Death to the outline slide

Has anyone else come to the conclusion that opening your talk with this slide is utterly worthless?


What, you’re describing your results after your methods? That’s so… like every other conference presentation I’ve ever been to.
What makes this even more annoying is that your opening slide could be put to a far better use. I’ve lost count of the number of talks I’ve been to where the speaker dives straight into the nitty gritty technicalities of their study – and therefore loses virtually everyone who doesn’t occupy their particular sub-sub-field within the first three minutes. Rather than wasting a minute describing the order you’re going to present things in the following 15, you could spend it explaining why people should stay awake to hear what you have to say.
For example:




Or even:


I fully admit that it’s taken me a while to come to this conclusion – which is why I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen in the last couple of days here in Edinburgh. The School of Geosciences were having their annual post-graduate conference, and virtually every presenting student had dumped their outline slide in favour of telling their audience why they should care about their research. It was really heartening to see – and it made the sessions far more engaging. Hopefully it’s a habit that will stick – and spread upwards.

Categories: academic life

Comments (24)

  1. Julia says:

    As I am trying to prepare my presentation for tomorrow’s interview, you have no idea how helpful that is. 🙂

  2. Ed Yong says:

    Some presentation skills trainers tell you specifically to create such a slide.
    They are wrong and must be punished. The outline slide, in any talk, is worthless and irritating.
    In many cases, it could be more productively replaced with one that says “There are a total of x slides in this talk. I tell you this because I’m going to be boring and now you can better pace your slow slide into a coma.”

  3. I don’t think it is worthless and irritating. I will always have an outline slide in my talks. Mainly because when I’m in the audience, I like to see one. It’s cheap. Don’t spend much time on it. Move on quickly, but I like to know how the talk is going to be structured. And like Ed said, there is importance to knowing how much longer I can nap.

  4. I say nix any slide with nothing but words on it. Speak those words aloud; they do not need to be written out. Save your slides for images: photos, diagrams, and graphs. That’s my 2 cents…

  5. Bob O'H says:

    I think outline slides can be useful, particularly in longer talks. But I’ve heard too many students say “..and then I will tell you what results I got” whilst stood next to your first slide (only not usually in those colours).
    Like bullet-points, the problem is they’re used as a replacement for thinking.

  6. dean says:

    I don’t have a problem with outlines, but I do get very annoyed at the (mandatory?) behavior of people who READ EVERY FREAKIN’ WORD OF EVERY FREAKIN’ SLIDE AS IT APPEARS, and so never add any additional insight.
    I am in no way implying anyone here does that – how would I know? But it happens far too often at our school meetings, and it must be taught somewhere, because I have to break my stat students of the habit when they prepare for their semester presentations.

  7. BrianR says:

    I totally agree w/ you for short conference talks (10-20 minutes long) … but for longer talks (45-60 min) having an outline (and coming back to it throughout talk) is critical!!
    And if there is an outline slide, the bullet points should be concise, specific phrases about the study, not generic words like ‘methods’ or ‘results’.

  8. Kim says:

    I hate outline slides. I’ve never used one – I try to start with a picture that raises a question, and then say things like your example slides do. (I even did that for hour-long job talks. After I introduced the problem, I usually said something about how the talk was going to be structured – “I’m going to take you on a tour through my field area, from the shallowest rocks to the deepest rocks.”)
    When I got to my first job, the other faculty were teaching all the undergrads to always start with an outline, and although I thought they were wrong, I gave up trying to argue. (There are some arguments that it isn’t worth having with the people who are going to decide whether you keep your job or not.) I still think they’re wrong – and I’ve noticed that my former thesis students generally don’t use outline slides in their professional talks.

  9. Silver Fox says:

    We geologists often have it easier than some other sciences in being able to – whenever possible – throw in pics of rocks and slides of outcrops and areas. I agree text slides should be kept a minimum and should be readable in the back – and your ideas for making them a bit more interesting, along with BrianR’s above, will improve many talks. The text slides should be a guideline, a reminder for the audience and speaker, and should not be read aloud.

  10. BrianR says:

    This is a good discussion.
    I recently gave a 45-min talk that summarized three related, but still stand-alone, research projects … in this case, an outline was absolutley, positively necessary. Without one, my audience would’ve been a bit lost.
    But, as I already mentioned, having an outline doesn’t mean it has to be boring and generic. So, to me, it’s not so much outline vs. no-outline — it’s effective vs. ineffective.

  11. Dr. Kate says:

    I think it depends on the kind of presentation. As several others have pointed out, a generic slide like the one you’ve posted is completely worthless. But if you’re summarizing several studies, or not presenting research at all but instead are giving a different kind of talk, it can be helpful to use an introductory outline slide, so people know what to expect.

  12. ScienceWoman says:

    For longer talks (like, say, job talks) I’ve used my second slide to both introduce the “problem” and set up the outline of 3 stand-alone projects that all relate back to the big “problem” at hand.
    But I agree that the hypothesis, methods, results…form of outline slide must be vanquished.

  13. Lassi Hippel?§inen says:

    Giving a presentation is like telling a story. No storyteller gives the essential points at the beginning. It spoils the show. Movies don’t begin with outlines.
    IMHO the slide is a relic from written reports that usually begin with a summary. It also reveals the audience what you think of their attention span.
    In a long presentation an outline may make sense, but only if you have divided the presentation to clear-cut sections. In that case you should repeat the outline slide at the beginning of each section.

  14. Tuff Cookie says:

    I agree, and that sets me opposite most of the people who’ve given talks to us in grad school about how to do presentations. You know, the “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” I’m all for summarizing key points at the end of a talk, but – at least for a short presentation – spending a whole minute talking about what people will see a minute later strikes me as pretty dumb.
    I might do it for my thesis defense, if only to avoid the inevitable “Where was your outline slide?” question (and because a defense is a long talk). But for a shorter conference talk – like I’m going to be giving in May at a regional GSA meeting – I think it’s pretty pointless and a waste of time.

