Effective Slides for Your Job Talk and Beyond: 9 Myths To Stop Believing – Guest Post

By Echo Rivera, PhD

Independent Research and Evaluation Consultant

Owner, Creative Research Communications, LLC

Hi! I’m Dr. Echo Rivera. My passion is helping researchers, academics, scientists, and evaluators become effective visual communicators. I love to teach people how to create astronomically awesome slide presentations for lectures, conferences, and workshops. Check out one of my free resources, available on my website, to help you get started. I also love to draw comics and want to see more comics used in research and teaching.

Website: echorivera.com; Twitter: @echoechoR

[Karen:  I encountered the original version of this post originally published on Echo’s blog. I loved it and invited her to reprise it in shorter form here, for all of you planning your job talks.  STUDY #7 IN PARTICULAR!  TAKE IT TO HEART!]

Everyone hates boring presentations, but they’re everywhere. How can something so hated be so widespread?

The answer? Bad advice.

Here are 9 myths stopping you from creating effective presentations.

  1.  # Slides = X Amount of Time

This myth will. Not. DIE. It goes a little something like this:

“This presentation doesn’t need to be long. Can you create 10 slides?”

Take the 10-20-30 rule, which recommends 10 slides for a 20-minute presentation. I forgot what the 30 is but that’s not important.

We must disassociate time from the number of slides in your presentations. Pretend the correlation is r = .0002, p = .800 (Rivera, 2017, personal communication with myself). Otherwise, you get tunnel vision and cram your slides with text just so you can stick to an arbitrary rule.

If you did 10 slides in 20 minutes. That’s TWO WHOLE MINUTES per slide (at best)! In audience years, that’s forever. Even 1 minute per slide can be too long.

From now on, don’t worry about the number of slides. Instead, try to have only 1-3 points per slide. Yes, this applies when you have a complex topic, as you should be breaking it up into multiple slides to walk your audience through it.

I get why people believe this. Most people cram 50+ words on a slide, blabber forever, then repeat that for 20 slides. Telling people to limit their slides feels like low-hanging fruit. But the number of slides is not the root of the problem.

  1. It’s the audience’s responsibility to pay attention and learn

Some believe the responsibility of learning rests entirely on the audience. But effective presenters believe it’s the presenter’s responsibility to do everything they can to make learning engaging and memorable.

Is it your fault if a student zones out? Not necessarily. People are distracted, it’s hard to hold their attention. But chances are, there are strategies you could use to make your presentation worth paying attention to (e.g., storyboarding, visuals).

  1. Visuals are just a bonus

If you want your audience to pay attention, understand, remember, and use the information you share, then use visuals. Period. No excuses. Fin.

By visuals, I don’t just mean stock photos. Visuals also include: drawings, screenshots, icons, your own photos, and videos.

  1. “I have lots of data” is a legit excuse for bad design

Whenever I tweet about how you should limit the text on your slide, there’s always someone who says, “Yeah I mostly agree, except when I have to show a lot of data.”

That is not an acceptable reason to make ineffective slides. You do not have to show all your data at once. You should be walking people through your data in pieces and in a way that tells a story.

  1. “But I need to post my slides online” is a legit reason for using too much text

A lot of people also say, “Yeah I mostly agree, but what about slides that need to go online?”

There is a long answer for this one, but the short answer is: Online materials are consumed in a different format than live presentations. That means the material should be different (i.e., customized).

  1. Good dataviz is enough

Dataviz is hot right now, as it should be. But here’s the thing: good presentation design involves more than dataviz.

Good presentation design means:

  • Good content (storyboarding)
  • Good information design (contrast, fonts, colors, alignment)
  • Effective visuals (placement, size, orientation)
  • Data visualization

Presentations aren’t “good” or “bad” based on one slide or a couple of slides. Presentations are a package deal.

Dataviz is one of the last steps in a design package. If you don’t have a good story or your slides are walls of text, then your dataviz won’t have an impact.

  1. Your audience cares about you (or the facts) more than the story

Think about how we start our presentations. A huge mistake I’ve made in the past, and see almost every other presenter make, is that we save the good stuff for the middle (e.g., results) without giving the audience a reason to pay attention all the way through.

The kiss of death? Starting a presentation by talking about yourself.

Unless you’re a celebrity in your field, your name is not the most important thing to people. It’s better to assume that no one cares who you are. Get into the mindset that you need to convince your audience they should listen to you. Assume they have a problem and they want you to solve it. Your background won’t solve their problem. Start your presentations by reassuring them you’re going to solve their problem–even if it’s just a knowledge gap.

  1. It’s okay to take “baby steps” … for years

OK look. I believe that change is incremental. If your slides have 130+ words on them and contain no visuals, it’d be hard to make slides with 3 words and all visuals. But, the only time I’ve heard “cut me some slack, I’m taking baby steps” is when people are using it as an excuse to maintain their outdated practice.

It’s like watching someone sloooowly remove a big band-aid off their arm.

If you’re telling yourself that you’re just making change in “baby steps,” then challenge yourself to take bigger steps. You don’t need 30 years to start making stellar slides.

  1. I don’t need training on how to create effective presentations

Did you receive training on how to be an effective communicator? Probably not, because of the myth that effective communication can be “picked up” over time.

Were you able to pick up statistics just by watching other people do them? Nope. There are graduate degrees in communication, yet many of us assume we can learn the same strategies on our own.

Creating effective presentations requires training. To get started, check out my FREE email course, Countdown to Stellar Slides.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


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