Presentation skills for scientists and evidence-based practitioners: don’t lose your audience Authority with lousy Powerpoint or Keynote

I was in Sydney several months ago presenting to the X World conference on Presentation Magic. Attendees are those who work in university settings administering and training in Apple based hardware and software. Apple Australia is a major sponsor and usually brings out a few speakers from the US who are experts in various Apple software implementations.

I was invited to give an hour’s talk, using Keynote, to help attendees make a shift from their standard way of presenting to something a little more appealing for their audiences.

Two of the slides I included, and spoke about of relevance to scientists, was the one below, using the Magic Move transition:

Slide 1 contains the words Triple A; slide 2 has the three A’s aligned vertically and the words, Authority, Authenticity, Attention then build in secondly using the animation, Dissolve by Letter from Centre.

I refer to the Triple A “engine” as one of the driving forces behind developing persuasive and engaging presentations, especially where the presenter is allegedly an expert in his or her field, and is delivering complex information to a lay audience. Such as in Climate Change science.

The term “Triple A engine” is one I’ve borrowed from a book entitled, Sex and the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians, by the late Al Cooper. You can find out more about the book here.

In the online sexuality context, Cooper spoke of how the internet was (initially) causing a sexual revolution due to the Triple A engine of online behaviour:

Access, Affordability, Anonymity.

Indeed, before Keynote’s Magic Move transition came along in the latest version,  I’d offered workshops on online sexuality and created the same effect using these words manually over several slides, but Magic Move makes it so much easier, and is a major inclusion on the iPad version of Keynote, making up for much of that apps’ animation feature absence.

In the current context, it helps audiences get a grip on your ideas, especially ones they may be unfamiliar with or challenged by, if you keep those ideas initially to a maximum of three ideas. Any more, and it becomes a list and the switch off factor jumps by an order of magnitude. This is because of Cognitive Load being stretched if we go beyond three ideas being held simultaneously. It’s why we often “chunk” new telephone numbers into sets of three, e.g. 212-555-2091.

There are many “terms of three” in the natural environment to help us make sense of the world. We can describe objects by their length, width, and height; we can describe an aircraft’s movements in three planes: yaw, pitch and roll. Pigments can be described by hue, saturation and colour. And so on. Things described in threes seem to be more memorable to most humans.

Because I only had an hour or so at X World, it was enough to bring this Presentation Triple A engine to the audience’s attention. But in longer training sessions, I expand with examples on what each term means, and this can itself take an hour. This is because the concepts underlying the Triple A engine are so central in helping scientists in particular get across their complex messages to a variety of audiences.

Before looking at each one in turn, please think about the Triple A’s as if they were deposits in the Bank of A. Your rich Uncle Thaddeus or Aunt Maude has died recently and you being their favourite nephew or niece their will allows part of their considerable estate to be paid to you in trust. Your task, the executor of the will tells you, is to make philanthropic advances with your bequest, in particular, to improve knowledge sharing amongst both strangers and friends on important topics.

You can dip into the account to make withdrawals to invest in a potentially risky venture, but overall your task is not to become a spendthrift but to keep the account growing so you might eventually pass it on, or forward, to someone else who can continue the good work of knowledge sharing.

Your Bank of Authority

One trust account is entitled Authority.

When you are invited to give a keynote or address it’s more than likely someone will have setup the situation such that before you open your mouth there is a promise to the audience of your authority status: that you have something important to share, and it’s worth the audience’s time, energy and perhaps money to be there to witness your presentation. There is something they will gain by being there, both tangible and intangible.

(My hope after a Presentation Magic offering is that attendees can leave the presentation and almost immediately make changes to how they present or conceive of their next presentation. That’s a tangible outcome. An intangible one might be the memory of attending a concert by a favourite performer – oftentimes, the sound doesn’t match the recorded song, but being there will stay with you for a long, long time, like the time I witnessed Frank Sinatra perform in Honolulu in 1987 or so. His voice was already compromised but, ah… the experience of being there…)

Moreover, your presence will have been announced ahead of time in the usual publicity outlets, plus the newer social media ones, like Twitter as well as push email. Your audience might receive a flyer by snail mail or email detailing who you are and your subject.

