Since starting this blog, I have received e-mail correspondence from several people who either disagree with my principles or who have found some value in these ideas. This correspondence has raised multiple interesting issues and I therefore thought it would be useful to start a moderated correspondence section. I will post correspondence here only with permission from the authors, so please don't hesitate to contact me from fear that your thoughts may appear here. I appreciate the critical feedback as much as the positive feedback.
Use the contact form to send me an email.
From Camilo Barbosa - 30 March 2015
Dear David Stern,
I’m a PhD Student in Germany. I’m currently working with antibiotic resistance evolution in P. aeruginosa. I just wanted to thank you for setting up this interesting and helpful blog. I really enjoy the principles and the advice on giving better talks.
I very much agree with principle number one! While I was finishing my studies back in Colombia I got the chance to be at a talk given by Prof. Roberto Kolter where he gave an amazing talk with almost no words on it. Since then I try my very best to use words on slides as little as possible. In my current working group we have a ‘golden rule’: one sentence (or less) per statement, if needed at all. They still prefer to have some words on slides like tittle slides and so on, but I agree with you, those help very little. It is good to know that someone much more experienced actually supports this idea.
I have two questions though. First, in the case where a presentation is substantially long wouldn’t tittle slides be helpful, or even to have an outline at the beginning? In general I try not to use outlines, they are extremely boring. But there are some talks that just include lots of informtion (maybe that is the actual problem). Second, would you still use no words for the more official talks like PhD defenses and so on?
Once again for your effort and time spent to create this blog, I’m already looking forward for principle number three!
My response - 3 April 2015
Many thanks for your interesting e-mail. I'm glad your finding something useful in the blog.
In answer to your questions. I have never found an outline to be helpful. They just suck the soul out of the talk. I agree that talks with too much information are also problematic. I don't think that words on slides help, they just give the impression that we are following along. But, in the end, they simply distract from the speaker and then I am never quite sure whether I should be reading or listening. It quickly becomes a lost cause.
Your second question is more problematic. Many of the senior folks in your institute have probably been taught that slide titles are a necessary part of a science talk. This mis-information permeates science talks world-wide. Thus, they may consider your talk less "scientific" if you don't include some words. I think it will take some time to change minds about this. This is why I use fairly strong language in my blog and sound fairly dogmatic. I am attempting some "shock" therapy on scientists. They need to question their assumptions. I want you to give a great talk, but I also don't want to get you into trouble! Perhaps you could try your talk without words on slides for some colleagues and see how it goes. You should also definitely read A Talk Is Not A Paper: The Structure of an Effective Talk, which I just posted, because it provides another trick to deal with similar issues.
Let me know how it goes. I am very interested in learning of your experience with this new style of talk.
Camilo - 28 April 2015
Thank you very much for answering my email and for your advice!
I recently had the chance to present an update about my PhD and I followed some of your advice, mainly no words and the use of black slides. It went very well, I even think people didn’t realise that there were no titles. The most important thing is that by doing this almost all the attention went to the figures I was presenting and very helpful and interesting discussions arose. I’ll try my best to keep this and future advices as part of creating, preparing and giving talks.
Once again, thank you very much for your efforts!
From Frederic Bastian - 27 April 2015
Hi David, first, thanks for all these advices. I tried to apply them, and I believe they are effective. I had a problem with the "black slide trick": one of my colleague used it during a lab meeting presentation, and I immediately thought of a technical issue, which actually distracted me from what he was saying. Still, he managed to convince me of its utility (he made me discover your blog BTW). So, during a talk I gave at a conference, I tried the "white slide trick", and I looked carefully at the audience: all of them were staring at the screen, waiting for something to appear, exactly as you said; none of them looked back at me. I explained this problem to another attendee, who suggested me this brilliant idea: this has to be a *fade to black* (I'd like to credit her for this suggestion, but I didn't ask for her permission). This way, there is no doubt this is not a technical issue, and you will get the "black slide" effect of recapturing the audience, as you said. The tech guy will not freak out. And I believe it will be an even stronger signal to the audience, the second time a fade-to-black appears, like a "hey ho, yes, it's time to have a break" signal. Just my 2 cents! P.S.: I hadn't been brave enough to start with a black slide! Not sure I will ever try.
My response - 27 April 201
Many thanks for your interesting feedback on the black slide issue. I almost always use a similar trick by default. I set my slides to fade into each other, rather than to click abrubtly from one to the next. So, I think I have basically been using your fade idea.
I agree that white slides are a bit problematic. I encourage you to try the black slide at the beginning. The trick is to somewhat memorize what you want to say for the first few sentences. Then, things will start flowing. I acknowledge that this takes practice. But, of course, you should be doing lots of practicing anyway!
with my best wishes, David
From Vincent Dion - 10 June 2016
A quick thank you for coming all the way to Lausanne last week; and also for advertising your website on presentation tips. I tried quite a few of your tips earlier this week and wow did they make a difference! Removing the titles/words is especially effective. I'm still not sure about the black slide, people do tend to think there's a technical problem (I don't think the white slide is any better). But really, with these easy fixes, I did not even change what I said and I got much better questions.
My response - 10 June 2016
Thanks for this note!
The key to “distracting” folks from the black slide, I think, is to really talk very directly and intimately with them from the very beginning. Then, they just look at you and listen with their full attention. Some people don’t even notice that there are black slides!