I was shocked recently at a seminar called  “Writing with style” by the Manchester University writer-in-residence, Chris Simms.

He opened by saying that he has never done a presentation using Powerpoint in his life.

What? Surely biologists and PowerPoint presentations (PPT) go together like biologists and white lab coats. They teach you to make PPTs as early as the first year of high school and it was certainly the communication aid of choice throughout my training.

So when I think about describing my results, I immediately start to construct a PPT. And I’m sure you probably do too.

Why is Powerpoint so popular with scientists?

The reason for this is largely historical. When it was released in the late 80’s, Powerpoint was truly revolutionary…. before Powerpoint the only visual aid options for presenters were whiteboards, flipcharts or fixed slides, which had to be drawn in advance.

We have to present data all of the time so it is little wonder that Powerpoint is so popular amongst scientists.  But there are downsides to using Powerpoint; being hooked to a particular proprietary software for starters. Here are some alternatives to the Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple’s equivalent (Keynote) that solve that particular problem…

Unhooking from propriety software for presenting your science

Open Office  contains a Powerpoint equivalent called Impress that you can use to make presentations and pdfs

LaTeX  lets you make pdfs only. In general, saving your presentations in pdf format allows to prevent font conflicts with different versions of Windows.

Google Docs -is a free online office suite, which allows you to make and share different documents. However, unlike perfectly functional and convenient “Google-Word” or “Google-Excel”, I find “Google-PowerPoint” awkward so

Breaking away from Powerpoint’s linear presentation style

But the other downside of Powerpoint, and it’s free relatives, is that it limits your presentation style and makes your over-reliant on visual aids.

So what about taking it further and breaking away from the linear, prescribed talks that Powerpoint and the free alternatives tend to facilitate? This can be useful as it stops you from getting into a rut and helps you to explore other ways in which you can talk about your results that might be more engaging for your audience.

The best software for this that I have seen is Prezi. This is a free online software that allows you to organise your presentations in a non-linear fashion. Some people compare its organisation with poster, where you can see the whole picture at the same time and zoom into different parts. The site itself says that “a Prezi” can be a visual metaphor for the process and/or structure of your idea.

In the presentation I talked about in the intro, Chris Simms used Prezi.  It was certainly interesting so if you want to do something eye-catching and original, you should try it.

Decreasing your reliance on visual aids altogether

While Prezi provides an alternative to sequential PowerPoint thinking, it is still a visual crutch. A number of graduate schools and employers in the US and UK specify that no “visual aids” e.g. PPT can be used during the interview for postgraduate students or faculty positions applicants.

This often means that whiteboard or A4 paper and marker pens are provided, so applicants need to be ready to draw and explain as they go along.

This is no bad thing. It is very important to keep your presentation skills flexible, and to always think carefully about the best way to approach your presentation, rather than going for the default all of the time. I certainly remember an explanation of DNA super-coiling that was demonstrated with the help of a rope much better than numerous PPT presentations I’ve seen on the same topic.

So I suggest you look for opportunities to practice and diversify your approach to presenting your science….

Go for pen & whiteboard at your next departmental seminar?

Give your next journal club presentation with Prezi?

Use the medium of interpretive dance to convey your results in future lab meetings?

You decide….

More 'Writing, Publishing and Presenting' articles


  1. During my PhD once I went to a lab meeting after having spent about 40 hours at the bench. I had no slides prepared and I was in a panic about throwing something together on the computer (and flying on copious amounts of proplus), buy anyway in the end I gave up and just went to the meeting.

    In bitter defeat I was called up to speak. I threw caution to the wind and just grabbed the white board pen (a blue one – don’t use green). My supervisor asked me where my laptop was. I told him I didn’t need it. You could see the shockwave emanate out across the room. The boss prepared for a public flogging.

    So I just explained what I was doing, drawing some diagrams on the white board to illustrate what I was saying about my plasmid constructs, writing some equations for the modelling I was doing. I noticed that during this talk people were interjecting with questions or ideas, I would often explain a bit and then ask for feedback and help. It turned into a kind of workshop, and was a completely different experience to the Friday morning soporific.

    Afterwards, I realised that in many talks I’ve been to, powerpoint slides are a wall between the presenter and the speaker, both acting as a script for the speaker to hide behind, and also for the audience to just phase out or surf the web.

    The free-styling fool on the podium becomes something the audience has to follow. The content can change based on the audience/speaker relationship. Everybody’s involved.

    Since then I’ve only ever used slides to hold figures that I can’t reproduce by hand. It’s hard going, for sure. You have to know what you’re talking about, and be comfortable with it. You have no safety net, and all the focus is on you, not the screen. However, if it works then I think it’s potentially a lot more productive and memorable for the audience, especially with interpretative dance, as outlined in the article 🙂

    Basically, if you’re going to use slides then they shouldn’t work without you, and you shouldn’t work without them. Otherwise, one of you is redundant.

    Anyway, I recommend people to break out of the powerpoint programming. It’s like making the roof jump in the matrix.

    Free your mind 😉

  2. Another advantage of using PDF for presentations is that you can make different parts of the presentation in different programs, and then just generate PDF:s for each slide and eventually merge all of them in the correct order in to a single PDF.

  3. A couple of corrections:
    • OpenOffice is not in development any more, after the takeover by Oracle. LibreOffice is the fork that is in active development.
    • Google Docs *is* proprietary. I’ve thought about using it, since it can simply be run in a web browser, but you should be aware of Google’s propensity to suddenly retire products (the big one recently was Google Reader. Also, these 80 or so: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Google_products#Discontinued_products_and_services )
    • Similarly, Prezi might suffer from similar concerns. I use LibreOffice myself, but I have to admit it’s not a great program. At least I know my data is safe and relatively future-proof. It’s probably similar or better than PowerPoint, but I miss using Keynote from when I had a Mac.

    Also, I love the idea of using a whiteboard to present IFA results! “As you can clearly see, there is only a signal in the nucleus.” 😉

    1. You are possibly correct, but I’m certainly not trusting them! I don’t know the metrics, but I would have thought the discontinued Google Reader was pretty popular. (Certainly more popular than Google Plus at least, that is getting forced down Google’s users’ throats!) The other thing that Google might do it to remove the free version of docs and start charging, as they did with Google Apps.

      Another issue with it being proprietary is that you have less control over it, and almost no idea what Google (an advertising company) is doing with your data.

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