Simplicity in Las Vegas
Typefaces give us signals

Who says technical presentations can't be engaging?

Presenting_science People often ask if technical or science-related presentations can be as compelling as presentations covering other less technical topics. Now, not every presentation has earth-shattering, Nobel-Prize winning significance, but I assume if you are talking about your research or current issues in your field, etc. that your words have a benefit for someone else. I assume it is important, otherwise why waste your time and the time of others? And if it is important, then being effective matters. No one ever said that clarity and a connection with the audience were sufficient conditions for an effective talk; we only ever said they were necessary conditions.

Three years ago I gave some advice for people giving technical presentations in this post. The money quote I still believe is from engineer and scientist Dr. Jay H. Lehr in his 1985 article "Let There Be Stoning" (download article in PDF).

"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."

                                                            — Jay H. Lehr

This week I heard from Naveen Sinha, a graduate student in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University. He too has noticed three things that the good lectures/presentations share. In his words:

  1. They have an outline near the beginning of the talk, which they repeat along the way so the audience can become reoriented with the larger-scale structure of the presentation.
  2. The slides use a full sentence at the top to summarize the key point, or none at all. Shorter titles are rarely effective. I learned about this from "The Craft of Scientific Presentations" and it's been good advice so far.
  3. The slides are as simple as possible.

Naveen noted the presentation skills of one of his professors Richard Losick and Princeton professor Bonnie Bassler as good examples. "Both seem to focus on telling a story that the audience will remember, rather than simply showing all their data."


TED Talk: Dr. Bonnie Bassler
Naveen's right about Dr. Bassler; she's fantastic. This is an excellent TED talk below. Dr. Bassler is really good at speaking in a very down-to-earth, conversational manner. There is great clarity to her narrative. For example, she often says "The question is then _______" or "So the question is this: _______." Along the way she also answers the two questions we often have as listeners but that too often go unanswered: "So what? and "Why does it matter (to me/us)?" I love her style. She never relies on the confidence monitors (that we can tell) or bullet points (there are none) but instead she moves her eyes naturally around the room, clearly engrossed in what she is explaining but also very much in the moment. She references the screen often but only to illustrate her point. She uses her hands a great deal to explain processes, just as you would in ordinary, natural conversation.

Sample visuals
Dr. Bassler's visuals are quite simple and for the most part they were a good companion to her talk, yet the attention was on her and her descriptions. At times when she was not speaking about something on screen behind her, TED put up her video which gets all the attention back on her. You can do something similar in a classroom or at smaller conferences by placing black slides in between sections or using the B key on your notebook to make the screen black (don't worry: the room will not go dark because you still have the lights on, right?).


Vibrio   Intra

Yes, Dr. Bassler is talking to a general audience here, albeit an extraordinarily educated one. But I think this supports the notion that talks on science-related fields can posses both important content and great clarity that connects with an audience.

Specifically, what should I do?
Each presentation case is different. Audiences vary as do presenter personalities. What you actually do will depend on many things. But if you want tips from a scientist on how to give a good talk at a conference, this PDF by Jay H. Lehr (Let There Be Stoning) is still very good advice. Also remember to look for the story of your content. Information alone is not story. Look here for more info on the power of story.

The Excitement of Science
NOVA Science Now piece on Dr. Bassler (video)
The Craft of Scientific Presentations by Michael Alley
Trees, maps, and theorems Effective communication for rational minds by Jean-luc Doumont
Advanced Presentations by Design: Creating Communication that Drives Action  by Andrew Abela
Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis  by Stephen Few (new: highly recommended)

This week I'm in Wellington, New Zealand for these Webstock workshops. You can follow a bit of what I'm doing by following me on Twitter (Posterous links to Twitter.)

Twitter link

Belinda wrote a nice post here about her day at the first seminar in Wellington.


Claudio Perrone

Garr, you made excellent points. I mostly do technical presentations and I now structure them around a dramatic compelling story (not just anecdotes) in which the technology/process/idea plays a key role. Needless to say, the feedback is always fenomenal.

Christian Esteve

I started thinking different in my technical (computer science) presentations after reading the Zen book and having "suffered" as attendee in many talks given at academic conferences.

I found that one can always create a story around the context and contribution of your paper. Visuals and moving away from the bullet point style are indeed powerful techniques.

They makes the more amenable for attendees, and for the talker, it should not make any difference whether you have or not the spoken words on the screen. You (should) know your stuff well enough that just the title and the visuals suffice to trigger the content delivery process inside your head.

My two cents, technical presentations can be engaging by using the presentation zen techniques without loosing any degree of credibility. In any case, there is your published paper to dig into the details and your talk should be about giving the key messages of your contribution while advertising your paper and motivate people to read it!

Here is one of my latest attempts towards a more engaging technical talk on network architectures:

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