|Phrase headlines and bulleted lists should be avoided in engineering and scientific presentations, according to ECE faculty member Michael Alley, in his new book on crafting scientific presentations. "Bulleted list after bulleted list quickly place audiences in trances," he says.
New Slide Format Proposed
He proposes, instead, that presenters use left-justified sentence headlines, images on every page, generous white space, indents instead of bullets, and lists no longer than four items.
Acknowledging that this format breaks from conventional business advice, he explains that technical presentations involve more specific and complex content and audiences that are usually taxed to understand that content.
'Bulleted list after bulleted list quickly place audiences in trances...'
Nationally Respected Science Communicator
His book, The Craft of Scientific Presentations: Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to Avoid, was published earlier this year by Springer. His two other books, The Craft of Scientific Writing (3rd Edition, 1997), and The Craft of Editing (1999), have become style guides at many universities. The Craft of Scientific Writing is required reading for undergraduates at top science and engineering programs including MIT and Caltech.
Alley joined the ECE department in 1999 as an instructor and supervisor of the writing component of the required Microprocessor System Design. He has a joint appointment with the mechanical engineering department. He holds an MSEE from Texas Tech University and masters of fine arts in fiction writing from the University of Alabama. His industrial experience includes serving as a technical editor at Sandia National Laboratories and he has taught technical communication at the University of Texas and the University of Wisconsin prior to coming to Tech.
Alley's web site for students to improve scientific writing skills (writing.eng.vt.edu) receives the third highest hits on Google out of 40,000 related sites and often logs more than 4,000 hits per day.
Detailed Slide Advice
Alley's book on scientific presentations contains detailed advice on visual aids that can be quickly used to improve presentationsincluding timing the slides, optimal font choices and sizes, and which color combinations work best. He includes in his appendix, a useful checklist and a detailed section on preparing poster presentations.
Understanding Purpose and Audience
The greater portion of Alley's book and the most valuable for long-term improvement regards tailoring presentations to their purpose and understanding the needs of the audience. Presentations are used to inform, persuade, and inspire, and the goal of many presentations involves all three, he says. He suggests that presenters may need to rely on more than pure logic when persuading and inspiring, and should consider incorporating appropriate emotion and flair.
Much of Alley's comments on strategy, structure, and delivery concern understanding and relating to the audience. He cautions that the fear of seeming too simple wrecks many technical presentations as does the practice of drowning the audience in detail. He describes that determining the optimum technical depth for a presentation is a common problem and outlines some techniques for selecting the appropriate depth, then orienting the audience.
Examples of Success and Disaster
The advice in The Craft of Scientific Presentations is illustrated by the successes and disasters of historical scientists and engineers such as Einsten, Tesla, Pauling, Curie, and Feynman, along with currently practicing engineers, professors, and scientists. The book is filled with anecdotes that are funny, tragic, and inspiring, enabling the book to be read in one sitting in addition to serving as a much-used reference.