How to Create an Effective PowerPoint Presentation

by on 4th of March, 2010 in Writing, Publishing & Presenting
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About Emily Crow
Emily Crow has a PhD in Life Sciences from Northwestern University. She is currently working as an editor for a scientific publishing company. Her many scientific interests include microbiology, parasitology, and prion diseases.

Presenting your work is a fantastic opportunity to get feedback on your project, demonstrate the significance of your results, and make the connections that will enhance your future career. And yet, how many incomprehensible lab meetings have we all sat through? How many seminars have you attended that left you feeling more confused than inspired?

The key to delivering a strong talk is designing a well-crafted PowerPoint presentation to serve as your framework. Here are my thoughts on how to create a PowerPoint presentation that will enable you to effectively communicate your results, benefit from your colleagues’ invaluable input and maybe even show off a little!

The title slide
This is the easy part. The title of your talk is a phrase describing the topic of your presentation. Make it large, simple, and readable. Your title slide should also have your name, your lab and school affiliations, and the date. If you have a really nice image from your work (for example, a microscopy picture), you can include it as the background of the title slide, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the readability of the title. Some schools require that the school crest or symbol is also included on the title slide. Check this with your institution.

Background
The background section of your talk is where you set your audience up to be able to understand your experiments and the significance of your results. The background information you present should be tightly focused: provide just enough information to understand your talk, and nothing more.

You generally want to stick to two to three slides of background, depending on the length of your talk. Use bullet points, and try to avoid slides that are all text. Using images from preliminary data or small model figures is a good way to break up the text in this portion of the presentation. If you use figures from someone else’s work, cite them in the lower right hand corner of the slide. A simple format such as “Smith et al., PNAS 2006” is appropriate. Unpublished preliminary data should be cited as “Jones, unpublished”. It’s up to you whether you cite your own unpublished data, but you must cite all data that you did not generate.

The most important thing to do before you get into your results is to state the main question that your research is addressing, and put it in context. Don’t leave the audience wondering why you’re doing what you’re doing. It is your job to convince them that this is an important question that you are addressing in a thoughtful manner.

Results
The results section is the meat of the presentation, when you get to talk about all the exciting work you’re doing. Keep in mind that while you have been thinking about these experiments day in and day out, it will all be new to the majority of your audience, so keep things as simple and clear as possible.

Each slide should contain one figure only, whether it is a graph, a set of microscopy images, or a blot. The title of the slide should state the conclusion drawn from the data shown on the slide, as a sort of shorthand for people who may have zoned out during your explanation of the experiment, and need to catch up quickly. If you used any unusual techniques, be sure to explain them before presenting data from the relevant experiments.

Use a consistent color scheme throughout the presentation. Black and white is always a good choice for the text and background color, respectively. Stick to two to three “contrast colors” within one presentation, and keep it constant. For example, if sample “A” shows up as a blue bar in a graph on slide two, then it should be a blue line in the graph on slide three. Use animation in moderation, and only if it helps clarify your point.

Conclusions
When you’ve finished presenting the data, you need to sum it all up to show that your work forms a cohesive whole and tells a compelling story. In most cases, your conclusions should be limited to a single slide. Use bullet points to list the main conclusions, without going into experimental detail; this is the time to show what you learned, not how you did it. Conclude by referring back to your main question: did you answer it? Are you on your way to answering it? Did you encounter anything unexpected? Depending on the forum in which you are presenting, you may want to include a slide of future directions after your summary slide. This is especially appropriate for graduate students, and is always important for lab meetings.

Acknowledgments
The final slide of your presentation is the acknowledgments slide. You must cite every person and every funding source that was involved in your research. Most people list all the members of their lab; you can choose to mention only those individuals who actually contributed when you give the presentation. Graduate students should be sure to thank the members of their thesis committee. If you borrowed materials from another lab, remember to thank the PI as well as the individual that gave them to you.

General tips

  • You can usually count on an average of one minute per slide, excluding the title and acknowledgments. So, if you are giving a 45 minute talk, shoot for around 45 slides.
  • Keep in mind that there may be color-blind scientists in your audience: avoid using close shades of color on a single slide, and specifically avoid using red and green to distinguish between two items.
  • Upload your presentation ahead of time, so you can deal with Mac/PC conversion issues or compatibility problems caused by different versions of Windows or Microsoft Office.

Good luck with your presentations! Let us know in the comments what your favorite presentation tips are…

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