A short guide to better PowerPoint presentations  

Written & illustrated by Simon J. Brandl

Title image_SJB

I love conferences. But, during every scientific symposium I experience moments that leave me in stupefied disbelief. Why?

At any given scientific conference innocent scientists are exposed to abysmally bad presentations. Since I’m unaware of a law that requires great science to be presented in a mind-blowingly boring way, this post highlights key elements of a presentation that can easily be enhanced.

For the purpose of this exercise, let’s imagine a dummy project in which you investigated belly-sliding behavior in penguins, its effect on the cleanliness of their bellies, and subsequent mortality rates due to predation. What a great project!

  1. Story

Long story short: you need a plot. Most people probably have their research written down as a paper. While I don’t doubt that this paper is a marvelous piece of work (although your reviewers may disagree), it really isn’t much use when it comes to presentations. The average paper gets read by about three people and there’s a good reason for that – scientific papers are about as thrilling as watching a replay of the world’s longest cricket match.

No matter what you are presenting, you need to turn it into a story that gets your audience excited. Analogies, historic events, or the latest news can provide you with ideas.

2. Introduction

Your first few slides are crucial. That means: don’t set your first slide up like this.

A good example of how not to start your talk.
A good example of how not to start your talk.

In all likelihood, everybody in the room has read your name and title before they decided to see your talk. They’ll have no interest in remembering it if you start with a slide that features nothing more interesting than the conference program.

Instead, consider a slide that only has a single statement or illustration. That way, you foster interest among your audience and lure them into paying attention. Here’s an option for the penguin story.

A more compelling way to begin your presentation.
A more compelling way to begin your presentation.

Finally, introducing your topic with “as everybody is aware” or “we all know,” is pure poison in two equally gruesome ways.

  • You make the error of presuming everyone in the room is intimately familiar with your specialty. Doing so can instantly alienate those who aren’t.
  • Or, even worse, you are reciting hackneyed platitudes for the purpose of filling your time slot. This inevitably results in even less audience interest.

3. Text

Apparently, there’s a “golden rule” that says not to use more than three bullet points per slide. I would argue that it’s actually a piece of lead with cheap gold foil on it.

Think about it this way: at your average conference, the eager attendant can listen to approximately fifteen talks per day, averaging 25 slides each (if ample caffeine is provided). That equates to 375 power point slides per day.

With three bullet points per slide, this exposes the poor over-caffeinated scientist to 1,125 bullet points per day, i.e. 4,500 bullet points during a four-day conference.  4,500 bullet points is about as exciting as riding Grandma’s old pedal bike through the Sahara desert.

Thus, I propose the “platinum rule”: don’t use more than 3-5 words on a single slide, don’t use bullet points, and don’t make your audience suffer through endless floods of text because you want to read your presentation off your slides. Instead, replace the text with…

4. Visuals

You can say words but you can’t say pictures. Therefore, photographs and illustrations ought to be your number one medium when preparing a PowerPoint. Photographs are nice if they’re high quality, in a consistent frame/border, and not in random sizes and positions. Extracting a single subject from a photograph can also have a nice effect.

Using Adobe Photoshop's ‘magnetic lasso’ tool, this penguin was cut from a photograph. Tip: export your image as a .png file with transparent background, then insert into your slide to achieve this affect.
Using Adobe Photoshop’s ‘magnetic lasso’ tool, this penguin was cut from a photograph. Tip: export your image as a .png file with transparent background, then insert into your slide to achieve this affect.

A great alternative to photographs are illustrations. These can range from simple line drawings and silhouettes to sophisticated artwork (see title slide for unsophisticated artwork). Adobe Illustrator is great for this purpose, but even images drawn by hand can be an aesthetically pleasing way to convey information.

In either case, try to make your slides, including your graphs, visually appealing. One key means of assuring this is to select a limited color palette (2-3 colors) and use it consistently throughout. Another useful technique is to use one – max two – font types and sizes. This provides a cohesive look to your presentation, which enables your audience to focus on and enjoy your message rather than having to grapple with a kaleidoscope of visual stimuli.

Similarly, graphs don’t need to be publication-quality in your presentation; instead, they should be meaningful, straightforward, and pretty. The following graphs demonstrate how this can be achieved.

A graph copied and pasted from a publication.
A graph copied and pasted from a publication.
A pretty and intuitive graph.
A pretty and intuitive graph.


While there are more atrocities to be witnessed at any given conference, the four points above should help avoid the sound of snoring, snarling, or soft desperate whimpering from your. If all of this sounds like a lot of work, rest assured that it is. But it will be worth it, for both the audience and yourself.


Simon J. Brandl is currently finishing his PhD-research during which he imposed countless hours of torture on coral reef fishes, his keyboard, R, his supervisor, various reviewers/editors and himself. He is continuously baffled by the woeful ways in which great science is communicated, and feels instant sympathy for anybody attempting to fix this issue. If you feel the same way or simply want to get in touch with Simon, write him an email (simonjbrandl@gmail.com), visit his website (www.scimonopsis.com) or follow him on twitter (@SJBrandl_23).

An earlier version of this article, in which Simon pulled no punches, is available on his website, along with a full PowerPoint which further illustrates the potential of well-designed slides.


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