Your background or bio will usually be spoken once more by the event’s host, and you will be invited onto stage, hopefully to generous applause.

Those on the motivational speaking circuit (doing it tough except for the most famous during the GFC) will hear their audience revved up with motivational music, and I get the feeling you’re expected to bound onto stage! Often times, when hype is part of the audience experience, the host will ask the locals to give you a real “Texas ( or substitute Organisation, or state, or country) welcome”. To then sit there with your arms crossed over your chest would be considered churlish.

Of course, for scientists, this plea for authority status is a little different! Usually, to help convey your status, the host will announce the number of publications (and journals) you have written; what professional memberships (and subcommittees) you belong to, awards and grants you have received, and so on. It would be unlikely the number of times you have appeared on Oprah, David Letterman or Good Morning America will be mentioned if the audience is made up of peers; but if it’s a lay audience, their mention will add to your authority not detract from it.

(As an aside, because of my awareness of such issues, I will usually supply the event co-ordinator my own bio having sussed out who my audience will be. Groups of psychologists will get one, IT managers another, lawyers a third, each emphasising what I want the audience to know about me to advance my authority, ie, to maintain my Bank of Authority balance).

The next contribution to your bank account will assisted by the physical attributes of the presentation setting. This is where I and my hosts usually need to negotiate. Hosts have usually in advance setup the location according to standard hotel or venue properties: a lecturn with a microphone, a laptop (usually a PC) sitting next to the lecturn, or if a little more advanced, a presentation remote following your uploading your powerpoint to a central server.

I get into trouble here because I insist on using my own laptop, my own remote, and my own remote monitor for real time monitoring of what the data projector is showing. This means I also bring with me my own 17″ monitor and VGA splitter box so that the laptop’s video signal goes to the data projector and the monitor. This usually means I bring a l-o-n-g VGA-VGA cable, as well as a powerboard for the monitor and splitter box.

(I did this at the X Conference and it surely impressed upon the A/V technicians present (it was a very professional conference setup) that I was also a professional in my field: “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” is the usual comment, especially when I also bring out my audio cable extension chord, showing I have thought about all possibilities. To the A/V guys, and the host who witnessed me setting up, it stamped my authority as an experienced presenter, before I even opened my mouth with my opening comment. By the way, treating A/V professionals with respect will get you a long way, especially if things start to go south. Treat them with disdain, and should problems develop, you’ll be amazed how the problems seem unsolveable or keep popping up. Capish?)

So with introductions over, it’s the presenter’s turn to hold the stage, and it’s here that either an almighty withdrawal from the Bank of Authority occurs, or a little interest is added. In other words, it’s the presenter’s for the taking or losing.

So here’s a list of how to squander that good fortune that has been carefully nurtured:

1. You approach the lectern and give the microphone a few strongs taps, sending thumps through the loudspeaker system, and a squeal of high-pitched feedback as well. The audio technician at the back of the hall rips off his headphones to protect his eardrums, and then curses you for potentially damaging his expensive Sennheiser microphone. In his eyes, you’re already an amateur regardless of the professional introduction made about you.

Of course, perhaps you’ve been told off by a technician in a previous talk, so you’ve now learnt to just blow into the microphone to make sure it’s on and achieve the same loss of authority. Next, you can squander your authority by speaking right into the microphone and causing more feedback and a sudden cutting of volume back at the mixing panel.

Wise speakers know just how far to stand from the microphone having watched their host introduce them, and leave it up to the audio technician, when there is one, to adjust the volume up or down to suit their your voice.

2. You start with a “Good Evening” or some other salutation, then say as you turn to face the screen (putting your back to the audience), “Let’s see if I can get these slides to work…” Or, rather than using the remote control, you hit a key on the the laptop nearby hoping to start the slideshow but instead you drop out of the show and reveal the three hundred text-filled slides which comprise your hour long talk, much to the collective groan of the audience who at a less than conscious level say to themselves, “Oh dear! Yet another boring Powerpoint”.

