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When you do a research presentation, what is usually the focus that you take.

Some professors tell me to make the slides as self explanatory as possible, and I quote:

Someone should be able to understand your slides without you being there

To me, this approach seems counter intuitive to the principle of a "talk". After all, you already wrote a paper that meets that objective.

Other people, for example in things like TED talks or (please bear with me) presentations by Apple, have very bare bones slides, where they only focus on transmitting the main message of the talk.

What is your take, should the presentation be made as didactic as possible or just a cold transference of information?

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Personally, I try to keep the slides minimalistic (not too many distracting items at once) and explain the details in my talk. If the slides are to be published, I'll basically write down what I tell about them in the comments. As an additional benefit, that's both practicing and rubber-ducking your talk. –  Tobias Kienzler Jan 28 '13 at 13:19
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Someone once told me, "if you and your slides say the same thing, one of you two is obsolete." Up to now, I went very well with this advice. –  biologue Jan 28 '13 at 14:27
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@zenbomb And from the other side of the desk, I took catnaps whenever I realized the teacher was still reading from the beginning of the slide I'd just finished reading... –  Izkata Jan 28 '13 at 15:23
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"Someone should be able to understand your slides without you being there" is a good advice if you are making slides for lectures, student who miss the class or doesn't take detailed notes could then refer to them. For real presentations/talks, go with the minimal slide to better engage the audience and let your own voice shine. –  Desmond Zhou Jan 28 '13 at 23:15
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It depends what you're going to do with your minimal presentation. If you're just going to give a talk, why use slides at all? I typically don't find slides very engaging when there's a presenter. People find themselves creating slides because they think they need to. Even worse, they stick them on SlideShare.net later 'just-in-case', forget that, minimal presentations have no place there. I often encounter a blog post in my feed like "I just spoke at X conference, slides available at Y", I usually flip through the slides with increasing speed thinking "I have no idea what this is even about". –  Lee Kowalkowski Jan 29 '13 at 21:33
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19 Answers

up vote 40 down vote accepted

I would say the two most important points are to make slides you are comfortable with and not to limit your oral presentation to reading your slides.

Furthermore, if you are presenting a research paper, i.e., where more written material is available to the audience, then the objective is usually to make people want to read your paper, instead of explaining the entire paper in 20 minutes.

Some people prefer to have full slides, arguing that when members of the audience are not understanding English very well, it can help them to have both the oral presentation and the slides, especially when the speaker does not speak a perfect English. It is also helpful for members of the audience who got distracted at some point, and who can quickly read where the speaker is. Other people prefer minimal slides, arguing that having both the full text and the oral presentation might confuse the audience. In particular, whenever a slide is displayed, the audience tends to read it immediately, and during the reading, to be less receptive of any spoken words.

In other words, the only "bad" presentation would be to have full slides, and to limit your presentation to reading them, because you become basically useless. However, you can have long slides, as long as you consider them as an aid for the audience who haven't followed what you said (for whatever reason), and not as your script to read. You can also minimal slides, containing only the key points. In the end, you need to be comfortable with your slides, and to give a presentation like one you would like to attend.

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With regards to "bad" presentations, Jeff discusses some tips here: codinghorror.com/blog/2006/01/… –  Alex L Jan 29 '13 at 4:20
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A slide being self-explanatory? Why would you be presenting then? What's the purpose of YOU being there?

IMHO the slides should enhance your presentation not be the presentation. YOU are the presenter and the slides should help you convey your message better. Having self explanatory slides takes away the attention from you which is a nonstarter for a good presentation. At any given time during your presentation you should aim for having sufficient material on the slide (sometimes just a picture or a formula or at times a couple of bullet points, etc.) to help you convey your message.

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Matt Might, a rather young professor, has an interesting style, encompassing the minimalistic approach. Have a peek at this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HaPsYmOmgcI

He also provides some useful guidelines for preparing a presentation: one of the most important is considering your audience: http://matt.might.net/articles/academic-presentation-tips/.

It is important to engage your audience, not necessarily to tell them every piece of information, and, in a way, advertise your work so that they will read your paper.

If you are aiming to get feedback, then you need to focus your story on what you want to get feedback on.

If you are teaching, you will need either more details in your slides or accompanying notes. Perhaps in this case, you might want people to be able to understand your slides without being present. But for regular scientific presentations, I would not aim to make the slides all encompassing. That's what the paper is for.

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heh: matt's my colleague at Utah. and this is the first time I've seen a talk of his. –  Suresh Jan 28 '13 at 9:05
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I have a paper with him, but I've never met him. –  Dave Clarke Jan 28 '13 at 9:09
    
Funny how that happens a lot nowadays :) –  Suresh Jan 28 '13 at 9:30
    
That's a fascinating presentation style. I wonder what technology Matt Might uses to prepare his slides? Can that be done in Keynote/Powerpoint? Do you have to use fancy animation software? –  D.W. Feb 9 '13 at 2:35
    
@D.W.: It looks like Keynote to me. You can animate within Keynote. It's time consuming, but possible. –  Dave Clarke Feb 9 '13 at 12:51
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I used to take the point of view you refer to, but I don't believe in it any more. In my current way of thinking, slides for a talk are a dynamic accompaniment to the story that you're telling - they're visual aids for what you're saying.

Unlike TED talks or the Apple talks, a technical presentation necessarily has more content on slides, because even a visual aid needs to lay out notation, formal statements, diagrams and so on. But I don't think it's necessary to make the slides completely stand alone. Make the slides relatively clear and uncluttered, and make sure they flow along with your story, and you should be fine.

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I’d question that: does your talk really need all those formal statements and so on? In most cases (unless you work in mathematics / theoretical physics) I’d argue that this is unnecessary and distracting: a talk is usually advertisement, and sometimes a discussion starter. It never replaces a paper. I agree that it’s very hard to strip all this complicated stuff away and still have something worth saying but I advocate trying exactly that. –  Konrad Rudolph Jan 28 '13 at 18:59
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When you do a research presentation, what is usually the focus that you take.

Talks are advertisements for papers and (more generally) for research agendas. They are not substitutes for papers. The primary aim of a research talk is to provide the audience with the intuition and motivation to get involved in the described research, at a minimum by reading the paper. Technical detail should be kept to the minimum necessary to provide that intuition and motivation. (How much detail is actually necessary depends on your audience. If you give too few details and focus entirely on intuition, your technical audience won't be motivated; on the other hand, if you give too many details, you'll obscure the intuition. But since almost everyone errs on the side of giving way too many details, it's better to aim for too few.)

Talks are not papers; they're performances.

Someone should be able to understand your slides without you being there

I strongly disagree. Slides are an augment to the talk, not a substitute for it. Again, the point of the slides is to help provide motivation and intuition. Text should be kept to a minimum. Technical details should be kept to a minimum. There should be lots of pretty pictures that provide intuition. It's perfectly fine to include complex formulas or charts or graphs as pretty pictures, but don't expect the audience to absorb the fine details. It's also fine to have complex pretty pictures that you can (literally!) point to during the talk, to keep the audience engaged in your story. But the slides shouldn't distract from your presentation, by (for example) giving the audience something to read instead of listening.

Slides are not talks or papers; they're props.

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+1 - The best talks I don't remember the slides at all! –  Andy W Jan 29 '13 at 12:46
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Good question, and actually the source of much debate when preparing or discussing a presentation...

As Charles Morisset mentioned, you should feel comfortable with your own slides. Different people have different presenting styles, and will rely on different types of slides. It also depends, to a certain extent, on what you are presenting, i.e. if it actually makes sense or not to use pictures instead of text.

I usually make more-or-less self-supporting slides. I put statements in full sentences, equations, and the odd figure. I even have statements in there that I will repeat almost verbatim to the audience. This is a huge no-no for many people, but it all depends on the delivery: If you repeat the statement without reading it, if it just flows with the rest of what you're saying, then there is, in my opinion, no shame in that.

I have two personal reasons for making my slides self-contained. The first is that the slides contain the points/statements that I absolutely need to make, i.e. the stuff that I don't want to forget because I got distracted by a question or some detail.

