20 June 2011

The Zen of Presentations, Part 42: Outlines must die

Outline slides are a waste of time. By definition, they contain no information that will not be found somewhere else in the talk. Worse, people usually narrate those slides, tediously plodding through each point.

For scientific talks, outlines are even more useless because almost every talk has the same structure. People structure their talks the same way they structure their scientific papers: Introduction. Methods. Results. Discussion. If your outline isn’t substantially different than that, leave it out. Putting an outline up with those headings advertises your lack of imagination.

Why be redundant? Why repeat yourself? Why say the same thing over and over again?

Yet not only do I regularly see these sinkholes when I attend scientific conferences, some of my colleagues insist their students include them.

An outline is a planning tool. Outlines are useful in preparing a talk. You don’t need to show it once the planning is over, however. You don’t need to see an outline for a talk any more than you need to see the blueprints for a building you’re walking around in. You don’t need to see the storyboards for a movie you’re watching. You don’t need to see the rough sketches of a painting.

The problem might be that instructors want students to have a plan for their talk, which is a useful thing to teach them. The easiest way for instructors to ensure that happens is to make students “show their work” by including an outline slide. This forces the student to plan, which is good. This is less work for the instructor, because he or she can just tick it off during the presentation. But the cost is the student has learned a horrible habit that makes nobody else in the audience happy.

My colleagues are great, but sometimes I’d like to give ‘em such a smack.

Related rants

The Zen of Presentations, Part 31: Redundant and repetitive

Picture by andersabrahamsson on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

4 comments:

namnezia said...

I tend to disagree (a bit). While narrating a detailed outline slide is not only tedious for everyone, I think very short outlines can be useful, especially if you are giving a long lecture spanning multiple research studies. In this case a brief, rough outline I think is useful since you are letting the audience know your lecture will have several distinct parts. But really, one should not spend more than 15 seconds on it. I usually have a diagram of the neural circuit I will be talking about and then point to different labelled parts and use this as an outline, returning to this slide throughout the talk.

Zen said...

Fair enough. I had shorter conference talks in mind, rather than hour long seminars.

I agree that letting your audience know if you have several distinct parts to a longer talk can be useful, although I would look for ways to signal that with something different than a classic outline.

For instance, if there are different hypotheses or experiments, I would say, "This was a complicated question, so we had to tackle it these three ways" and say that.

A figure that you return to is fine, too. It's not really an outline in the way I normally see them used.

biochembelle said...

I cringe everytime I see an outline pop up after the title slide of a talk. Although I see namnezia's point, most people don't use outlines in such a way. Just tell your story. Often a simple diagram is a much better way to presenting parts contributing to the whole.

Eliza said...

I looked for this one when I read your most recent Zen of Presentations. If I hear one more person chant.."tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them" I am likely to go berserker on someone.

Outlines should ever only be used on long (at least an hour) presentations/lectures. Outlines are useless for short ones, except for taking time. Someone that does an outline shortchanges the audience by not allowing more time for delving into the actual research. Recently, I went to an hour long presentation and even then, I wanted to rip the pointer away from the presenter and say, you will now skip the next 2 slides. Her outline was ridiculously long and she spent 5 minutes on it. Cripes, I am not addle brained.

And thank you, hypotheses. This is what should divide most talks. Yet, the hypotheses get swallowed (or in the most agregious cases, are shallow and not thought through).

Let's just say this one touched on a nerve. I will never forgive my supervising prof for trying to drill an outline into me.