Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler said Einstein. Except, he didn’t. His version of the quote was four times longer.
I’m not surprised that it took a non scientist to paraphrase and create the short, popular version. As scientists, we are not accustomed to brevity. We want to provide every detail. We read papers filled with columns of 10pt text. We construct figures with dozens of lines and colours. We spare no bit of white space when we design posters. And don’t get me started on logos for scientific campaigns (long story short: too many elements, too many colours, and too literal).
We lack minimalism.
You may argue that detail, nuance, and chains of logic—hallmarks of science—are not easily reduced to 280 characters or a sexy soundbite. I don’t disagree. But there are still aspects of minimalism we should embrace.
Placing text over a full-size photo is a standard way to create a title slide. But by being everyone’s go-to method, it’s forgettable. Instead, use a photographic triptych: three tall photos spanning the slide.
Here’s a real-life example, the title slide from my most recent presentation:
At least 80% of scientific talks are bad. Most of these could be vastly improved by improving the slides. It may take a little extra time up front, but whose time is more precious? Yours, or the total of all the people in the audience?
Within my suggestions below, a common theme emerges: Simplify!
I once attended a scientific talk where someone started off by stating that he had given himself an award, a clip art ribbon, for busiest title slide. Sure he was joking, but I was cringing. Sadly this is just one of far too many examples of slides that I’ve seen that would look more at home in a kid’s scrapbook than a scientific talk.
Outline slides in scientific talks are unnecessary and cut into a speaker’s valuable time. Many scientific talks are 10–12 minutes, and spending a whole slide outlining the next 10 minutes is pointless. Why? Because your talk is very likely going to follow a standard order: You’ll start with some motivation, move onto the background, present your results, then finish up with what you have concluded. This is what the audience is expecting, so don’t need to waste time reiterating. As an audience member, I prefer you use this time to teach me something.