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The Craft of Scientific Presentations

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The web is full of advice on making presentations. Most of that advice seems focused on the business world - that is a situation where the information content of presentations is very low and the intellectual content is even lower. Situations where it is more important to persuade - or sell - than to make an argument and make people understand. It’s more about being sexy and memorable than about presenting complex information.

Looking at sites like Presentation Zen gives you the impression that in those business presentations you’ll get away with some gradients, some stock photos and some tangential but clever quotes on your subject. And - giving the benefit of the doubt - I’ll assume these techniques actually work. In a more scientific context many of those methods seem to fail though. Basing a presentiation on stock photos and witty quotes will probably get you laughed out of the room or at least not be taken seriously. And, much more significantly, people usually have non-trivial information to tell.

At least in areas like science, mathematics or engineering that information already requires visual aids so the audience can see the measurement results, follow the deduction of the formula or visualise the constructions. After all that has been incorporated into the presentation there is little space left of the pretty or witty. But still bad presentations are very common in these areas and it was cool to discover that there’s a book on the topic: MIchael Alley’s The Craft of Scientific Presentations. Book Cover It’s a book with a promising title and - even more promisingly - with Mr Feynman on the cover. While it is a bit repetitive at times and I am not sure it contains great concrete advice, it has a very helpful list of things that can go wrong, have gone wrong and do regularly go wrong in presentations:

Most presentations will most likely improve by simply taking into account a few of those points before holding them. In fact, I’d wager that most people could nod to every single point in the list and think yeah, I’ve seen that or even yeah, colossal FAIL on that one in talk XY.

Of course the various points apply to different degrees in different subject areas. Both because of the differences in topics but just as well due to the differences in culture. In mathematics, say, the danger for technical FAIL is much lower because people frequently use blackboards which at the same time is good for reducing the presenter’s speed to a reasonable level (i.e. slide based talks are frequently incomprehensibly fast as it’s damn easy to flick through a bunch of slides with a complex argument in a minute but it will take time to write it out) and bad for his face time to the audience (not that mathematicians would notice that, anyway). On the other hand it’s really hard to adjust a talk well to an audience as being familiar with the intricacies of the topic makes many things look ‘obvious’ when in fact they are not to people hearing them for the first time.

The list will be helpful to keep in mind, both when making and when consuming presentations.

Nagnagnag: I had to sigh about the book’s typographic attitudes though. It’s set in the lovely Palatino but somehow they managed to make the font size a bit too large and the line spacing a bit too tight which makes it look like a school book. The author also likes Arial (headings in Arial Narrow Bold and recommendations to use it for slides all over the book) which makes it particularly amusing to see that the Regular version of the font was replaced by proper Helvetica. Now that’s a refreshing turn of things.

Arial that really is Helvetica

[Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de]

July 23, 2008, 9:37

Tagged as arial, book, helvetica, michael alley, presentation.

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