Don’t be sidelined by your slides

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode of Room 42, Traci Nathans-Kelly discusses how to optimize slide design to craft better technical presentations and maximize the value of your slides. Imagine slides that not only support speakers in their live talks but have lasting archival value as well.

Airdate: June 23, 2021

Season 1 Episode 25 | 42 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:12.310] – Liz Fraley

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to Room 42. I’m Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions. I’m your moderator. This is Janice Summers, our interviewer. And welcome to Traci Nathans-Kelly, today’s guest in Room 42.

[00:00:24.490] – Liz Fraley

Dr. Nathans-Kelly is currently an Associate Director of the Engineering Communications Programme at Cornell University in the College of Engineering. She’s taught technical, business, engineering and scientific communication courses since 1989. She coauthored IEEE’s English for Technical Professionals Online course. She serves on the IEEE Educational Activities Board, the IEEE Continuing Education Committee and the Editorial Board for IEEE’s Teaching Excellence Hub.

[00:00:54.340] – Liz Fraley

Based on her extensive work in the field of presentation design, she co-authored the book “Slide Rules: Design, Build and Archive Presentations in the Engineering and Technical Fields” with Christine Nicometo. And her most recent online certificate course for practicing professionals is technical presentations offered through E-Cornell and starting very soon. And today Traci’s here to help us start answering the question, what can we do to create better technical presentations for speakers, audiences and users alike?

[00:01:24.130] – Liz Fraley


[00:01:25.120] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Thank you so much. It’s so fun to be here with you two, and everybody else.

[00:01:30.220] – Janice Summers

We’re so excited and this is such a great topic. Having attended a lot of conferences and presentations, I think everyone should be forced to take your online course. I really do. But before we get into too much, I always like to hear what inspired you to write this book? This book is available on Amazon, right?

[00:01:59.380] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

It’s available on Amazon and everywhere else that we usually look for books. It’s paperback and it comes, I think, in every e-format available. That’s what we’ve been told, at least. Unfortunately, it has not been translated into any other languages although there’s been requests for Spanish. But, yeah, you know, Christine Nicometo and I started to also this book around 2011, and at that point, we were both teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and we were teaching required courses for undergraduates.

[00:02:40.240] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

So that was our first pain point right there. And not because the students were doing anything wrong, but it was because they were doing everything they had seen done. So what happens is they’re asked to do a presentation and they open up PowerPoint slides because engineering, we like to use visuals, it’s really important. And they would open up PowerPoint and there would be that slide template, click to enter title, click and there’s your bullets. Engineers are extraordinarily good at following instructions. So they did that.

[00:03:19.270] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Well, the problem is, of course, that slide template was built off of the idea of an index card. And the early history of PowerPoint is that it was meant to be electronic index cards. Pretty wild. So our students would follow instructions and they would click to add a title and then they would add their content and bullets. Well-

[00:03:45.390] – Janice Summers

Don’t you think, too, that they were seeing a lot of presentation we’d like to repeat we’ve seen others do too, right? It’s follow me and I just do that.

[00:03:55.330] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Absolutely. Absolutely. So they would see their professors do this and they’d go up on co-op and internship and they would see the same thing. So it was pervasive. We saw it as undergraduates at that time and then as the instructors of these courses we would have to see over the course of an academic year up to 500 presentations and everybody was going to read the bullets. So we were going braindead and they were going braindead, it was not good.

[00:04:24.550] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

 It was terrible. We were just like, nothing good is happening here. They’re not enthusiastic and we’re not enthusiastic. And then when Christine and I started to teach in a masters course. So these were practicing professionals. For these masters courses, you had to be at least five years into your degree. So these were necessarily online courses, of course, because everybody’s still at their jobs, but literally from around the world and every technical, engineering, and scientific field.

[00:05:05.920] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

So we had everybody. We had Avon, Cranberry. What’s the Cranberry… Ocean Spray to Google and Sirius and John Deere and the Department of Defense and everything in between. They were doing the same thing. We were like this has got to change. So we looked at Michael Alley’s work where he talks about the assertion-evidence model and we had to tinker with that a little bit to meet the needs of the practicing professionals. So that’s the bulk of the Slide Rules book.