The second reason is that usually the slides are all that's left after you've given the talk. Unlike TED talks, which are available as videos, most conferences will only put your slides online. If your slides are just a collection of images and keywords, they will be of very little use to anybody who goes over them without you in the foreground.

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+1 for the publishing of slides only (also it is easier to dig the information inside presentation as video is non-searchable and watching takes a lot more time then reading). –  Maciej Piechotka Jan 28 '13 at 11:03
    
Why not make two sets of slides: one for supporting the talk, and one for going online? –  TRiG Jan 28 '13 at 11:24
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@TRiG isn't the second set called a publication? –  StrongBad Jan 28 '13 at 11:27
    
I'm with @TRiG here. It's trivial in almost every slide-making software (from Powerpoint to LaTeX/beamer) to have notes pages. Just put the notes pages online, and leave your poor slides un-tortured. –  Ari B. Friedman May 4 '13 at 15:35
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I like to play devil's advocate… while I agree in general with the other answers that it's not a good idea to put too much information on slides, I will list a few of the reasons why sometimes, you might want to have self-explanatory (or at least, rather dense) slides:

  • Meeting of a technical nature, with some participants absent but who will be able to read the slides afterward. In such meetings, the slides serve not only as a support for your oral presentation, but also as a written reference for what was said in the meeting. As such, they will be consulted later, both by persons who missed the meeting and some who were there.

    In such a case, ideally you would make two different contributions (two versions of your presentation, or a presentation and a “technical note”). However, that's more work, and a good compromise can be to simply have self-explanatory slides.

  • Language issues: if you fear not being understood by everyone, either because their language may not be strong enough, or yours may not. I advise this sometimes for students who do not feel sure enough.

  • Language issues, take two: having self-explanatory slides allows you to make a dual-language presentation, with oral in language A and slides in language B. I often do that myself, working in a French-speaking country where there are a number of students and post-docs who don't master French. For national seminars/conferences, it is sometimes considered more polite (especially by senior professors) to present in French, yet having slides content in English helps those who do not speak French follow your presentation.

  • If you feel you may get lost, and want to be sure to have a backup under your eyes. I see it as a last resort, and prefer in that case to have a few keywords per slide displayed on the presenter screen (maybe your laptop).

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For meetings to be followed by non-participants, the best way IMO is to have meeting notes. –  gerrit Jan 28 '13 at 12:33
    
In a similar vein to gerrit's comment Ed Tufte suggests for such things to have an accompanying technical report, because the self-limiting format of slide shows prevents really divulging information in such detail. A slide is only so big and legible with very large font, and points can't always be condensed into bullets (or are at least better disseminated in natural prose). –  Andy W Jan 28 '13 at 12:42
    
@AndyW yeah, I understand that an attached technical report is the best choice… but it takes more time. Self-explanatory slides are a good (in my opinion) cost/benefit tradeoff. –  F'x Jan 28 '13 at 12:52
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This. It is about the purpose of the talk. In particle physics many more talk are given inside collaborations than to the wider world, and your slides will subsequently serve as references for your colleagues. Those slides need more detailed than than the "talk" demands. Or at least feature some URLs pointing at the "real" documentation. –  dmckee Jan 28 '13 at 22:01
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I would say the slides should be as concise as possible. Absolutely no formulas or sentences that go more than 2/3 of the line width. If you can put one picture and spend one minute talking about it, it makes a much better slide than one with the points of what you are saying written there.

I have reasons against texts in slide. The obvious exception being presentations on things that are text in nature, for example programming languages.

  • People read the text while you are speaking. If you are going to say that, why make them read it too?
  • Text is distracting. Text and speech are of the same form in our minds. You may listen to music and read a book, you may see a picture and listen to a talk, but you can't read and listen to a speech at the same time. You may have had noticed this, if you often found yourself forgetting what the speaker was saying while you were reading his slides.
  • Text usually gets long. That means, unless you have a bullet point like "- Scalability", anything else you write there becomes a whole at least 10 word sentence or phrase. This makes the effect of the previous points stronger.
  • Slides do not replace notes/books. Many teachers do this! They make the slide as if it's a summary of the book they are teaching and students study the slides and pass the exam. That's horrible. There are far better formats for summarizing a book than using slides. That's worse than watching a 100 hour documentary over 10-minute youtube pieces.
  • Regarding formulas, they are boring and no one is going to pay attention to them anyway. It may be the most important thing in your work, but again, no one cares. The only exception is during a university course, where the professor may want to explain in details how the formula is derived. If not, again simply presenting it is quite useless.

It's not just that full slides are terrible, but also that slides are not created for it either. If you have ever tried to talk without slides, you would understand me better. Traditionally, we would use blackboards (or whiteboards!). If during your talk you felt like something would be better drawn, you would use the blackboard. Slides were created so you wouldn't have to waste time during the talk to draw a possibly elaborate image. Or, like I said before, in case of presentations on all things text, you wouldn't want to write by hand a 4~5 line piece of code if you could just type and format it with a computer.

In summary, I would like to emphasize again that slides assist the speech, not carry them out. They are there to help you (as the speaker) demonstrate what you are trying to say, rather than replace you by being completely self-sufficient.

Final note is that, some amount of text is usually inevitable. My point is to try to get them to the minimum possible.

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From my point of view, a wall of text in a slide that you're just going to read is boring.

  • There is no added value in reading it unless your audience is under 6.
    Most people read faster than you can speak which means they are ahead of you and don't care about what you're saying.
  • It gives an impression that you don't know about your subject because it doesn't give you opportunities to elaborate.
  • It keeps your eyes attached to the wall where you should be facing your audience and looking for eye contact.
  • It also removes everything that is enjoyable in a natural speech like rhetoric questions, pauses, small jokes, suspens, etc.

The best (in fact only but there may be others) resource I know of for making presentations that avoids this concern is the book from Garr Reynolds : Presentation Zen.

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Welcome to AC.sx While providing links in your answers is fine, the general policy (academia.stackexchange.com/questions/how-to-answer) is to provide some context. I have downvoted your answer, but would be happy to change my vote if you a little more information about the link and why you think it is a good answer. –  StrongBad Jan 28 '13 at 11:32
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@DanielE.Shub I tried to improve it. Hopes this help. –  hoang Jan 28 '13 at 13:08
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And thus you learned that a difference between a good and bad answer is about 3-5 minutes of your time :D –  penelope Jan 28 '13 at 13:31
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The answer depends strongly on your audience. I agree that keeping the slides simple is nicer, and more engaging. Your not tempted to just read your slides, but they serve as a visual anchor for your audience and help them follow the talk. If your doing a sales presentation or similar, a Steve Jobs-style presentation can help you "wow" the audience. Also, you can use slides mostly to convey information that you can't with speech, e.g. graphs, screenshots, etc..

However, as I said, you have to consider your audience. In my field (particle physics), typically half of the audience is staring at their laptops during a talk. Some of them are following your slides there, some are doing something completely different. There are dozens of plots and numbers and technical details that you have to show, so the slides are typically pretty dense. In fact, the whole purpose of many talks is to "present plots", so your talking is auxilliary to the slides, not the other way around. You explain certain features of the images, guesticulating, and answering questions. The other thing is that our slides serve as documentation for the talks, so people expect to understand the gist of the talk by looking at the slides afterwards. As an (advanced) student, people would even give me their research talk slides instead of papers or books to learn from.

So, giving a "nice", "best-practice" talk in a work meeting of physiscists, you'd probably confuse and disappoint them, if they are listening at all. If you are in the humanities, you'd probably not use powerpoint at all, or just one or two slides with important quotes.

My tip is to look at what your colleagues are doing, and to start from there. It can never hurt to clean it up a bit, make it concise and legible, but at the same time try not to alienate your audience.

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Slides should be

  1. minimal
  2. goal oriented
  3. not full of text
  4. Graphics and Visualizations are highly appreciated

The key in preparing slides is to know your message and try to approach the audience without burden them with big portion of text slides.

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Slides in no way have to be "self explanatory". Theres nothing worse than punctuating an energetic presentation with a slide that takes more than 10 seconds to understand. Full sentences on a slide force the viewer to read them, while you are saying them (have you ever watched an english movie with subtitles?). This is pointless and can be distracting.

