Matt Carter received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford University and his B.A. in biology from Whitman College. His research focuses on how the brain regulates innate, homeostatic behaviors including sleep and food intake. Dr. Carter has received numerous awards for his scientific teaching and poster presentations, including the Walter Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching from Stanford. In 2011 he won the Young Investigator Award from the Sleep Research Society. In addition to publishing primary research articles and reviews, he is also the coauthor of Guide to Research Techniques in Neuroscience.
In this conversation, Matt discusses his new book, Designing Science Presentations.
Geetesh: Tell us more about your book, Designing Science Presentations — and what motivated you to create a book on this topic.
Matt: Designing Science Presentations encourages scientists (or anyone hoping to share scientific concepts) to approach making and delivering slide shows by thinking more like designers. Thinking like a designer doesn’t mean getting a degree in graphic arts or making slides look pretty-it means to care about your audience, to anticipate their needs, and to convey a message as simply as possible.
Well-designed products are easy-to-use, free from complexity, and help the end-user in what he or she wants to do. Likewise, well-designed slides help scientific audiences learn and appreciate a scientific message in the easiest, simplest way possible. Scientists who make and deliver excellent presentations distill complex subject matter into a narrative that seem simple and easy-to-digest. The purpose of this book is to show scientists that it is possible to convey complex messages using very simple design techniques to increase the impact on audiences.
In writing this book, I knew that my own audience wouldn’t want to read a complex book, so I tried to make this book as simple as possible to read-each page features a single concept, description, and practical examples. I hope the design principles I argue for in this book speak for themselves!
Geetesh: You do mention within the book how scientist spend so much time doing their research, and then put too little effort in presenting it well — can you share your thoughts on this subject — and how your book will help them create better slides.
Matt: It has always amazed me that many scientists spend many months-usually years-performing their experiments, but then only hours preparing to share their results with others. There is a prevailing feeling in science that “the data speak for themselves.” However, every scientist knows from experience that this is not true-so many exciting results are ignored or misunderstood by audiences because they are not designed with the audience in mind.
I hope that this book helps scientists to learn tricks to convey information in ways that are more accessible to others. For example…. Most scientists use slide titles in a way that is unhelpful to audiences. Often, the slide title is something vague like “Results” or “Imaging Data.” Instead of making a title, I suggest making a point. Every slide title should be a conclusion of the graph/chart displayed on the slide. It is surprising how many scientists could benefit from this seemingly-obvious tip.
Another practical tip I wish more scientists would do…. It turns out that the slide that audience members see for the longest amount of time is the last slide in a slide show. This slide is usually displayed when the presenter answers questions from the audience. However, most scientists usually waste this slide by showing acknowledgements or by exiting their presentations altogether during the Q&A. Why not use this final slide as an opportunity to show a summary of what was addressed, or a diagram reminding the audience of the content of the talk? Not only does such a slide help audiences remember the talk, it helps them ask better questions during the Q&A session.
I hope that my book is filled with tangible, practical suggestions like these that will immediately help scientists communicate better with audiences.