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No excuse for boring an audience: Advice on giving technical presentations

Conference_prezo_1Long before "death-by-powerpoint" or vertigo-by-prezi, there were bad presentations. Really bad presentations. So don't blame the software. The genesis of painfully dull or muddled presentations predates the computer. No one knows this better than scientists, researchers, and academics, who have long been required to attend numerous conferences each year, conferences which typically feature a keynote speaker and scores of shorter presentations by others in their field.

Over the years I've heard from many people with technical backgrounds about what is a good presentation and what is not. I've heard from many of you — doctors, researchers, scientists, programmers, etc. — and your comments have been very helpful. I've read several presentation books over the years specifically designed for scientists and others who need to give more technical presentations. Here are five:

The Craft of Scientific Presentations
Trees, Maps, and Theorems
Scientific Papers and Presentations, Second Edition
Communicating in Science : Writing a Scientific Paper and Speaking at Scientific Meetings
Designing Science Presentations: A Visual Guide to Figures, Papers, Slides, Posters, and More (New)

The book  Designing Science Presentations on the list above was published this year. The author Matt Carter is a young scientist who has teaching awards from his years at Stanford. Matt sent me a copy of his book a few weeks ago and said that he had been following my work for years. His book is very visual and very detailed. I recommend it for any one in a scientific field, although it is on the expensive side.

Scientist offers his presentation advice

Scientific_papersA few years ago, while on the train to the office, I found a wonderful essay in the appendix section of "Scientific Papers and Presentations." This editorial essay was written by Dr. Jay H. Lehr, an engineer and scientist with a Ph.D. in Ground Water Hydrology who has attended scientific presentations since the '50s. The title of the essay, which appeared in Ground Water in 1985, is "Let there Be Stoning!" This should be required reading for all academics and business people, especially those who are to present at a future conference. And perhaps proof that there is a God, this 28-year old essay is available for download (here) from the Western Washington University website. So spread the word.

As you read the editorial, please keep in mind that it was written by a professional with an engineering and scientific background, not by a "right-brain creative type"  who knows more about design and communication than about scientific investigation and processes for evaluating empirical knowledge. Here are just a few highlights from Dr. Lehr's editorial:

On dull conference speakers:

"They are not sophisticated, erudite scientists speaking above our intellectual capability; they are arrogant, thoughtless individuals who insult our very presence by the lack of concern for our desire to benefit from a meeting which we choose to attend."

On the importance of presenting well at technical conferences:

"Failure to spend the [presentation] time wisely and well, failure to educate, entertain, elucidate, enlighten, and most important of all, failure to maintain attention and interest should be punishable by stoning. There is no excuse for tedium."

On reading a conference paper:

"There is never an excuse to read a paper.... Better to lower the level of verbal excellence and raise the level of extemporaneous energy."

On using slides:

"They must be brightly lit and convey a simple thought. If you need a pointer to indicate an important concept or location on a slide, it is probably too crowded or difficult to comprehend."

On showing enthusiasm

            "Be enthusiastic! I studied astronomy under a dullard and thought it
             was a dead science. Carl Sagan taught me differently.
Please read the whole editorial when you get a chance. And if you have any success stories or details of great presentations you've seen at technical conferences, please feel free to share your wisdom
here. I'd love to hear your stories.

Related posts
How to run a useless conference by Seth Godin.
How to kick butt on a panel by Guy Kawasaki.
• "Slideuments" and the catch-22 for conference speakers, Presentation Zen.
How to lecture and keep 'em engaged, Presentation Zen.
Really Bad Powerpoint, Seth Godin


Zen Faulkes

I've been writing somewhat regularly on this matter in my own blog, NeuroDojo (http://dojo.shorturl.com or http://neurodojo.blogspot.com).

Part 1: *.pps -- http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2006/01/zen-of-presentations-part-one-blog-ive.html

Part 2: It's all about you --

Part 3: Can you do it on the radio? -- http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2006/02/zen-of-presentations-part-3-can-you-do.html

Part 4: Title slides --

There are a lot of familiar themes. What has been called "going naked" here, I've called "the Bullock method," for instance. I don't think there's much difference between giving a research talk at a conference and other kinds of talks.

Zen Faulkes

I've just put up a new entry on technical presentations, which argues that they'd be better if they were more like Robin Williams.

Part 5: Legalized insanity -- http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2006/03/zen-of-presentations-part-5-legalized.html

Arnon Rotem-Gal-Oz

You've asked about great technical presentations
I guess http://www.identity20.com/media/WEB2_2005/ is one of the best I've seen


Kevin Kane

Even in Toastmasters -- an organization devoted to improving its members presentation skills -- I still see mostly boring PowerPoint presentations.

If you can make your presentations and slides entertaining, you really stand out, and people look forward to hearing you present again!

Bogdan Antonescu

"Eloquent Science" by David M. Schultz is an excellent book that covers all the aspects of scientific communication. Part III of this book is about preparing and delivering scientific presentations.


Richard I. Garber


Another excellent free publication is the 2nd edition of Communicating Science: Giving Talks from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund at this web page:



John Ireland

"Death by PowerPoint" used to just be death by slide tray (which goes to show how old my academic career is). As a community college professor in the sciences I am always challenged by presenting complex topics to a very naïve and diverse audience while keeping them engaged. Many pundits talk about active learning, POGIL and the like but fail to realize that these methods do not work well unless the audience does the front-loading (not a common situation now... was it ever, in intro courses). This means that you do spend a lot of time "lecturing" and trying to engage the students. Your ideas have had a huge impact on shaping my lectures and PowerPoints and I am constantly trying to do better. As Bill Burr said, "you just have to keep doing better than the last time."


I don't think I ever saw a mind stunning presentation or talk. It is a pity. The worst thing is that we students learn it the boring way from the beginning .. probably because the teachers learned it the boring way also ..


Great observations! Being active in hi-tech sector for 20+ years I can only confirm that the average engineer is not a great presenter. Some testimonials and advice on how to do it better in my blog posts http://b2bstorytelling.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/trust-me-im-an-engineer/ and http://b2bstorytelling.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/how-to-write-a-paper/


The last few seminars I attended had excellent presentations.
They spoke for around 15 minutes, with powerpoint presentations, and then had approx 2 minutes of something off topic, maybe some humorous pictures, or a lame joke, just to break things up.
I know I didn't nod off that day!

Philipp Niemann

We did a perennial research project at the University of Trier (Germany) on the reception of scientific presentations using eye-tracking technology. Some of the results can be found here:
and here:

Mitch Gallant

Great post and love the excerpts towards the end. Made me chuckle. I felt so privileged to attend an amazing event with some big name speakers. The harvard prof I thought was going to kill it was a complete dud. Strong content with credibility and preparation but read from a paper and fumbled around heavy slides. Was so disappointed she didn't realize what she was doing. Reminds me of your post http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2013/04/should-be-be-suspicious-of-stories.html, people need to be strong storytellers, so much so that this economist is nervous of the power of story.

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