Tag Archives: learning

Tips from Matt Carter’s Book, Designing Science Presentations

Later this month I’m giving a workshop to some graduate students who will be giving brief “TED”-like talks (10 minutes) in October. In reviewing and freshening up some of my workshop content, I’m working my way through Matt Carter’s Designing Science Presentations: A Visual Guide to Figures, Papers, Slides, Posters and More.

Here’s a brief rundown of some new things I’ve learned:

  • Carter considers a format category of “written presentation.” This includes articles, papers, etc. Interesting way to look at it.
  • “Sometimes a scientific word needs to be in all-uppercase letters. If the word is long, it can often visually overpower a sentence. In these circumstances, try reducing the font size of the uppercase word by 1-2pts to make the sentence appear more balanced” (p.61). Much easier to implement than trying to use small capitals.
  • In bullet lists, when you must use them, “use numbers when you want to show a sequence and a symbol when the sequence is arbitrary” (p.65).
  • The difference between using “e.g.” and “i.e.” (p. 81). Finally. I get it now.

Pair this book with Michael Alley’s The Craft of Scientific Presentation and you have an unbeatable foundation for presentation success. More ideas and tips to come.






Research article “Less is More”

Photo #773427 by user:sofijab | http://www.sxc.hu

Mahar, et al. recently published an article describing some research on the effectiveness of static versus animated slides when introducing concepts. They conducted experiments where students saw either static slides, where all the information on the slide was presented at once, or animated slides, where pieces of information were brought in one at a time.

As a cognitive load theory “enthusiast” and an instructional designer, I would’ve initially averred that the animated slides would produce better results (i.e., better learning outcomes). According to Maher, et al., this was the exact opposite. Participants who received static slides performed better on the tests given at the end of the experiment.

 Here’s a quote (with some emphasis from me):

Even though the use of custom animation allows the introduction of new information incrementally the technique can adversely impact student learning experience when factual information is conveyed in the presentation. Subjects shown the static slides had better recall of graphics and text on the slides due to prolonged exposure to the information. The incremental introduction of concepts in dynamic slides’ was designed to prevent student exhaustion caused by visually presenting all concepts at once.

However, the dynamic slides lead to excessive processing demands and limited exposure time. In this study, we observed that static slides allowed better knowledge retention for male students, female students, students with academic excellence, students with poor academic performance, students in different academic years and students from different disciplines. The results are consistent with the aggregate results presented in Mahar et al. (2009) and Lowe (2003) who suggested that diminishing expected benefits of animations may be caused by excessive processing demands on learners and a reduced learner engagement (p.7).

So what does this mean practically? Reduce your “entrance” animations to an absolute minimum (in fact, get rid of any animation that does not convey “meaning,” though you can keep your slide transitions (but only “wipes and “fades,” please)). If you are going to cover complex concepts, show the students the entire concept, rather than building it up piece-by-piece. But be prepared to spend a lot of time on just one slide (this is not a bad thing, but a GOOD thing).

Remember that learners need time to process information, a precious resource that is often in short supply during a presentation. To focus attention on parts of a complex diagram or chart, use a piece of software like Pointer ($35-40.00 USD) from Netop. Pointer is a screen annotation tool that lets you “spotlight” areas of the screen to focus your audience’s attention to a particular image or area of a slide.

For extremely complex concepts, consider turning off the projector and guiding your audience through paper copies. This may be less “jazzy” than a slide presentation, but may prove to encourage much more effective and efficient learning of the content. Remember: a presentation doesn’t have to involve PowerPoint or Keynote slides!

Peace out, and be safe over the Labor Day holiday!






Mahar, S., Yaylacicegi, U. and Janicki, T. 2009. Less is More When Developing PowerPoint Animations. Information Systems Education Journal, 7 (82): 1-11. http://isedj.org/7/82/ISEDJ.7(82).Mahar.pdf.

NPR Story Talks About Working Memory

Here’s the link:


to a story on training your brain to help ward off age-related mental declines.  The term “working memory” (which I talk about in my book and during my presentations) is clearly explained.



Recent Quotes Worth Mentioning

From recent research (of both old and new materials), here’s a few good quotes to mentally chew on:

“I ignore wordy slides because if I start to read them I stop listening and lose the plot.”

These are the words of a venture capitalist who has to sit through presentations to determine whether or not they will fund someone’s company.  I’d venture a guess (pun somewhat intended) that some of your audience members would agree with that statement. As Mr. Abela says in his posting, you really can’t listen well and read at the same time.  Remember that the third rule of great presentations is: “Text is for take-away”

Source: Abela, Andrew. “Presenting to Venture Capitalists, Part II.The Extreme Presentation(tm) Method blog (http://extremepresentation.typepad.com/blog/). Posted October 8, 2008.

“Remember that a presentation should not be designed to tell your audience everything you have ever learned about a given topic.  The key words are selection and focus. You have to make choices between what you really need and what amounts to nothing more than trimmings and trappings” (p. 241).

I emphasize the words “selection” and “focus.” In the words of E.B. White, “edit vigorously,” people.  Your audience will thank you.

“…your visual presentation is intended to support your verbal content and can never become a substitute for it.” (p. 245).

I see lots of conference websites where they’ve uploaded the speakers’ slide decks.  Often when I look at these, since I don’t have the benefit of the speaker’s narration, the slides make no sense.  At best, I looked at some pretty slides; at worst, I’ve misunderstood the presenter’s content.

“What you can do is come to your presentation armed with supplementary material that you can make available to anyone who requests additional information.” (p. 250).

Echoing the venture capitalist from Mr. Abela’s post above, text (and 100-row spreadsheets) is for your handouts, not for your slides. 

Source: McIlroy, David. Studying at University: How to be a Successful Student. London: Sage Publications, 2003. ISBN: 0-7619-4706-X.

My best to you!


Recommended Reading (& Watching)

You know, I think what it really boils down to is this: if you really want to create learner-centered presentations, then you need to understand how people learn and how the human brain works. Lately, it seems like this topic is everywhere in books and on video.

Here are a few suggestions for some end-of-summer learning on the human brain:

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School by John Medina.  This is a fabulous book-I describe it as “Neuroscience for dummies.”  While many of the chapters are relevant to presentations, the chapter on vision is a must-read.  The book comes with a DVD of some short videos explaining some of the concepts discussed in the text.  You can also watch them at the book’s website: http://www.brainrules.net.

Human Body: Pushing the Limits (Discovery Channel Video Series)  All of these videos are great, but the relevant ones are “Sight” and “Brainpower.” 

These two resources will give you some additional information on how the brain works – useful for designing presentations that are in harmony with the way we learn and with the way our brains process information.