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I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver, where I use tiny zebrafish (the size of an eyelash!) as a model system to study human hearing loss and how we can prevent it. I'm also a long-time Toastmaster and I teach communication workshops. This blog represents the merging of my two passions - science and communication, which has really become one central passion - the science of communication. There's a revolution in science right now...the idea that we scientists should sometimes leave the lab and talk about what we do, and why we do it, to real people. This blog looks at why we should do this, and how to actually talk about science with non-scientists (and with each other!). Portions of this blog are also featured on Qualia, the AAAS MemberCenter blog site.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Smart slides, smart audience

Standardized, easy to understand data slides can help your audience to grasp your talk and internalize your message.  They can also make your audience feel smart, because they can determine the take-home message of your slide before you mention it.  My previous post looked at how to effectively use text on presentation slides.  Here we’ll look at a few other features of a good slide-based presentation.

I recently attended Sean Georgi’s dissertation defense at the University of Washington.  Sean’s work features gorgeous multi-color fluorescent images and really interesting data on retinal development.  Here I want to highlight three tools that Dr. Georgi used during his talk to enhance audience understanding. I've pointed out several of these features on one of Sean's slides, shown on the left.

Sean’s work looked at many different time points during retinal development, and different cellular events occur at each time point.  He first used a diagram to explain these events, then put the diagram in the corner of subsequent slides and highlighted the relevant time on each slide.  This roadmap allowed us to see at a glance where we were and what events should occur at that time, making it easier to follow his story.

Sean also standardized his slides for easy access.  His work used many different types of cellular labels and many different fluorescent colors to view those labels, making the confusion potential high.  To help us out, each slide listed both the type of cells labeled by each color, and the type of label (usually an antibody) shown by each color, with the font in the same color as the corresponding cells/label type.  This way I could quickly scan a slide and know that in that case, photoreceptor cells were in green and dividing cells were red. 

Finally, Sean used the reveal feature of his presentation software to great effect.  He only showed us part of a developmental pathway or part of the conclusion at a time, revealing more as he explained each component.  This kept his audience focused on his words and desired message, rather than allowing us to be distracted by additional information that we didn’t yet need.

Thanks to roadmaps, standardized and informative slide layouts, and revealing messages, I understood the talk as it progressed, and I sometimes reached a conclusion before Sean had explained it.  I walked out both energized about the science and feeling smart-a successful talk indeed!

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