Slides are there to enhance the talk by adding info that is best presented visually. Graphs and pictures are the most important examples of this.

Unlike what other have said, I believe you should not incorporate what you are saying, into text on a slide. Yes, it might help people with language barriers...you could present the slide in multiple languages, and have have someone doing sign language as well. But back in the real world, the objective should be:

Presenting the information, as clearly as possible, to the "main" audience, while captivating them throughout.

Once you accept this objective, you can focus on the presentation itself, not how your slides will hold up on their own or in other languages etc..

Learning to give a lecture is best done through experience. It is important to actually pay attention to your audience. You have to give new information time to settle in, which may not be natural because you (the presenter) already know the information. You will begin to get a feel for your audience and find a good tempo.

If you want something didactic, it should be put together separately than the talk and have its own clear objectives in mind.

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I remember one of the most important thing form presentation skills training. Normal human brain is capable to remember 4 things. This means to have simple, goal oriented slides with approximately 3 strategically selected points. Just two is a waste of energy and four can be already to much for some people.

There is a lot of info about this topic. Check this article The Limits of Memory

And drawings, pictures, schematics....picture is worth a thousand words. This doesn't apply to super heavy duty cliparts and similar stuff.

There is no simple guideline "how to make perfect presentation". Can't be. Every presentation is different, even about the same topic.

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  • Less Wordy & Short Statements / Points on Slides - Concise, Brief, Clear
  • Crisp well-defined visual representations
    • Diagrams / Charts - they can eliminate the need for many slides & needed text - as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words
    • Even better if you have the ability to create InfoGraphics or similar visual representation
  • Yes, for when you are not around to talk about the slides.. Some presentation notes below the Slides could possibly add a little fencing or meat to the brevity of your concise slides
  • For academic paper presentations, You can tune up or down the level of detail/ depth & breadth based on who is the audience and what/ how much you want to expose them to.. based on your audience psychology.. It's a fine judgement call
  • Again, I cannot stress enough on great VISUAL representations that consolidate CLEANLY what could have taken many slides of text / points - A great diagram will take effort to build but pay off many times over:
    • It also forces you to clearly organize, sanitize and align your matter.
    • It's possible to for different parts of your STORY to not align or flow well when spread over many slides, but a diagram will force you to refine it or will just look wrong or become a disaster

PS: These are some quick thoughts after a long night flight that can be refined on another fly by.

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I'd also say that a good image can be your hidden prompter! It will can serve as a safety net for you. –  Dror Jan 31 '13 at 18:48
    
@Dror I dislike using notes during a speech and usually rely on the images to keep me on track. Having mostly images on my slides also prevents me from just reading the slides! –  J. Zimmerman Aug 16 '13 at 22:34
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There are valid arguments for both sides. What you need to decide is which arguments make sense to your situation:

  • were you asked to make your presentation slides available after your presentation? Is it expected? In that case, you should probably add more information to your slides than bare bones (somebody who looks at your slides 6 months after you gave the presentation should find complete coherent ideas inside).

  • are you invited as a guest speaker? that implies that people are more interested in you and what you have to say than your slides (keep your slides minimalistic)

  • are your slides going to be used as documentation later? Are they going to be reference lists? That gives you two options: use minimalist slides with an accompanying document (text / images / movie / whatever) or use an exhaustive presentation.

For example, we are often asked to "prepare some slides" in the absence of a presentation (in my current workplace). That means making exhaustive slides, with explicit exposition of ideas and as much context as possible.

We also have internal presentations (organized as one hour seminars), presenting general aspects of new technologies, summaries of conferences, the ideas behind some of our projects etc., to our colleagues. Those presentations are made to capture and hold attention and contain images, sometimes a joke or two and so on.

I guess the most relevant questions here are:

  • what is the scope of your presentation?

  • who is your audience?

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To paraphrase the Bard: "The talk's the thing".

If you've already written (and published) a paper about the talk contents, then your aim for the talk is to get across the information to the people in the room.

So, think about what slides will facilitate you oral delivery. Clearly, this will depend on the audience. Some areas of study appear to require 1,000 words per slide; others get away with zero.

Larry Lessig has a very minimalistic approach to slides that works very well.

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It depends. If you are going to present the slides, you can keep it minimal and still self explanatory as much as it can be. Because since you are presenting it, you know it in and out so you can explain during the presentation.

If you are going to share the slides with people who could not attend your session or altogether it is for distribution only then it should be self explanatory obviously.

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I heartily vote for (mostly) self-explanatory slides.

One conference I attend usually has eight parallel tracks. I frequently am interested in different talks held at the same time, attend one of them and afterwards read through the slides of the others. And it is extremely frustrating to then get slides that are unintelligible on their own.

Yes, I understand that I am supposed to just read the paper in this case. To which I reply:

  • Often the paper is not yet available (or even written) when the authors present work in progess. After all, that is what a conference is there for.
  • Reading a few slides is a lot faster than even skimming a full paper. I will usually decide based on the slides and the abstract whether investing the time to read the full paper is worthwhile.

In addition, suppose that three months after the presentation, you get into a conversation about the topic you presented on. With (mostly) self-explanatory slides, you can just send the other guy the presentation for a first idea and then follow up if he is interested (related to the second bullet point above). With a minimal presentation, the best you can do is to recreate the entire verbal talk... if you still remember what exactly you said back then, since a self-explanatory presentation also serves as a reminder for the author himself.

Finally, preparing a (mostly) self-explanatory presentation also forces me to think beforehand about what I am going to say, how I am going to structure my talk and allocate my time, and it helps me not to forget about important details.

And yes, I do understand that slides will never be completely self-explanatory, which is why I called them "(mostly)" self-explanatory. On the other hand, neither will the published article be - a lot of stuff is not documented even in the best published articles. I believe that (mostly) self-explanatory presentations yield a good balance between communicating a rough outline and not going to the whole trouble of writing resp. reading a full article.

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I understand why people would prefer minimalist slides. However, I do not believe that a difference in opinion merits downvoting my post. Therefore, I assume that whoever downvoted it finds something objectionable in my logic or the presentation of my argument. I would very much appreciate a short comment about how exactly I went wrong. Please point out my mistakes so I can learn from them. Thank you! –  Stephan Kolassa Feb 10 '13 at 12:12
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Presentation style is something that I have made a conscious decision to change. When I started doing presentations at the start of my PhD I used to put everything on the slide so that I didn't forget anything. Every graph had about 5 bullet points of text explaining what it meant. Although this is an effective survival mechanism for those new to presenting, it hardly makes the most engaging talk.

Soon after I started my postdoc I attended a conference, and on the way home I found I couldn't remember the message from a single talk, out of the many I attended - almost all of which used the same style with lots of text and information on every slide. At the same time, a senior colleague of mine always gives memorable presentations - partly due to his lively personality but also because he concentrates on a single important idea on each slide, and no more.

As a postdoc I now have quite a lot more experience of giving talks, and so I was determined to experiment and learn how to give better presentations which engage with the audience. Before I usually had very few questions, which is a sign of either the talk was boring, or that nobody understood what you were trying to say.

What follows are my general guidelines for conference presentations to specialists in the field.

Rule number 1 is avoiding information overload. Stick rigorously to trying to present no more than three ideas in a talk. It is important to highlight those important points/results and often tell the same idea in different ways if possible to give it chance to sink in. The objective here is to convince a largely captive audience that your work is relevant to them. If you achieve this then they will invariably follow it up by looking at your relevant papers and hopefully citing them. Also important here is to focus on the executive summary. The full details are available in the paper, so focus on the highlights. Researchers will invariably give you the benefit of doubt, so don't waste time asserting your cleverness by putting up complicated equations or algrithms - you will just lose your audience.

Avoid putting more than a single equation/figure/phrase on a slide. Some ideas are complicated and can take a while to explain, but what you want is for the audience to process the minimal information on the slide and focus their attention back on you and what you are saying.

Presentations which are minimal are much harder to write, as you have to know what you are going to say with minimal prompting, so practise is a necessity. But since adopting this style, I have had a lot more engagement with the audience and questions about the work.

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