  15. Maureen says:

    Ahh, the outline slide. I avoided that thing like the plague in grad school, despite the fact that the profs always seemed to want it. I didn’t even put one in my thesis defense. It was all just pretty much in-your-face why-you-should-care-about-this-stuff, and my advisor said it was the best defense he’s ever seen a Master’s student do. So I say nay to the outline slide! Waste of time and energy!

  16. Elli says:

    I’m teaching a course this semester that had a discussion in week three about what does and does not belong in a talk–outline slides came up, but the students eventually struck them from a list. A large part of that was due to my encouragement, since I’ve never given a talk with an outline slide (I’m one of Kim’s former students to link things together).
    My talk style has been dominated by two people: Kim and then later Jane Gilotti at UIowa. Kim emphasized quite a few of the basics like more pictures then text, don’t read the text, know your slide order, etc. The message I took away from Jane was 1) know your audience and don’t talk over them and 2) start with a reason why people in the audience should actually listen to your talk and not sleep for the next 15 / 20 / 60 minutes. For the latter, you don’t need an outline slide just a very well rehearsed opening sentence or two. I actually find it easier to deal with Kim’s recommendations then Jane’s, but I think its both parts that make a particularly strong & memorable talk.

  17. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    We were told to use such a slide when we presented our thesis work at the undergrad and grad levels (biology). I did for my graduate theses, but each time made a smart-aleck comment about it which served as an opening joke to break the ice. The presentation went great.
    To date myself, for one of those theses I printed off the information on paper and then photographed the paper with a camera carrying slide film. I think that extra work and money for an essentially useless slide annoyed me more than anything. You had to make sure you planned well in advance. If something was wrong with any picture, you needed time to reshoot and develop. Least we didn’t need to worry about Death by PowerPoint. 🙂

  18. ecologist says:

    The outline slide can be very valuable IF it is used right, especially in longer talks. But it must have content. So instead of
    how about starting with a slide that says:
    1. Why the discovery of X did NOT solve the problem of Y, and what I intend to do about it.
    2. A quick introduction to the whacamacallit, and how it’s used to measure things.
    3. A comparison of X and Y and their relation to Z.
    4. What it all means.
    That would give the audience some idea of what’s actually coming, rather than just that you will introduce something, describe some methods, etc.
    In a long and detailed talk, it can be useful to have a fairly detailed outline and return to it repeatedly, just to show the audience “ok, now I’m going to move to the next step here”. The slide package Beamer (for LaTeX) does that automatically, with lots of really cool options.

  19. Craig says:

    The IEEE conference I’m attending requires an outline slide, much to my dismay as I’ve never used one before. I tried to make it as ungeneric as possible, but am still tempted to say, “And this is a slide IEEE mandated be in the talk,” pause, and move on.

  20. Alex says:

    Yeah, a generic “Introduction, Methods, Results, Conclusion” slide is pointless.
    OTOH, an outline slide could be useful if it’s more like this:
    1) Why X is important
    2) Basics of a phenomenon underlying X
    3) Technique we used to observe this phenomenon
    4) Observations of particular aspect Y
    5) Implications of Y for Z
    Obviously you don’t want to get too detailed or technical in that slide, but priming the audience with important points can be useful. It’s certainly better than “And I will conclude with my conclusions.”

  21. Nick Hayman says:

    There’s only one ‘golden rule’ for talks that outweighs all others: “Tell ’em, tell ’em you told ’em, then tell ’em again”. The rest is just packaging. (not that I’m the best at following this rule).

  22. cromercrox says:

    Why have slides at all? Are they really necessary? Why turn the lights down so the audience can snooze? As a journal editor who has sat through a lot of presentations, I question increasingly the way data are presented. For those who are really interested in the technicalities, there are posters. When I go out and give talks about the editorial process, I take no slides at all. In fact, I don’t prepare anything at all. Usually the audience has so many questions I let them get on with it. These days I prefer unconferences as all the useful insights come from breaks and pub time anyway.

  23. Great discussion. Do you know Edward Tufte’s books, and specifically “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint”? All good stuff. I certainly agree with the “picture is worth a thousand words” approach – most of the presentations I do are highly visual, the pictures entertaining and challenging the audience while reminding me of what I want to say.
    The low point of all the appalling Powerpoint presentations I have suffered through was one given by a German speaker – the intensely wordy slides were in English which he read, but having translated them into German, and his words were then translated back into English. Such was the soporific power of the occasion that it took a while before anyone realised how surreal this all was – it was agreed that we should simply sit quietly and read the slides.

  24. djlactin says:

    Some presentation skills trainers tell you specifically to create such a slide.
    They are wrong and must be punished. The outline slide, in any talk, is worthless and irritating.

    As one such “trainer” I have to disagree: An outline prepares the listener for the coming presentation. I do, however, agree that the “outline” slide that you showed is worthless. First: the “Introduction” point is useless and should be tossed. The other points are too generic; they should be replaced with meaningful phrases; for example:
    – Importance of Convection in Insect Energy Balance
    – Measurement of Convection
    – Effects of Body size and Windspeed on convective heat loss
    – Implications

    Giving a presentation is like telling a story. No storyteller gives the essential points at the beginning. It spoils the show. Movies don’t begin with outlines.

    This is not a good analogy; a movie-goer wants some mystery. A listener at a presentation does not have time to analyze what you’re saying and figure out its implications. If he does, he misses something important and then he is lost.
    Death to the meaningless introduction slide! Long live the introduction slide!