Presentation Design: a worthwhile investment of time for scientists?

The chemical reaction (Michael Addition) in two representation formats

Conference season has already started and scientists begin to mingle and present their latest achievements. The lecture rooms are flooded with an overwhelming number of data sets and graphs and crowded PowerPoint slides are the norm. What makes the difference between a good and an excellent presentation is not only the content and the speaker, but also the design of the presentation itself. But, do scientist really have time for that?

After one of my workshops at the Helmholtz Centre in Munich this year, where I trained young scientists in how to improve their poster and presentation design skills and how to communicate their findings better with the use of modern design concepts, I got an anonymous feedback stating: “Nobody has that much time to spend on preparing presentations/posters!”. I was a bit puzzled at first, since normally the feedback I get is predominantly positive, and this was actually the first time I read such an absolute statement. And it made me think… Should scientists really spend their time mainly in the lab rather than “wasting” it on preparing well-designed presentations?

After some time of reflection on that comment, I asked myself: What is your finding worth, if no one hears or understands it? I have been to many conferences during my time as an active scientist and as harsh as it may sound, if your presentation is overloaded and the audience has issues following your train of thought, people will stop listening. And we cannot blame them for doing so. Badly designed slides might be fine during the first two lectures, but after some time following along gets tedious and eventually we find ourselves browsing our inbox on our phone instead. The sad thing is that this has nothing to do with the content – even if we do not want to hear it, our brains are just lazy. So much for the bad news. The good news is that there is one concept that saves you time and helps to direct the focus of the audience to where you want it to be: It is called minimalism! Let us have a look at the following example. Here you can see what a slide makeover towards a minimalistic approach can look like.

Even though the slide on the left does not contain overly much information, the audience needs to make several connections themselves (between image and text). The slide on the right is designed in such a way that the connection between the words and the molecules is made within seconds (and there is no room for misunderstandings).

When you want to redesign your slides using a minimalistic approach, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does it have a purpose? Remove all unnecessary elements (like the box). If it does not have a purpose, it does not have the right to be on the slide.
  • Do I really need that? Only show content that is beneficial for understanding.
  • Can I substitute it with something simpler? Getting rid of for example bullet points (and text in general) is always a good idea. Sometimes we are so used to using bullet points that we do not even consider other options.

Coming back to the initial statement: As you can see, the changes in design are quite small, but the effect that they have on the way the slide is perceived and understood is substantial.

In the end, you have to decide how much time you are willing to spend on the design of your presentation but remember: Design is not only about making things look good, it is a great tool to help your audience understand you better! When you have to spend less time explaining to the audience how to read your slide, you have more time to talk about your actual science! I would say, that is a worthwhile investment of time!

Picture credits: Verena Resch