I've seen many, many examples of scientific presentations from the National Laboratories in which virtually every slide is oversaturated with information. If this were an isolated event, I wouldn't have given it any thought. But I've noticed this pattern in presentations over many years from among presenters hailing from US national laboratories. Though my field is computational science, I've seen talks from national laboratory scientists in other fields and their presentations also have this same characteristic.

In academia, I've been taught to keep slides as simple as possible, with as little info per slide as necessary. My understanding is a presentation should be though of as an "advertisement" for the paper to be published. Thus, presentation slides should be designed to preserve the audience's interest. One method of keeping the audience interest is to not overwhelm them with too much information all at once (e.g., not too much text and not too many pictures in a single slide). I presume this is universally true, regardless of discipline.

However, the overwhelming majority of national laboratory presentations that I've seen seem to fill up virtually every available space with as much information as possible. Why do presentations from national laboratories tend to contain so much information per slide? How does this meet the needs of their target audience?

  • Are they in the same field as you? Or are they working mostly with physicists? Experimental physics slides are dense. – Noah Snyder Aug 12 '14 at 1:12
  • @noahsnyder: i'm not in physics at all, but my observation applies generally over all applied national laboratory disciplines. – Paul Aug 12 '14 at 1:15
  • But many national labs are focused on physics, even if they also have people in other fields. – Noah Snyder Aug 12 '14 at 1:15
  • It really isn't just national labs. It's commonplace in some fields, in fact sparse, easy to read slides may lead to your talk not being taken seriously unless you're a keynote speaker. It's made worse by some conferences imposing a limit on the number of slides. – Chris H Aug 12 '14 at 13:46
  • Because no one thinks intentionally about the visual display of information. Old habits die hard. – bfoste01 Aug 12 '14 at 16:03

Let me try to answer for the tendency in my own discipline (particle physics) where we have this problem across the board (i.e. universities too).

Much like questions and answers on a Stack Exchange site, those slides are expected to form a resource for future investigators. We know there is too much there for anyone to absorb in the meeting, but we also know that more people will dig these slides out of the archive over the next year and study them then actually attended the meeting in the first place.

Yes, in an ideal world there would be a technical report and a deck of slides, but in fact there are only the slides.

Personally I try pretty hard not to do this, and the result is a lot of backup slides and a lot of little URLs hanging around the bottom of the slides.

As an aside, I think that PowerPoint and similar polished slideware makes stuffing them (over-)full way too easy. I use a LaTeX base for mine (just the old slides class with my own library of macros for a long time, but I've started using Beamer) and these tools encourage a better style.

Alas, I know all the tricks to squeeze on just one more thing.

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    +1 Same thing in our universities for advanced courses. Often, the lecture slides are at the same time a large part of the study material available to students, so they need to contain a bit more than just pictures and keywords, as may be better for the lecture in itself. – xLeitix Aug 12 '14 at 6:27
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    On the other hand, LaTeX makes it too easy to overuse equations. ;-) – gerrit Aug 12 '14 at 15:19

My guess is that it's a cousin of the same problem in the armed forces, which has been a problem for two decades. (Note one link is from 2000, the other from 2010.)

On another level, the culture of the national laboratories has been trending in a more corporate direction, and many of the presentations that they need to give have limits on the number of slides to be presented. Managers want the whole "story" told in a handful of slides, which leads to over-compression of information.

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    From memory, the Rogers Commission Report into the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger also observed that critical information may have been missed because it was in sub-sub-bullets of very dense presentations. (I can't find it, now, but Chapter V contains an example of such a slide.) So, if my memory is correct, this problem was already being observed in the mid-1980s. – David Richerby Aug 12 '14 at 10:05

I think it is just presentation style. We have the same in our universities: hey, let's put 3 topics and 5 figures on this slide, so everyone will be impressed! I don't say that everyone should talk like Steve Jobs or the TED presenters, but I believe that presentations should comply some basic rhetoric and design principles.

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