3. Your first slide is so complicated and overblown with words and images showing not just your subject title, and your name, but all the sponsoring organisations and stakeholders whom you’ll have to thank sooner or later. The less than conscious take from this by the audience is of someone trying much too hard, and a diminution of your authority. You see, after all the introductions and advanced publicity to establish your authority, the time for proof has now arrived, and any more padding is seen as artificially inflating. If artificial sounds like artifice, there’s a reason for that. One definition of artifice is:

Clever or cunning devices or expedients, esp. as used to trick or deceive others: “artifice and outright fakery”

Here’s one such “opening slide” from a deck downloaded from the web:

The actual presentation slides contain some very useful information for its intended audience, but the opening slide, perhaps seen on the screen while the speaker is introduced looks like it was put together hastily on the flight to the conference. The circular words on the logo bottom left would be so small as to be illegible to anyone at the back of the conference room.

Here’s another one from a figure of assumed authority:

I think you’ll agree, an incredibly busy and dense opening slide, meant to convey authority, but what it conveys to the audience is, “You’re gonna be working hard in this presentation reading lots of my slides”.

Now this would be a good slide to include in a deck that will be posted online, since it gives contact details for follow-up, but this type of slide should be avoided in a live presentation for what I hope are obvious reasons.

And if you think I’m wrong about the “working hard” criticism, take a look at slide 16 (of 51) of the deck:

How can you expect to have your authority confirmed (“do the walk and the talk”) when you:

1. Use stick figures embedded in non-sensical chintzy clipart
2. The left sided motif containing much wording and lettering is a positively distracting and overloaded slide “feature”.
3. The robotic continuation of the conference title and theme further adds to slide clutter. Show it on the first slide, and be done with it. Include it if you must on your downloadable slide set, and that’s it.
4. One hopes that the bulleted theories, lower right, were brought in singly perhaps each with a gentle dissolve, but the lack of thinking about the slide would suggest: Not.

I’ll finish this first part of this series of blog articles intended for scientists by suggesting that so many scientists or those who come from an evidence-base and whose selection for conferences is based on their research being evidence-based, appear to eschew any evidence for how best to present their work to a variety of audiences, if their published powerpoints are reliable sources of evidence in themselves.

It’s not that they don’t care. I don’t know any scientists who don’t wish their presentations to go well, and the old ideas of presenting just to add to your CV is an attitude of the past, I believe.

No, it’s the usual culprits: social conformity, time pressures, working in a text-based domain which is fine for personal communication but which is shallow for large group presentations, and of course, the ease with which tools like Powerpoint and Keynote can allow for slide construction which originally in 35mm format was the province of trained graphic designers.

We’re now living in a world where it’s so easy to convey or be bestowed authority but one where our need for quality assurance of experts is never more necessary. Learning how to take control of this by virtue of your slide construction and presentation skills is I believe a very important – no, essential – component for those who wish to make an impact on their audiences.

In the next blog articles, I’ll look at the other two A’s, Authenticity and Attention.

For now, your comments are welcomed.

2 responses to “Presentation skills for scientists and evidence-based practitioners: don’t lose your audience Authority with lousy Powerpoint or Keynote

  1. Les,

    Excellent article, thank you! Do scientists really take conference talk seriously? Or is the that important/serious part of the conference happening during the breaks and not at the talks? I also wonder how much “graphic design literacy” do scientist have, or if they even care at all. Luckily in my field their is very little room for clip art. It seems to me that scientists establish authority in the same way the work: facts. Facts like titles, positions, associations, co-operations, sponsors, etc,. Pushing the wow! into the audience. “With so many titles, positions, associations, co-operations and sponsors this person must know what s/he’s talking about.” is what presenters with such introductions want the audience to push into the audience’s head. so this brings me back to my first point. I don’t think that the scientists/profesors/grad students that I have seen presenting care about their talks. They just want to pull the facts out and wait for the next coffee pause. The Logos-but-Pathos-free path I would call it. For them that is authority.

  2. Thanks for this interesting article and tips.
    Presentations are a big part of my job and I want not just to go with the times, but to share my experience about remote presentations as well. Most of all I share my mind maps and projects (I use Conceptdraw software
    I show my presentations via Skype, it works with ConceptDraw easy and fast irrespectively the internet speed, because my file is loading to viewers computers and is used by program, not by network. For those who makes remote presentation Skype is a must have tool. But sometimes just sharing your screen is not effective due to a bad internet connection, so for me is very important that all participant will be able to watch, listen and use in further my documents with no limits.
    Highly recommend.

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