Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How to Not Suck at Powerpoint, and the Secrets of Malcolm Gladwell

Designer Jesse Dee has an entertaining presentation on Slideshare about how to use Powerpoint effectively (although Edward Tufte may assert that such a thing is impossible). These are all things we probably know, but just don't take into consideration enough when we're giving a presentation.

According to Dee, the number one most common mistake is lack of preparation. According to a survey taken by a company that specializes in presentation skills coaching, 86% of executives say that presentation skills affect their career and income, yet only 25% spend more than 2 hours of prep for "high-stakes" presentations. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, Tipping Point, Outliers, and an excellent article on drug development in the New Yorker ("The Treatment: Why is it so Difficult to Develop Drugs for Cancer?"), is known for delivering a seemingly effortless presentation, ending at exactly the right time, without ever looking at his watch (see his Ted Talk on Spaghetti Sauce). When Financial Times writer Gideon Rachman asked how he does it, Gladwell responded, "I know it may not look like this. But it’s all scripted. I write down every word and then I learn it off by heart. I do that with all my talks and I’ve got lots of them." I've had lots of folks tell me the best way to give a talk is to throw up a few main points and wing it through an hour, but perhaps rote memorization is a more attractive alternative. But in our line of work where we show lots of data, tables, figures, and statistics, it's already easy enough to bore your audience, and delivering a memorized speech might make this worse. I tend to prefer something in between complete improv and autopilot. What are your favorite tips for presenting scientific, quantitative, or statistical data and results?

You Suck at Powerpoint (Slideshare, via @lifehacker)

Financial Times - Secrets of Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell - The Treatment: Why is it so Difficult to Develop Drugs for Cancer?


  1. Ha! I saw this post after sitting thru an excruciating talk on RNA structure prediction. The email announcing it, the talk sounded cool. But the slides confused me at which point I lost interest in the talk. Mind you this all happened within the first 10 minutes of what turned into a 60 min seminar...

    Not that I'm that great at making good looking slides, but I'm slowly learning to. And while I'm still a lowly graduate student, mastering this craft, I'm convinced, is going to help land me a job. Thanks for posting!

  2. I totally agree that memorizing my scientific presentations do not help. I have done them in my life and it makes it very difficult to answer the questions from the audience. It is good to write it down and know what do you want to say, but also improvisation on stage helps a lot to answer the questions.

  3. Total memorization is hard to handle questions I would agree, but so is powerpoint, because they are not flexible. I used to make a lot more slides than I planned on using so I could anticipate ones that would be needed for questions. Now I have been trying to use interactive graphical software like spotfire and it seems to help immensely, but requires a lot more preparation than a powerpoint.


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Getting Genetics Done by Stephen Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.