When you give a talk at a conference or present a poster, to what degree is your audience invested in what you’re presenting? This question occurred to me as I was gabbling away at a poster I was interested in while attending ESEB in Lisbon the week before last. I was highly motivated by this poster, which touched directly on research that I was doing, but it struck me that of all the times I’ve given talks or presented posters, this level of audience interaction with the material was probably in the minority. That’s not to say that nobody at your talk cares about your research: they made the time to show up, so they are obviously (at least somewhat) interested. But it’s easy to forget that your audience will see a dozen or more talks that day, that they will walk by a hundred posters in a poster session. In short, their level of engagement with the subject matter of your talk or poster is not nearly the same as yours1.
Always be asking yourself: what does my reader want? Because your reader is quite different from you:
Writer Reader Attention span Long Short Interest in topic High Low Persuadable by other opinions No Yes Cares about your happiness Yes No
Unfortunately, professional writers [ed: read "scientists"] sometimes imagine that the comparison looks like this:
Writer Reader Attention span Long Whatever it takes Interest in topic High Boundless Persuadable by other opinions No Barely Cares about your happiness Yes Of course
The only reader who might match that description is your mother.
This is the one of the most important reasons why typography, design, and presentation style matter when you’re giving a scientific talk or presenting a poster. The simple fact is, (most of) your audience doesn’t care about you: if you make it hard for them to read what you’ve written or understand what you’re saying they will abandon you, even the ones who are interested in your work. Their attention is too limited and pulled in too many directions for them to suffer fools gladly.
Colin Purrington has a great example of a bad poster up on his blog:
Colin has a great roundup of why this poster is terrible that I won’t recap here (it’s a good read all on its own, so go check it out). But the point is that when faced with this sort of visual mess, people will simply give up and walk away. You may have the most interesting science in the world, but if you make it this hard for people to read it, they won’t. Your audience doesn’t care about you the way that you do.
So, you owe it to yourself and to science to go out there and learn some of the basics. Where can you find out more? There’s dozens of resources out there, but here’s a few from my pile of links:
- Purrington’s blog is worth a look. I like this list of talk design and presentation tips, for one.
- Writing a poster? Check out Doctor Zen’s Better Poster blog for advice.
- Looking for new fonts? There’s plenty of resources that are just a Google away. Here’s a couple of random links from my notes:
- 20 high quality free fonts every designer should own
- Trawling Font Squirrel for new fonts is fun…
- Looking for font combination ideas? Try ifontyou.com.
- Here’s another page on font combinations with some good (if slightly abstract) advice.
- Slideshare is a great place to troll for design ideas to *ahem* borrow. Here’s a roundup of a few examples. Also, this slide deck (which I’ve seen stolen from more than a few times ).
- If you have a few bucks to spare, I learned a lot from Garr Reynold’s books on design, Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design. The blog is also worth a look.
- I’ve written about this a few times:
Go forth, my minions, and do better!