I have been to a lot of scientific presentations. So many in fact, that I’m scared to try and work out how many, as I don’t want to know how much of my life has been spent staring at Powerpoint. Some have been amazing immersive experiences that have held my rapt attention. Others have used transition effects…

To try and increase the chances of seeing good presentations, I though I would jot down some suggestions for anyone preparing a scientific presentation.

Blue and Yellow.

Trying to read yellow text on a blue background is probably the most unpleasant experience I can imagine. It’s so horrifically hard I really can’t understand why people use it. For this article I did a little research and found that people seem to think the contrast difference makes it more readable. Well it doesn’t…. at least not measurably. The W3 foundation did a small scale study and it was the least popular of ALL the colour combinations tested… So stop it.

Yellow and blue slides


With every version of Powerpoint, animating things gets easier and easier. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the only feature that actually improves with each version. As it gets easier, the competence required to animate some things gets lower and lower. The result – zooming boxes firing across the slides in weird spiral paths. With star trails!

What I think people are going for is something to really highlight their content and make it more memorable. What they are actually saying is “Look – it’s like 90s clip art but it moves!”. Unless you have a really, really, really good reason (e.g. someone kidnapped your cat) keep them small and unobtrusive. You’re presenting research – not directing the latest Pixar movie.


Okay, I’m sure your research is great. In fact, that’s the entire point of doing a presentation – to tell people how great it is. But stay focused. If you have a 15min presentation slot and have 30+ slides, you’ve gone wrong – something that might be obvious from the audience groan when they see your slide count. I have actually heard that happen – 40min talk, 30mins in, the presenter says ‘Oh, I better speed up, I’ve still got 40 slides to get through’… Alternatively, you might feel tempted to put more on each slide – which is going to leave most people craning forward to read it, and then confused when you only give them 1 minute to read ~200 words of text and 3 graphs.

You are giving a short presentation, not a lecture on either your life story or a day-by-day account of your research. Pick your core points and stick to them – and only them. Details and background are for follow-up questions and papers later.

The backup

This is partially a solution to the temptation to have all the content, but also just good planning. While it’s not yet happened to me, I have seen presenters asked some truly evil questions by their audience. In the main, audiences are pretty friendly as they all know what it’s like to stand up there and try to answer complex questions on the drosophila (this is such a terrible pun that I’m not even explaining it).

But you can prepare just in case by having a number of slides at the end of your presentation filled with additional data. Nothing shuts up an awkward question quicker than “Well actually, I have another graph for that!”.

And finally…

Relax, very few people die during public speaking, and only a handful of people are actually laughed off the stage. If you get nervous, just try not thinking about how you’re a bit sweaty and whether people can see, especially that person in the front row who is staring…

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Naomi · 8 September 2015 at 15:55

We were trained (brainwashed?) So thoroughly in EPIET to remove all extraneous ink. 6×6 words max on a slide. 1 slide per minute unless it’s a graph in which case you’ll take 2 mins to explain the interesting thing that means it warrants display (and it’ll have no axis notches/grid lines, instead, marking the interesting data with the information that makes it interesting) . No large multivariate tables, ONLY the significant rows. That’s how you explain the investigation of an outbreak of infectious disease to an international audience in 10 mins.

I see animations sometimes, but lots of alumni shake their heads in despair.

Conference etiquette | Errant Science · 15 July 2015 at 13:49

[…] readers may note that last month I detailed some tips for people giving presentations. But after writing it, I realised that I had focused on the wrong group of people. […]

Conference etiquette – ErrantScience · 8 February 2019 at 22:22

[…] readers may note that last month I detailed some tips for people giving presentations. But after writing it, I realised that I had focused on the wrong group of people. […]

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