audience from time to time, or putting half a page of text on the slide, which I then proceed to read out literally, etc. Knowing that I am at risk of giving the deadly boring presentation from hell, maybe I should try going without slides altogether more often.

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