How Powerpoint killed the presentation

I’m a science communicator. I’m also a PhD student. In both worlds folk get up and talk about science, often to very large groups of people. The main difference between these environments is that one runs the risk of “dumbing down” too much the other believes good science is difficult science. Straddle both worlds and get the best of both.

Let’s assume for the purpose of this rant that all in the world of science communication is perfect (a more specific rant on this can be found here). Academic talks leave me close to tears. This of course is just an expression- in reality I’m not left crying but more likely sitting at the back tweeting or playing Tetris.

In a standard academic talk a slightly terrified PhD student will creep to the front (at the side, always at the side). They have an introduction slide with a title- most words of which will have at least four syllables. This appears to be the point when scared student forgets everything as they invariable turn bodily towards the screen and read the title out. If you are lucky they will glance over their shoulder when they have finished reading the title, just to make sure everyone is still there. We will be. We will be. Attendance is mandatory, attention is not.

Let’s skip ahead of the 5 minute intro. Lets asssume the voice has not faded to a whisper (scardy is, of course, still transfixed by their own slides.) We’ve probably reached the meat of the work. The audience, if awake will be faced with graphs, tables and text. Oh good lord THE TEXT. Perhaps if the student considers themselves “in the know” they will animate the text. WHOOSH! Doesn’t it bring it to life?! No, no it doesn’t.


Skip to the end. We’ve made it. We’re all alive and have reached out destination. Cue a quarter hearted applause and two questions by the nodding professors in the middle who have been waiting for an opening to show off.

So what all went wrong? On a basic level the student didn’t ask themselves “WHY THE FUCK AM I THERE?”

Students are flown in at considerable expense. They are fed; they are watered and even given a slightly awkward meal on the last night. So why the fuck are they there? To present their work of course. They are there in person as that can be a more effective, interesting and engaging way to communicate. Important word in that sentence is “can”. For most it will be a swing and a miss. Normally science is communicated through papers. Students must be better than a paper.


I have a few points I beg of students to consider.


I can read or listen, not both. Pick one and let me do it. If you are going to write screeds on your beloved powerpoint slides then just shut up and let me read it. Or be a rebel and keep the size 10 font to a minimum and make me hang on every word.

I believe in you. You don’t have to justify, show off or attempt to seem smarter than you are. If you met me face to face you wouldn’t try to adopt airs and graces and use the largest and most scientific words that you can. Speak normally.

Why do slides exist? They are visual aids. They are there to show instantly something that would take 3 minutes to describe in words. An invaluable resource but remember what it is for- streamline it.

You know your stuff. You know your title. You know your results. Tell us about them. No one is there to try and catch you out or to look bad. Get up with confidence, face your audience and tell them about it.


Above all- be better than a paper.