The serious science of presenting science seriously

Whatever the purpose of your presentation – you may be trying to sell a product, convey an idea, or educate people –  there’s a message you need to deliver and a result you want to achieve.  But too often, this message gets diluted (or even obscured) by badly designed visuals, wrongly used presentation tools, or inappropriate speaking habits.

In an older post I embedded a YouTube video of standup comedian Don McMillan to illustrate the “death by PowerPoint” phenomenon. It shows how easy it is to kill a presentation by over-focusing on your slides and over-using the fancy features of software packages like PowerPoint, Keynote or Prezi (you may remember my article about why I don’t like Prezi).

Recently, I discovered another video that exposes the same behavior, but in an even more powerful way. While the audience of a comedian would expect the man or the woman in front to say and do some pretty crazy things, this movie shows a recording of a renowned researcher, speaking in front of an audience of undergraduate students.


In a 5 minutes long talk, the keynote speaker, Dr. Fisher-Katz, manages to make almost every possible presentation mistake. What the audience doesn’t know is that the famous scientist is actually a fictional character, impersonated by an actress, and that all of them are being tricked in the context of a communications course.

Enjoy the video. There’s so much you can learn from world’s worst research presentation

More reading:


Playing at a theater near you

In this week’s post I’m writing about what was probably the most impactful, but certainly the most fun business presentation I delivered in my whole career. A genuine example of transmedia storytelling, even before the concept and the term were widely used.

In 2005 –in-between the burst of the internet bubble and the demise of Lehman Brothers– when there was still corporate money to spend on single-customer marketing campaigns, my company (at that time pre-merger Alcatel) organized a solutions showcase for a major UK customer. To generate interest and create an upfront hype, we organized it as a private event near the customer’s London headquarters and promoted it as a Hollywood blockbuster movie: “The Convergence Factor”.


The Convergence Factor theme was chosen to highlight the effect that the availability of broadband technologies and the convergence of telecom services (fixed and mobile, voice and data, communications and entertainment, …) could have on people’s every day lives. Consequently, the script of the showcase was emphasizing on the business value of these converging technologies, the opportunity to create new applications, and the unprecedented user experience they were enabling – rather than doing a sales pitch on our products or solutions.

A tagline “Life Held Them Prisoner, Until Convergence Set Them Free” complemented the title to suggest drama, and intrigue and engage our target audience. All campaign elements such as direct mails, teaser trailer, web portal, event signage and give-away gadgets were also branded with the Convergence Factor identity.

The presentation itself was delivered as a transmedia mix of three distinctive, on-stage narratives with live demos, interspersed by tailor-made Hollywood-style movie trailers produced by Twist & Shout, a UK-based communications agency.

Instead of doing one single performance in front of a plenary audience, we decided to present intimately to groups of 5 to 10 people, who could freely register for a session depending on their availability.  As such, my colleague and I gave 15 presentations over a period of 5 days, and reached out to an audience of almost 150 customer executives.

Have a look at the trailer and the movies, and try to imagine what the presentation might have been like. I’m sure our customer still remembers…

Look ‘n’ feel matter – multimedia

I still remember delivering my first public presentation using a stack of hand-drawn plastic foils and a 10 kilo heavy overhead projector I carried with me. Times have changed, and in the age of the digital, presenters can now apply, mix and match many different media, platforms and formats to enrich their presentations and bring their stories to life. Delivering a narrative across multiple media and multiple platforms is often called “transmedia storytelling”.

Here are a few practical tips on when and how to incorporate animation, video and live demos into your presentation:

  • First of all, use animation scarcely and wisely. Don’t over-animate slide transitions and object builds. There’s nothing more annoying and distracting for your audience than seeing titles, bullet lists and images tumble and fly across the big screen in the front. For the same reason also don’t use PowerPoint sound effects – I have seldom heard any stock sound that added value to the content of a presentation.
  • Switching between different media, not excluding the (often overlooked) analog ones such as white board or flip-chart drawing, are a common means to extend or reset your audience’s attention span.
  • Video clips and audio bites are ideal tools for enriching examples, use cases and testimonials. Always make sure that all files are timely uploaded on the presentation PC and properly linked into the slide show. As an alternative (or a back-up if you like) you can also post the movies on YouTube.
  • Corporate videos are often dull and unimaginative. In case you have a budget for producing your own movies: spend your money well. Work with creative professionals, and exploit video as a complementary channel for delivering your key messages and an alternative medium for telling your story.
  • When including live demonstrations, always keep them short and simple. Prepare a detailed demo script well upfront and freeze it. Show only the “sexy” features that really matter to the audience (and match with the rest of your talk). And never, never show an untested function.
  • As both Murphy and the Demo Devil may be just around the corner, don’t forget to make arrangements with the conference organizers (or the people hosting your speech) to have all A/V equipment installed and tested –with your presentation material and demo scripts running on it– before you start talking.


Next week, I will talk about creating templates and  backgrounds for your presentations.

Other articles about this topic that are worth reading: