Limitless Powerpoint: alternatives to the usual slide presentations

I’ve had a fair amount of musing/complaining about posters here lately, but what about the ubiquitous PowerPoint-style slide presentation? It’s just as much a linga franca of scientific communication as anything else, despite being conceptually identical to overhead transparencies of old. I’m not going to get into the inherent limitations of slide presentations, especially now that we’ve progressed beyond the age of laser sound effects and transitions. These discussions have been conveyed elsewhere, years ago. I believe much of the argument comes down to “the focus of the presentation should be the presenter, not the slides”. It’s certainly a compelling position but not one I’m going to dissect at the moment.

Instead, let’s look at a few alternatives to PowerPoint and its ilk. These are tools for in-person talks or webinars, as opposed to pre-recorded presentations. They seem to primarily address one of PowerPoint’s primary limitations: it never satisfactorily engineered a way to integrate all the types of audiovisual media a presenter may want to show. The standard protocol for demonstrating a live web site, for instance, is to open it in a browser. Google Slides gets better all the time but has similar limitations. Keynote and LibreOffice Impress still follow the same PowerPoint philosophy. How about something entirely new? A new paradigm, perhaps? Or maybe you just want to include small animations, like in this acknowledgements slide? Here are a few.

Ludus

Ludus-example.png

A slide tool built around “smart blocks” and integration with a whole bunch of webservices. Want to add GIFs on a whim? Have a collection of design mockups on Figma you’d like to show off? Ludus will do both of those. Plus, their About page does, in fact, refer to the tool as a “new paradigm”. It does most of the things PowerPoint et al. do, though it costs about $15 to $20/month for a single user, depending on payment frequency. I have not tried it and likely will not in the future for this reason (the above image is captured from the demo video on their site). There is a 30 day free trial if you are intrigued. Its targeted audience seems to be designers rather than researchers. The integrated services don’t seem to align with the usual science needs: support for things like Dropbox may help if that’s part of an existing workflow, but there isn’t integration with NCBI resources or arXiv, for example. Looks neat otherwise.

Prezi

prezi-example.png

So much of a counterpoint to Ludus that it bills itself as “for people who aren’t designers”, Prezi is built around zooming in and out on a map of visuals. The platform has been around for about a decade now and has had plenty of time to smooth out its rough edges, though the interface still requires some acclimation. A big plus: it has a fairly basic but free-of-any-monetary-cost option. The cheapest paid option is $7/month. Prezi’s new interface makes all the style details easy to play around with. But does Prezi meet the needs of research presentations? Does it make it easier to convey multifaceted questions, methods, and results? Here’s one example of something Prezi does very well: it allows the presentation to zoom in on detailed figures without having them continuously occupy a lot of screen space. This is another fun example. I think the zoom effects need to be handled with care, as they can become distracting as the view zooms past other slides. It can feel a bit like trying to navigate with Google Maps in an area you don’t know well. If you don’t think your audience will mind, Prezi may be worthwhile, but expect to feel constrained by the free account limitations.

Swipe

swipe-example.png

This option is a bit closer to traditional slide presentations, with a few notable features. Swipe supports building slides out of pure Markdown notation, a format many programmers and Github devotees are familiar with. It’s a great way to control formatting without getting too distracted by the exact placing of every text box or visual element. Swipe also allows presentations to include multiple choice polls. This seems entirely appropriate for academic lectures, and given the right setup, could even be a simple way to increase audience engagement. The audience would have to be expecting it from the beginning but it appears quite easy to direct them to a short link providing the live presentation, complete with polls and real-time results. This is my favorite of the three, and the option I’m most likely to use in the future, particularly as it has a decent free option.

This is just a selection of the non-PowerPoint presentation platforms in existence. In the end, there’s no replacement for delivering a message confidently and authentically, except perhaps for getting on a stage and screaming for 20 to 30 minutes. That can go pretty far, too.

More thoughts on alternative posters and alternatives in general

I’ve seen some pushback on Twitter lately (one example here, but there are certainly others) regarding the idea of alternative posters. Some of it seems to be directed at the simplified poster design template that’s been going around lately (that is, the one I have an example of in the previous post). The critics claim it has too much negative space, it doesn’t focus on the data supporting claims, or that it just looks ugly. It’s clear that much of the criticism is about that specific poster design, and not about the idea of alternative scientific communication itself, but the complaints highlight a few general difficulties which continue to be pervasive in academia and scholarly interactions.

Pictured: how I feel at most poster sessions, including the sensation of trying to look though the back of someone’s head

Pictured: how I feel at most poster sessions, including the sensation of trying to look though the back of someone’s head

  1. Audiences and expectations are changing. If you work in a particular field, e.g. environmental chemistry, you likely collaborate with people in that field most of the time. You see them at the same few meetings you usually attend. You all publish findings in the same collection of publications, and you know or at least recognize their editorial staff members. You have established explicit or implicit standards in your field, such as the minimum amount or quality of evidence needed to support a conclusion. You know which kinds of experiments should be done to answer a given question. You want to see certain kinds of results, down to specific figure and visualization types. In short, you have a set of well-established expectations about How Science Is Done.

    This all becomes a challenge as projects become larger and more interdisciplinary. Researchers exposed to a new field likely don’t have the pre-conceived expectations of someone who has been in that field for the last decade or so. When communicating findings, their goal is less of “here is how I prove my hypothesis, which we already know is relevant, why would you even question the relevance of our field, let’s not get into why what we do is valid” and more of “yes, my findings are relevant to you, yes, this is a real field and people get paid to do it, of course it may impact your work too, please don’t walk away, come back, come back, I know this figure looks complicated but I can help to explain it, give me a chance”. Effective communication in interdisciplinary scenarios needs to address high-level questions. That takes a lot of effort! I think the most appropriate solution is to save most of the intricate data analyses and visualizations for settings where audiences can absorb them at their own pace (like papers, handouts, web pages, videos, apps, or pretty much anything other than a poster).

  2. Researchers wear many hats. I wish there was a better metaphor for this, since “hats” implies different roles, like how putting on a cowboy hat makes you a cowboy. Perhaps it’s more like bumper stickers on an old Volvo or patches on a punk’s denim jacket. Everyone working in any facet of science — but particularly folks in academia — are expected to have bits and pieces of varied skills, many of which they pick up organically or through self-teaching. They need to learn effective public speaking, management, accounting, and graphic design, in degrees often depending on how many people they work with who have developed those skills already (e.g., a student may join a lab in which a postdoc is dead-set on making all the figures, or they may work in a field with few opportunities for giving talks). Some of these issues, like the tendency for investigators to lack formal management training before beginning a lab, are well-recognized and may have a few solid solutions. Others, like the expectation that researchers will just figure out how to produce effective illustrations and figures, are baked into academic culture, I suspect.

    So what does this have to do with posters? I believe posters are the best example of the compromise between acquiring an in-depth knowledge of the skills necessary for truly impactful communication of novel findings and ideas (primarily marketing, graphic design, and editing) and obtaining skills and knowledge in a specific scientific field. Posters aren’t terribly good media for presenting ideas, they’re just good enough. They’re simple, they’re not overly dissimilar from published papers or books, and you can put a whole mess of them in a convention center without violating many fire codes.

  3. There’s just too much to read. This issue has to do with expectations, again, namely the expectation that any single researcher has a comprehensive understanding of the state of the field. This may be possible if you define a field in a very narrow way, like “only papers by my friends or their advisors, published in these three journals, and even then only if I’m looking for citations for a review I’m writing”. I just don’t think it’s possible otherwise. Obviously it’s not practical to read every paper in most fields or even every poster abstract for the larger conferences (i.e., those with more than 5,000 attendees or so), but even staying aware of recent developments is a full-time job. The strategy of following established leaders in the field can help but risks ignoring the work by those without a major following yet (and, crucially, minority voices who already have to deal with the systemic tendency to devote attention to people who resemble folks in the field, often white men).

    This may be a situation in which posters just add to the noise. I don’t have a decent solution here, and strategies to make posters more eye-catching and noticeable address a different problem entirely. Perhaps posters are another area where a more structured product would be helpful: if I could reliably pull them en masse into some kind of poster aggregator, at least they would be easier to browse. I still suspect that many findings would be more appropriately delivered through other media.

More alternative posters: the poster as billboard

Relevant to the subject of my previous post, Mike Morrison, a PhD student at Michigan State University, recently shared a lil’ animated guide and some templates about how to design better posters. I think the quick graphical summary really shows what he’s going for:

billboardstyle-template-final.png

The focus is no longer on how much of a full paper you can cram onto a limited space, but how rapidly you can deliver your central finding(s) to an audience of highly-distracted session attendees. Check out the Powerpoint templates as well - he’s included some suggestions on high-contrast color schemes and some other design details. I’ll definitely implement some of these ideas in my next poster.

Alternative posters, or alternatives to posters

It increasingly feels like the venerated Academic Poster has outlived its usefulness. It’s still a fixture at most conferences in virtually any field, and it makes sense, as the benefits are clear:

  1. Posters are conceptually simple. They’re just like manuscripts, but bigger!

  2. Posters don’t need to have a specific format. True, some consistency is nice, but elements and figures on a poster can take any size or shape, as long as they fit.

  3. Posters are visual aids. Unlike formal talks, they don’t have a time limit. They exist to support discussion.

These are all also reasons why I feel posters are nearly obsolete. Posters (and, at this point, I’m really just talking about “big sheets of paper containing some kind of interesting information”) work best as a mechanism for fostering discussion, whether there’s a human being standing nearby or not. But what a manuscript does well in terms of information density, a poster does very poorly. No one wants to stand in front of a poster and absorb an entire research project’s worth of material when they could get the gist with a bit of visual assistance. If a manuscript is a buffet, a poster should be some light canapés. Maybe some nice hummus and pita chips.

(I’m not entirely sure that formal manuscripts really serve their purpose in conveying scientific findings anymore, either, but that’s an entirely different discussion, and likely a much more extensive one.)

I’ve been collecting some examples of alternative posters. Some are just visually interesting, while others entirely change the format. All of them play with the audience’s expectations. That seems like the best way to capture attention and foster discussion. I’m not going to call out any boring posters here as that wouldn’t be friendly or productive, but I’ve certainly produced a bunch of them before. They usually look like this:

Sometimes the wall of text is replaced by more tiny figures.

Sometimes the wall of text is replaced by more tiny figures.

Why do posters still look like this? Beyond trying to render them as tiny manuscripts, I suspect much of it has to do with the role of posters as media for trainees. In most fields, students and junior researchers predominantly present posters, while more senior folks give talks. This may mean the more junior folks just have more to prove. Their poster is as performative as it is informative. It has to convey how serious the involved people are about their area of study.

I don’t have a solution for this problem. It may involve rethinking why and how we convey new findings and resources. Can we separate the performance from the product?

Here are some of those alternative posters, anyway. All have been shared elsewhere or presented at large conferences. Some I found through the Better Posters blog. That blog is very relevant to this topic and is absolutely worth investigating further.

This one is by Gavin Abercrombie from the University of Manchester.

Gavin Abercombie.jpg

Natural language processing is hard to visualize since it’s mostly about text. This poster does a great job of visualizing a process without totally avoiding details.

This next one is by Per Damkier, Louise Skov Christensen, and Anne Broe from the Odense University Hospital in Denmark. It’s essentially advertising this paper and was quite popular on Twitter.

Per Damkier et al - ICPE2018.jpg

Even without the texting motif, this is effective because it breaks an entire study down into a few basic questions and answers. A name probably would have been nice.

I saw this next poster at ISMB 2017 - it’s advertising the Debian Med Blend and its bioinformatics packages. Seems like a good strategy if the whole point is to market a set of resources rather than to prove how well a tool performs at a given function.

I’m still looking for more alternative poster formats, and even wholesale alternatives to posters. I’m not sure an ideal replacement exists yet. It’s possible there isn’t one, and it’s possible that there isn’t a formal presentation mechanism better at conveying scientific findings than an informal conversation already is.

Notes on notes 10: A comment on NowComment now

  • August 22, 2013

NowComment.jpg

Not really a note as much as a reminder. NowComment is a system for online collaborative discussion, or put more simply, it lets a bunch of people leave comments on a single document. Sounds a bit like a Google Doc, right? There’s certainly some similarity, in that documents can be commented on, but the annotations are the real focus here. The closest analogue may then be Genius, but with more flexibility in document content.

This could be a great way for manuscript authors to do collaborative edits without the unfortunate status quo of sending Word files back and forth. It could also work well for journal clubs. In theory, just upload a PDF and have everyone comment on the same document. In practice, I couldn’t get NowComment to accept an uploaded PDF (This one - https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/24/11/pdfs/18-0381.pdf along with a few similarly formatted documents) without throwing an error and refusing. Disappointing, but there is a workaround: copy and paste the HTML version of the manuscript using NowComment’s copy n’ paste option. You get something like this and can highlight sentences or entire paragraphs. See below.

hantavirus comment.jpg