by Cecilia Tosciri

One of the many things that physicists have to deal with on a daily basis is present their results. However, this also applies for many other professional figures, which are required to make presentations as a part of their job. Presentations always start with a subject which can be more or less interesting for the audience, but the key tool is a set of great slides. Whatever is the knowledge to be imparted or idea to be spread or result to be shared, your skills on presenting can make the difference. Certainly, the style of a presentation will change according to the topic and the modality. A physicist, for example, almost always works with people which are not actually in the same place, so in order to keep up to date on the progress of the work we usually make videoconference meetings from our own desktop. But in general there are some basic rules for achieving a balanced, professional, attractive and compelling presentation. It’s worth taking a look!

Prime components

Data and story.

It’s important to present your data in the context of a storyline. Data is not what matters, it’s the meaning of the data that matters. Different stories involve different approaches and style.

Rule #0

Don’t decorate your presentation like it’s a Christmas tree.

Design is about communication, about choosing the right tools to communicate your message. Your tools are type, color, image and layout. So get rid of all the impersonal Power Point templates and design your story (whatever, your analysis, your product, your project..) with flair.

Clarity

Present one point at a time.

Don’t pile stuff on to your slides. A good presentation eliminates everything except the one essential thing that you are conveying at a given moment. In general charts and graphs, bullet points and subheads are to avoid. For a physics presentation it is required to give more details and plots but even in this particular case don’t miss the essential point you are communicating.

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Simplicity

Slides consist of three simple element: background, words, image. Keep them simple.

Use a plane background and a high contrast. The highest contrast is black against white, or white against black. When it’s possible choose your background for the room you will be in: light for a light room, dark for a dark room. Type on a colored field can be very attractive but will generally be harder to read. Also, many slides with a colored background can get tiring fast, because color communicates at an emotional level and this is very demanding. So use colors sparingly, neutral colors like black, white and grey are preferable.

Use one clear typeface of medium weight. There are thousands and thousands of fonts to choose from but it’s not worth spend too much time picking the best one. You can easily find suggestions on the web from expert designer. Serif fonts are those fonts that have little hooks (or ‘Serifs’) on the end of letters. For presentations a sans-serif style (without serif) is recommended because it is easier to look and more readable, especially from a distance. Just to make some example: Helvetica, Arial, Avenir, Myriad are common choices for sans-serif face. However, for some topics you’ll want serif fonts like Baskerville, Century, Garamond. Generally speaking, serif styles feel warmer and richer than sans serif styles. Avoid mixing different styles.

Image is any graphical element: plots, graphs, diagrams, photographs. Just a couple of points: plots has to be clear and axis title readable; if you use a photo as clip art or metaphor, take care it doesn’t look cheesy.

Color

A little bit of color looks much different from a lot of color. A spot of red, for example, is a great way to highlight something, it’s a focal point. A full screen of red, however, is too much and does not catch your eyes on the essential point. Also, use de-saturated colors, they are less demanding and easy to work with. Finally, a good rule of thumb is to use three colors or less.

Once you have defined your own template which includes a set of parameters like the page margin, the typeface, a small color palette, use it consistently from the beginning to the end of the presentation. Consider that every difference in style, size, color, and position conveys a difference in meaning. Bold says something different from light. Big says something different from small. The position of an object in the slide has a specific meaning. If you make differences, be sure they’re design decisions and not accidental.

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So far I have just covered the main arguments but there is more, presentation is a wide art. Wherever there’s knowledge to be imparted or ideas to be spread, your skills at presenting can make all the difference. If you want to improve your skills I suggest to start with this course  on lynda.com.

All the best for your next presentation!