Talks: Fewer words, more understanding

by Jane on April 12, 2010

Image by flickr user kbaird, used under a creative commons license.

When a speaker switches to a new, wordy slide, what happens?  The audience reads the words. They can’t help it.  This is what my wife calls the “Cereal Box effect”: if a cereal box is on the kitchen table, you’ll read the words printed on it.  In all of human history, nothing interesting has ever been printed on a cereal box. But you’ll read it, because it’s words in front of you.

Now, with the wordy slide projected, the speaker starts talking.  Maybe he summarizes the words, maybe he reads the words to the audience (yawn.)  In any case, the audience only half-listens, because they’re reading. E. Tufte discusses this divided attention in his screed against powerpoint. Of course we’re bright people who can talk, listen, and chew gum at the same time — but with divided attention.

Next time you see a wordy slide, watch your colleagues.  Where are their eyes? Reading the slide, or watching the speaker?

A creator of divided attention is the ubiquitous slide showing a key plot on the left, and bullet points on the right.  The audience happily divides its attention among the plot (often illegibly small), the bullet points, and the speaker….

Maybe the next slide re-engages the audience, but often, the audience starts fiddling, reading, staring — the speaker’s lost them.  In addition, I suspect this format helps an audience underestimate the speaker, especially (a hunch) when the speaker is junior and/or female.  After all, the speaker didn’t inform the audience — the bullet points did!

What to do instead?

* Suppose there’s a quotation you want your audience to ponder.  Fine. Tell them, “I think Zwicky said it best,” then bring up the quotation. Be quiet and let them read it. Watch their eyes to see when they finish reading and turn back to you. Carry on.  (If there are visually impaired people in the audience, you should modify this method to keep them included.)

* Make terse slides. Instead of the half-plot, half-bullet slide, try filling the screen with the plot, such that the only words on the page are the axes and a slide title. Then, explain the plot.

* Say you move to a busy slide, but you realize you need to explain something first. Hit the “b” key to get a black screen, make your explanation, then return to the busy slide.  (This works in Keynote or Powerpoint). The “w” key gives a white screen.

* Figure out why you want wordy slides.  Are you afraid you’ll forget what to say?  That’s not good —  words chosen as a crutch for the speaker aren’t words aimed to inform an audience.  Next time, I’ll show how to use Presenter Notes in Keynote or Powerpoint, so that the audience sees clear, uncluttered slides, while you the speaker see all the cues, hints, and reminders you want.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ben April 15, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Yes, but how wordy is too wordy? No words, two sentences? It’s pretty cool to give a talk without any words on the slides except for the occasional titles, but it takes more memorization effort, and when sitting in the audience, if your attention wanders for a moment and you miss a fact or number, you can’t look back to the text. I do think that plots, axis labels, and font sizes should be made large, which has the nice effect of preventing you from putting more than a couple of sentences on the slide.

I dislike bullet points and try to use them as little as possible. Everyone else should also. And making them appear one at a time is so overhead-projector-piece-of-paper-90s.

Presenter notes sound great, but half of us, half the time, can barely get our laptops and projectors to play nice, which makes me wary of adding a complicating factor and then becoming reliant on it.

You know what’s too wordy? Posters. Many of the posters I see have vast chunks of text, sometimes verbatim from a paper draft. Don’t do that, people can’t read it. Summarize the entire poster in a few paragraphs and write only one sentence in each figure caption.


2 Jessica April 19, 2010 at 2:55 pm

would highly recommend viewing this presentation:
as it has evidence-based suggestions for how to construct slides. The basic recommendation is that each slide should have a sentence at the top of the slide with the primary point (not a title, a full sentence). And then very limited text on the rest of the slide… the rest of the slide contains visual support for the point of the slide. The beauty of this technique is that it FORCES you to keep one point per slide.

It has demonstrated quantitative success at improving retention rates (at least in classrooms).

I have heard further arguments for NO text on the slides (e.g. TED presentations, But I think this is a bit extreme for scientific audiences with little time for creating custom presentation graphics. Anyone have experience in presenting during colloquia or conferences with this extreme TED-like presentation design?


3 Jane Rigby April 20, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Ben, you make so many excellent points it’s hard to follow them up. Let me try:
Presenter notes: Hmm, when I post the Presenter Notes piece, I’ll talk about setup time. Not to invoke the wrath of the setup gods, but I spend about 1 min extra per talk getting the Notes to appear. Usually my mac likes projects, and it’s all easy. I’ve had one headache: they were remote-broadcasting my talk, and we had to force the software to broadcast slides, not my notes.
Relying on notes: That’s an EXCELLENT pt. Personally, I give much better talks with Notes, but its scary to depend on them. I should force myself to print out hardcopy notes, just in case.

I should distinguish between informal talks (journal club, lunch talk) and a BIG DEAL talk (job talk, invited talk at a conference, etc.) I recommend Presenter Notes for those really important talks, where every word counts.

I once asked two colleagues to recommend speakers to emulate. In the same breath, “Steve Jobs.” They are gearheads but they had a point. When Jobs introduces a product, EVERY WORD is carefully chosen. He doesn’t natter on, he doesn’t ramble. He tells you something, lets you think about it, and tells you something else. That style could be wearying/boring if overused in a scientific talk, but in the right places (conclusions, intro) it can be powerful.


4 Eric April 20, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Here’s one exception I’d like to put forward – I’ve found it definitely helps to put a few more words on slides when your audience’s English is not that great. In China, for example, people are generally better at reading than listening, and they are more likely to lose the thread if they are totally dependent on your verbal explanations. A corollary of this is to adjust the speed and style of your speaking to the level of your audience’s English.


5 Jane Rigby April 27, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Eric, that’s a good point. The reverse is also true. I had a Chinese math professor who knew his English was very strongly accented. On the first day, he promised: “Everything I say, I will write on the board, so you understand, OK?” It was a great class.

So that’s a case where the words on the blackboard are the same words spoken, so the message gets reinforced. The problem of divided attention is when the screen says one thing, and the speaker says another.


6 Jane Rigby April 27, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Ben has an excellent point about posters. Wordy posters don’t get read. And cause migraines. At big poster sessions, I love posters that, under the title & authorlist, put a 1-2 sentence summary of the poster. Not a long abstract, mind you: 1-2 sentences.


7 Tom January 19, 2011 at 8:54 am

For the last year or so I’ve been trying to make my slides less wordy, and not include a single bullet point (rather, just questions or important points as single sentences). This is an example of a talk that I gave last year at the Stars to Galaxies conference. I think ‘no bullets’ is easiest to implement in short talks, e.g. 10 minutes, like this one.

In retrospective, the only downside is that since many conferences now consider ‘proceedings’ to be to just put the slides online, talks with minimal text which rely on the speaker (like mine above) aren’t very useful on their own, but that is more a problem with the proceedings method than with the presentation itself.


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