Put your take home message at the top of your slides!

Imagine you’re sitting in a talk. It’s Thursday morning at the ESA meeting and your brain is a little fried from sitting in lots of talks all week. You momentarily zone out, then try to turn your attention back to the talk. Which of these would be most useful to see on the slide as you tune back in?

Option 1:

Option 2:

Option 3:

You chose option 3, right? (If you are curious about the data, you can read a preprint here.)

Maybe you aren’t always giving a talk on Thursday morning during a jam-packed meeting, but there will always be people in your audience who are tired or get distracted. Make life easier for your audience by putting your take home message for each slide at the top!

Or, to quote Stanley Dodson*: “Make your top line your bottom line!”

This advice is similar to my earlier post asking writers to focus on their biological results and to have the topic sentences of the results section tell the biological story.

I think this is most important for the results section but, really, for all sections of a talk, it’s kind of a waste to have the header say “Introduction” or “Results” or something along those lines. Instead, tell me the key thing you want me to take away from that slide.

What if you can’t come up with a key take home message for a slide? This might be a sign that you are trying to do too much with one slide – in general, you can get away with more complex figures in a paper than in a talk, so you might need to break things up for a talk. It might also be a sign that you need to spend more time thinking about your message.

What should you do if you can’t figure out your message? I suggest trying out the half-life activity developed by Elyse Aurbach and colleagues. As they note, all communication (including scientific presentations) requires communicating your core message with appropriate framing and focus, yet it can sometimes be challenging to identify the core message. Their half-life activity helps you do just that. The general idea is to first take 60 seconds to present your message, then immediately start over and try it in 30 seconds, then immediately do it again in 15 seconds and then 8 seconds. If you are struggling to figure out the message you want to convey on a particular slide, try half life-ing it!

In short: use the top line of your slides to tell me the key message you want me to take away from that slide. If you are struggling to identify that message, or you have one but it’s too long or complicated, spend time thinking about how to distill your message.


*It’s possible Stanley was quoting someone else. He led a course while I was a postdoc at Wisconsin that related to how to give presentations. I wasn’t involved in it, but I remember Stanley and various people who took the course saying this over and over!

14 thoughts on “Put your take home message at the top of your slides!

    • I often use slide headings to tell the main point of the slide, such as writing out the main question/hypothesis or the main result (as the post describes). I try to do this in a way that if you only read the slide headings it would tell the story. The rest of the slide is visual aid to bring the story to life in a way that is informative and entertaining for the audience.
      I’ll use text on slides too but only to give really important information to help the audience follow along. I don’t want them reading when I’m trying to explain something, but personally I appreciate some key words/phrases. I tend to use the most text on the conclusions/take home slide. I let that slide hang during questions so my main conclusion stay up longer for people to remember and contemplate.
      Overall I dont have hard rules. Sometimes no text and a nice full frame image is best, other times I find some choice text critical.

    • I’m a bit torn. There is a lot of evidence supporting Joel’s point of view. Studies show the reading and listening parts of the brain cannot be engaged at the same time. So if you give people something to read, they by definition are not listening and vice versa. So many presentation experts recommend pictures without printed words accompanied by spoken words. I suspect it is our fear of forgetting what to say that causes us to avoid this.

      That said if you are going to have words, they should definitely be like Meghan suggests. And Meghan’s point about helping out blurry minded people is a good one. The reality of giving an academic talk is you need some hooks to let people reconnect when (not if!) f they’ve slipped off in concentration. And it is my impression that an unusually high fraction of academics are visual learners and prefer print over spoken as a way of learning.

      • Hmmm., normally when you combine words and pics you also speak the words so the audience doesn’t need to read – the visual of the words is a back up for the audience, as meg alluded to in her opening

      • Hmmm. Nobody I know says the same words as on the slides. That would be incredibly bad presentation style. Hopefully the spoken and written words are consistent. But our language processing center does not work at that level. To those able to hear you and see your slides with different words you significantly distract them from what you are saying. Studies are pretty strong on this. Benefits of redundancy and especially helping those who didn’t hear are good reasons for doing this anyway though.

      • I’ve seen many talks where the header sentence is outright spoken, and I try to do that myself. It’s all about reinforcement, which should help the language processing problem, and the words are useful for multiple previously stated reasons. So I agree with Meg here.

        I personally find it distracting listening to people use word gymnastics to avoid saying exactly what they put on the slide. Pick the best words/phrases, and then speak and display them! Always display as little as possible, of course.

        I also watched Robert Sapolsky speak for 90 min using 5 slides with no words and it was the best seminar I can remember. Most of us are not as eloquent and engaging…

      • I haven’t given a talk or lecture in a while but I *always* repeated the words on my slides, that’s why they are there. It’s repetition that drives home the message. It’s not bad form at all! My talks were well received and I was recently reviewing my course evals and they’re solidly positive with many positive comments on lectures. IMO to say something different than what’s on the slide is confusing and bad form

    • Disagree. No words makes slides less accessible for people with hearing constraints. Further if the graph is complicated or has small text, people in the back, with vision limitations or who are not native speakers of the language the presentation is given in have a chance to get the takeaway if it is in large font at the top of the slide.

      • This. ^^^
        Folks don’t even need to be hearing impaired. Could be that the acoustics in the room aren’t good, or the speaker has a soft voice, or someone had a coughing fit that made a point hard to hear, or the folks behind refuse to quit whispering about whether Lamarkian evolution is returning in prominence thanks to epigenetics. Some words: Good. No words at all: Bad.

  1. I totally agree and recommend the same strategy for my students. Our ultimate goal in the lab is to design slides that work as efficiently as a “direct image”, like in the Buddhist flower sermon.

  2. Pingback: Practicing What I Preach – Editing Text Slides – DJG Communications LLC

  3. Pingback: Investigación, escritura académica y docencia

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