I’ve talked a lot in this blog about how to structure and deliver a great scientific talk (and there’s more to come!), but it’s time to tackle the elephant in the room (or perhaps the elephant on the screen)…PowerPoint and other computer-generated visual aids. We all use them, and I’ll be the first to admit that visual aids are useful. Imagine describing a multi-year trend in climate data or the location of a protein inside a cell without an accompanying visual…possible, perhaps compelling, but tricky.
So if we’re going to usual visual aids, we should use them well. In this post I’ll share a few of my favorite tips for constructing useful text slides, and I welcome tips and insights from all of you. In upcoming posts we’ll look at working with graphs and images, and how to actually present using visual aids, keeping in mind that the slides are an aid and not the presentation itself. Many of today’s tips come from a workshop sponsored by MdBio’s Speaker’s Bureau several years ago.
I’m not a fan of bullet points on slides, but they occasionally have their place, perhaps on an outline or summary slide (although pictures can work great in these situations). If you do choose bullet points or other text-heavy slides, the 6 X 6 rule is a great one…no more than 6 lines of text with no more than 6 words per line. I’ve also heard this called “billboarding”, in that any text, if placed on a billboard along the highway, would be easily readable as someone sped past at 60 mph. In either case, brevity it key! Bullet points are points, not sentences, and you should be prepared to fill in additional words without reading directly from your slides.
A few more text tips: use a dark font on a light background or a very light font on black or a dark color, and don’t use shadow effects on text. Our visual systems excel at detecting contrast, and this contrast is blurred with washed-out colors or unnecessary shadows. Sans serif fonts (without the little “feet”) work best for slides, and text should be large. One of my favorite ways to check text size is to print out the slide on a regular sheet of paper, then put it on the floor and stand over it. If I can’t clearly read it, the text is too small!
No matter the color, whether with feet or without, all slide text should contribute to the message, or it’s wasting valuable space! This rule applies particularly to slide titles. Slides titled “methods” don’t give me much information. However, a slide titled “fish collection sites on the California coast” instantly orients me to the additional information on the slide…unless the rest of the slide deals with Galapagos tortoises, in which case I’m confused but probably paying attention!
Used sparingly and properly, text on slides can be effective in helping to convey your message. How do you use text to enhance your presentations, and (always a favorite), what are some of your pet peeves about how others use text slides to put you to sleep? Keep it clean, please, and I look forward to hearing from all of you!