• # (Not) Posting My Slides

Mon 09 September 2013 - 11:34:31 CDT

Last week I presented a paper at SPIE Optics+Photonics in San Diego. It was a good conference, and I think the people who attended my session were happy with it. (Also thanks to the CalTech and U of Arizona people for a good lunch discussion after the session.)

Here I’m not going to get into the (ongoing) research, but I want to highlight a couple things I did with the slides that you might try in your own presentations.

First, sorry (long-time friend of mine) Geoff, but I’m not going to post all of the slides. Remember, slides don’t stand alone as a document. In fact, the point of this presentation at the conference was to highlight salient sections of the paper I had already written. So, if anything, I would post the paper.

Now, slide number 1: a plot of diffraction efficiency data generated in Scilab.

A few things to note here:

• No bullets. (And yes, I understand the irony of including this point in a bulleted list.)
• The plot is big on the page. No clutter around it. It uses all of the available space while leaving some margin so things don’t look too crowded.
• There is a title on the page, but it’s short (and big). By itself, this probably doesn’t make sense, but in the context of the talk, the title serves as a reminder of where we are.
• Lines have colors and textures. The colors have good contrast vs. white, and show up well on a projector. (Hint: don’t use cyan or yellow.) Also the colors are different enough from each other. Finally, the dashed lines help distinguish the curves if you have issues seeing color or if the plot is printed in black and white (as it is in paper published in the conference proceedings).
• There is a clear, consistent font. The basic Keynote template I started with uses Gill Sans Light. The smallest non-subscript text is roughly 28pt. And, importantly, the plot axes and legend use the same font as the rest of the presentation.

That last point is not difficult to achieve, but it is time-consuming. Scilab generates good plots, but doesn’t have a lot of flexibility in formatting. Also, I’ve found that if you play around with dashed lines in Scilab, they look fine in the application but don’t export well. Fortunately, Scilab will export SVG vector graphic files that can be tailored in Adobe Illustrator (or Inkscape or similar) to change fonts, add annotations, change colors, and change dashes. (Caution: The initial vector structure you get will be a mess. But with a little effort, you can split/combine paths and group/ungroup entities to get to something that makes sense.)

Another trick is to keep consistent axis scaling in Scilab as much as makes sense:

--> plot(...);
--> a = gca(); // get current axis
--> a.data_bounds = [xmin, ymin; xmax, ymax];
--> a.tight_limits = "on";


This way, you can reuse axis formatting–line weight, color, font–across multiple plots in your presentation. (It also helps the audience understand relative scales between data sets.) And finally, keeping everything in a vector format as long as possible maintains image fidelity when you resize in the presentation slide.

Now slide number 2 (and 3): a full-bleed photograph of part of the lab setup.

Large photos are great, obviously, for illustrating things that are difficult to describe (like an experimental lab setup). The first photo has the room lights on, and when this slide is up, I can describe the position of the holographic plate on the rotation stage, the location of the laser source, etc. But it is difficult to see the two diffraction spots on the screen. However, when I include another photo taken from the same position with the room lights off, you can easily see the diffraction spots.

You can’t see the apparatus well anymore in the second picture, but that doesn’t matter because context was established in the previous slide. When the slideware–Keynote in this case–dissolves between the photos, connection between the two is obvious, and that can be worked into the description during the fade: “The output spots are easier to see once we turn the room lights off.”

(Also, don’t forget to practice with technology interruptions. My presenter display–showing the next slide and a timer–decided not to work during the presentation. My laptop display was just mirroring the projector, and there wasn’t time to fix it. Things still went reasonably well.)

• # Don't Be Boring

Tue 25 June 2013 - 14:45:00 CDT

I have a conference coming up, so I’ve been thinking again about what makes a good presentation. This is a difficult question to answer, and it’s probably easier if you think about the converse at the same time: what makes a bad presentation? Here are a few concepts I’ve picked up over the years.

1. Don’t be Boring I’m stealing this from Ben Orenstein of thoughtbot and host of their podcast. It’s pretty simple. To transfer ideas and information, the audience needs to be interested and engaged.
2. A Presentation is not a Document If you can convey what you need to convey in a document, then format the information as a document and email it to me; no scheduling necessary. Also, don’t hand out your slides before-hand…or ever. Supplementary materials should be sent after the presentation so people can pay attention during. And contrary to popular belief, your slides should not stand alone. They should enhance what you are saying. If your slides do stand alone, just format them as a document and cancel the meeting (see also #4).
3. Clipart No. Just no.
4. Bulleted Lists What is the maximum number of bullets per slide? How about zero. I didn’t go to your presentation to watch you read, and I can’t listen to you and read the screen at the same time. If you’re just going to read, see #2 (and beware of infinite referential loops). Also regarding (not) reading, when you practice have a friend randomly turn off the display. Can you keep going seamlessly?
5. Slides are Cheap Long, long gone are the days when “creating slides” literally meant creating semi-transparent film for an overhead or slide projector. You don’t need to try to cram everything onto 3 slides. You should not (and cannot) gauge the length of your presentation by counting slides; only by practicing delivering it (tip: use a video camera; you have one on your phone). And bonus tip for managers: never say, “put together a slide for the company meeting.” Instead, describe what information needs to come across, and provide a target duration.

Sometimes you can get over a creative block and ultimately create a more memorable presentation by enforcing limits on yourself. Consider these two formats. (Several cities have events organized around these.)

1. Pecha Kucha Twenty slides displayed for twenty seconds each.
2. Ignite Twenty slides displayed for fifteen seconds each and auto-advancing.

Here are some valuable resources:

1. Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Also the author of Presentation Zen Design and The Naked Presenter. Reynolds is a strong proponent of using full-bleed photographs to help your audience remember key ideas. Beautiful imagery is memorable and enjoyable, and it’s not as expensive as you think it is. (Looking unprofessional and/or being ignored is expensive.) Also, design your presentations in analog; use whiteboards/post-its and get away from the laptop.
2. slide:ology by Nancy Duarte. Also the author of Resonate. Both excellent books covering the design of a presentation in terms of effectively conveying an idea as well as designing its colors, photos, typography, and (tasteful) animation.
3. Read This Before Our Next Meeting (a.k.a. The Modern Meeting Standard) by Al Pittampalli. In short, make your meetings effective, and don’t have a meeting if you don’t need one. This works for all kinds of meetings, not just for presentations.
4. Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. This includes wealth of ideas about ideas. Specifically “why some ideas survive and others die.” A good read, and a good resource for developing any idea, not just for presentations.
5. Enchantment by Guy Kawasaki, author of many other excellent books as well. The Art of the Start, in fact is the source of another favorite tip: the 10-20-30 rule. To help your pitch to land: ten slides, twenty minutes, thirty-point font.

And for the scientists and researchers out there who need to present data, look into the excellent books by Edward R. Tufte. These are great, but dense and not inexpensive. Consider borrowing a copy to start or attend his one-day course; it’s really good.

Finally, some comic relief: