We’ve all found ourselves sitting through scientific talks that were annoying at best. At conferences and department seminars, it’s not unusual to see presenters who overwhelm the audience with information, read entire paragraphs off their slides, or spend more time looking at the projector screen than at the audience. Practices like these make it more difficult for attendees to engage with the presenter, follow the talk, or remember its key messages. Yet, however frustrating the experience of sitting through a poor presentation may be, as soon as it’s our turn to come up to the lectern, we often repeat the same mistakes. Why?
That’s the question that Brigitte Hertz set out to answer. An environmental scientist and social psychologist by training, Hertz has dedicated the last 15 years to running a company that teaches academic and transferable skills, such as project management and career planning, to scientists. Recently, she also completed her Ph.D. thesis at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, looking into how the design of slides made with Microsoft PowerPoint, the presenter’s behavior, and the audience’s reaction affect each other. Presenting is a difficult exercise for most scientists, and Hertz’s research offers pointers for how it can be done better. She shared her insight and advice in a phone conversation with Science Careers.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
[U]sing audiovisuals like slides and animations have made scientific presentations much more of a stage performance.
Q: Why did you decide to study PowerPoint presentations?
A: First, because of the predominance of Microsoft PowerPoint as a presentation tool. Today, 96% of scientific presentations are done with PowerPoint, and this has an enormous influence on the presentation itself. Then, scientists who take part in my training programs have been telling me that they are very dissatisfied with how PowerPoint is being used by presenters. Yet, interestingly, when they are the ones giving a presentation, they usually make the same mistakes as the presenters they found irritating. So, for me, there was an enormous drive to find out why everybody makes the same mistakes, and how we can improve presentations with PowerPoint.
Q: What is the audience most commonly dissatisfied with?
A: Well, to start with, they don’t like slides with a lot of text. Not only do they find that boring, but it is also annoying when the presenter reads out loud what the audience can read by themselves. What also happens is that the audience will start reading the text, but then the presenter will be talking at the same time. We know from research that, when you try to read and listen at the same time, it is the reading that gets dominant, which will make the processing of the oral information less effective.
The other part is mainly that scientists look toward the projected slides a lot when they present. As a result, they fail to maintain eye contact with the audience, which is a very important part of a good presentation. In my study I found that, during a 20-minute presentation, speakers turn toward the projection an average of 3 times per minute. Having a lot of text on their slides makes presenters break eye contact with the audience all the more often, as do animated slides compared to static slides.
Q: In your thesis, you write that PowerPoint instruction books highlight the importance of having little text and keeping eye contact. What does your research say about why so many people do the opposite?
A: One reason I hadn’t previously realized was so important is that many presenters use PowerPoint as speaking notes. They love the fact that they can have on their slides all the words they need to remember the structure of the presentation, or words and sentences that they might find difficult, sometimes because English is not their mother tongue. And so what has become a tradition now is to have the outline of your presentation written on the slides and all the important parts of your talk also showing in paragraphs of text.
We also found out from the research that the more nervous you are to give a presentation—and almost everyone is to some degree—the more text there is on the slides. And so PowerPoint has now become a kind of support for the presenter instead of a support for the audience—as originally meant to be—and this flaw has a lot to do with speaking anxiety. One of the conclusions of my Ph.D. is that we should train scientists so that they do not only design their PowerPoint slides bearing in mind how information is processed, but also find other ways to overcome their speaking anxiety.
Q: What should presenters know about how the audience processes information?
A: They should bear in mind that, as an audience, we have a very limited working memory. This makes presenting results by writing a paper and giving a presentation two different exercises. When people read, they do it in their own time and can think about what they read, which they can’t do when listening to a presentation. So you shouldn’t cram a scientific presentation with as much information as you possibly can, because the audience won’t be able to process all that. Instead, what you need to do is tell them a good and simple story and feed them bite-sized pieces of information. Also very important is to make the audience enthusiastic and passionate about your subject, and then, if they really like your story, they will go read your papers afterward to fill in the details.
Q: Do you have any advice for how to make your presentation a good story?
A: In terms of quantity of content, a 20-minute presentation, for example, will give you just enough time to make an introduction, discuss one or two main issues, repeat some important points to help the audience follow your talk and remember it, and finish on a firm conclusion. Then, in order to engage the audience, you should try to combine what you are passionate about telling them with what they actually want to hear from you.
