"I'm sorry this is a very busy slide..."


    I am at the end of my tether.  And to be honest it’s not as long a tether as it used to be.  I had expected to become more tolerant with my advancing years, but I’m afraid all that has happened is that my once well-suppressed curmudgeon has surfaced and taken charge.

    These days there are of course many things that make me grind my teeth, shake my head and sigh ever more deeply.  However, there is one in particular that needs to be sorted out.  Yes, I know there are a few political shenanigans going on that need to concern us, and then there’s the spectre of climate change and....well, the impending end of the world as we know it really.  But the thing I think needs to be sorted out now, right now, is the quality of the slides people force me look at every day.

    I have been on the receiving end of slide shows of one kind or another for over 40 years and I am no longer willing to take it. Of course, in that time there have been a few highlights, some dazzling displays mostly it has to be said from student presentations, and rarely from the great and the good, but for the most part the slides people show are terrible.  And by terrible, I mean they fail on every level as a visual aid to accompany a talk.

    As you might expect, I could go on at some length about this, but I would just like to focus on one thing that causes me particularly severe chest pain: the speaker who apologises for his or her slides.

    “I’m sorry, this is a very busy slide,” they will announce when they project an especially heinous specimen.  Allow me to translate for those of you unfamiliar with this particular form of academic double-speak.  What they are saying is, “I know this slide is a disaster, overcrowded with lines of text, irrelevant images and so badly designed none of you can read it or understand it, but you know I’m not sorry, because the thing is you, the audience, aren’t worth it.  You aren’t worth the little time it would have taken me to fix this train wreck of a slide.  You see, I’m big, I’m important, I’m actually better than you and you should just be delighted that I’ve even deigned to come here today to your little lecture theatre.  I’m busy, I’ve got better things to do, planes to catch, executive lounges to enjoy.  I’ve got panels to sit on, committees to chair, papers to reject. So, stop moaning and just be grateful I’m showing you a slide at all.”

    I know you think I’m over-reacting, perhaps even pulling your leg, but believe me when I say, I’m not.  This is exactly what these speakers think.  They know their slides are bad, after all they’ve just acknowledged the fact by having to apologise for them. And they know how to make them better, but the fact remains that they choose not to.

    I have a very simple approach to slides, their design and their use, and it’s this.  Never show a slide you wouldn’t want to look at.  All you have to be is honest with yourself.  The principles of good slide design are very simple and easily learnt and we know what effective slides should look like.  Keep it simple, keep it clean, keep it uncluttered. Don’t have anything on the slide that doesn’t need to be there and make sure the slide works as a visual aid, not for you the speaker, but for the audience.  Is it visual? — can they see it, can they read the text, can they make out the pictures?; and is it an aid?— does it help the audience understand what you’re talking about, does it clarify, does it exemplify, does it reinforce?

    I do not expect perfection, but I do expect to be treated with a little respect by the speakers whose presentations I have taken the time to attend.  I am just as busy as them — and so are you — and we all deserve the best that any speaker can deliver.  So, if you’re the speaker, remember that.  Remember that everyone in your audience is doing you a favour by sitting through your talk.  Don’t repay that debt by making them endure a set of slides you would never want to look at yourself.  Do better than that, be better than that because your audience is better than that. And if you find yourself apologising for the poor quality of your slides, bite your tongue and fix them.

    © Allan Gaw 2020


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