Another important aspect is to make intelligent use of slides by presenting interesting and functional pictures, rather than pictures that are just there for decoration. Use graphs or nice illustrations of examples that can support your story, because that’s what the audience really likes, and it also helps them process and remember the information. For example, one of the participants in my training courses was researching how trees deteriorate into soil nutrients after they die. On each of her slides, she used the same picture of the decomposition cycle, but whenever she was addressing a new topic she would light up the relevant part of the cycle with a different color as a way to guide the audience through her talk. That was very effective.
Q: What are your recommendations for maintaining eye contact?
A: My advice there would be to help the audience follow your presentation by using spoken words more than body language. Rather than turning your whole body to make the audience look at the projection screen, keep eye contact with them and talk through your slide by saying something like, “And here what you can see is a graph showing you that A is bigger than B.”
Now, if you really want to see what is on the slide, you can just look at the screen on your laptop, because it’s there as well. The newest version of PowerPoint also allows you to see on a split screen what the next slide will be so that you know what’s coming. And if you are particularly nervous and feel the need to have notes, you also have the option to write a couple of keywords right below your slides on your laptop.
And then, it’s also a matter of experience. What I found in my study is that the more experienced the presenters are, the more eye contact they have with the audience. The younger ones are more nervous about that. So just go and give talks, and eventually you will get used to speaking in front of an audience.
Q: What else can young researchers do to reduce speaking anxiety?
A: First, they should prepare their presentation well, which includes rehearsing it. Practicing your talk aloud will not only give you more confidence, but it will also help you find out if some of your ideas or sentences don’t run smoothly, or if your presentation is too long. Otherwise, you will only discover these flaws during your presentation, which will make you all the more nervous. I believe that, when people are really anxious, they sometimes skip rehearsing their talk because they find it a challenging exercise in itself. But, by all means, they should ask supportive colleagues and friends to give them constructive feedback on what they can improve.
It’s also important to be aware that nothing terrible is going to happen if you find yourself at a loss for words at some point during your presentation. It happens even to the most experienced presenters. The difference is that they will be unperturbed and just say, “Okay, let me go back to the previous part. I was saying this and that.” This will help make it come back to you, and your audience will forgive you because it shows that you are human.
Then, anyone who is in the profession of presenting or acting has their own relaxation methods. An hour before they go on stage, they sit down and meditate or use some other techniques to calm down and focus. That’s something you can do even at a conference. For example, while you are still sitting in the audience, you may just breathe deeply and slowly while shifting your focus on to different parts of your body to help you relax a little bit.
Finally, don’t label all of your tension as negative, as you need some adrenaline pumping in your body to be able to tell yourself as you go up to the lectern, “This is going to be important. This is going to be interesting. Let’s go.”
Q: Why is it important for young scientists to learn how to use PowerPoint well?
A: Scientists often spend several months, sometimes even a year, writing a paper. And if you ask them how many people they believe will read their paper, sometimes they say 10, 20, or 100 people. But then, if you ask them how much time they are going to spend on a presentation they are due to give to a room of 50 to 100 people, they usually say 2 days. And isn’t that a pity? These 50 to 100 people who will be attending your talk are all interested in your work and may give you important feedback, or even ask you to meet for lunch afterward to discuss a potential collaboration. Presentations are a wonderful and rare opportunity for you to have direct contact with colleagues, and you really want to make the most of it.
Q: Given all the problems you’ve described about how PowerPoint is used, should researchers think about abandoning it?
A: No. Some of my points above might sound negative, but I am all for PowerPoint; I think it is a brilliant tool. You can use PowerPoint very creatively to support your story. For example, it is very easy to make a little movie with your slides—you don’t have to be a computer nerd to animate all this.
The problem lies not in PowerPoint but in how it is used. No one would think of blaming a bad novel on the type of word processor the author used; the same goes with presentations. What will determine whether the public holds your story as good or bad is, above all, the quality of the content and your capacity to deliver a compelling narrative using the chosen tools and medium. For presenters, this means learning how the audiovisual tools provided by PowerPoint work, and taking into account how they can work for them or against them. Then they also need to take into consideration the audience and how it reacts to their presentation, which comes back to eye contact.
Ultimately, as I found out during my Ph.D., although we believe that giving a presentation has become easier now that we have PowerPoint as a support, it has in fact become more difficult. This is because using audiovisuals like slides and animations have made scientific presentations much more of a stage performance, and improper use has led to the slides gaining too much importance. As one of my fellow researchers puts it, “PowerPoint slides now take all the attention onstage, with the presenter being little more than a stagehand.” We need to empower the presenter and let him or her take the spotlight again, because that’s what an engaging and effective presentation is all about.