[00:05:38.430] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And Michael Alley was happy to help us and have him… He likes to focus on the undergraduate experience and we really like to focus on the practicing-professional experience. So our solution was born out of dying-

[00:05:54.170] – Janice Summers

Yeah, yeah. Exactly, it’s like born out of selfish necessity. I can’t sit through 500 of these long bullet…

[00:06:03.800] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Yeah, and there were other things out there. “Zen and the Art of Presenting” and all of these other books, of course… Now, I’m going to forget the name of it. Anyway, Nancy’s books and all this, where there was more of a focus on the needs for marketing and PR.

[00:06:30.740] – Janice Summers

Yeah. I was just going to say, in marketing and business, there’s tons of things but I don’t know that I’ve seen anything focused for the engineer, for the STEM person.

[00:06:44.570] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Exactly. So there’s a lot of nice influence there from presentations in Slideology and all of those books. They’re great. We definitely drew upon the wisdom of those. But again, it was missing the mark for our engineers. Tried those for a year or two with our practicing professionals it wasn’t quite a… So we listened to their responses to using those techniques and then we refined, honed, and this was the core of our book called Slide Rules.

[00:07:15.950] – Janice Summers

Right. And I think that’s one of the nice things about your book and it’s based on real practiced research, trial and error and feedback, that loop to perfect, how to do a better presentation. And I think that’s what the examples are in the book, too, are based on all of that because your book has examples on how to do…

[00:07:39.770] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Yeah, we were very lucky to get full color that doesn’t happen a lot anymore. And all of the examples in there, except maybe two or three, are scrubbed, but definitely taken from actual presentations that our practicing engineers did. So again, scrubbed for proprietary reasons we make it a little bit more generic here and there where we needed to but those are real. Those are all real examples, both the bad and the good.

[00:08:14.450] – Janice Summers

Right. Right. And the reasons why one is good versus one, the other? Right?

[00:08:23.080] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Yes. We like to have a lot of before and afters.

[00:08:28.040] – Janice Summers

I always like to hear the things that were on the cutting room for, the behind-the-scenes stuff. What were some of the things that really surprised you in going through this and writing this book and doing the experiments with these practitioners that are also students?

[00:08:46.860] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Because they were practicing engineers and they were good, they were really amazing. And all of the ones that we drew are examples from where in this masters program. So they were there. They were spending a good amount of money to be there and they were so excited. But they were also scared to try any of these new techniques, which is really interesting to me, because engineers and technical professionals and scientists, they’re problem solvers

[00:09:20.760] – Liz Fraley

And they’re experimenters.

[00:09:22.440] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

They like to experiment. Exactly.

[00:09:26.490] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

I think the thing that we uncovered that we really had to think carefully about is that a lot of damage has been done to STEM people since probably junior high. Oh, you’re good at science and tech, you go over here, you don’t need to worry about this stuff. You don’t need to be in speech class, debate, theatre, choir. You’re over here.

[00:09:56.200] – Janice Summers

They drew a hard line between humanities and technology and engineering.

[00:10:01.850] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And they still do. However, a lot of the students themselves… I’m recalling my undergraduates in particular are very artistic. Love words and sounds and experimenting, but they tend to silo it and they don’t pull that expertise into their work life. An interesting side note, University of Wisconsin has one of the best marching bands in the nation. Go watch them on YouTube, they’re amazing. 

[00:10:36.590] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

A Step Above and that’s a pun because they do the high-stepping, it’s very, very demanding. The marching band puts in more practice hours during football season than the football players do. They are amazing and they-

[00:10:51.470] – Janice Summers

I love a good marching band. I’m going to have to look it up.

[00:10:55.850] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

You’re going to have to do it. You are going to take my word for it because it’s true. A lot of people go to football games just to watch the marching band.

[00:11:01.450] – Janice Summers

Just to watch the marching band.

[00:11:05.030] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Awesome. Not put down the football players but I’m all about the marching band. For many years the largest contingency of majors in the marching band was engineering.

[00:11:15.640] – Janice Summers


[00:11:16.780] – Traci Nathans-Kelly


[00:11:17.620] – Janice Summers

 Precision and practice-

[00:11:19.030] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And practice and doing it and being proud but also having that really important outlook. So what this means- what we found along the way is that damage had been done to these students, even the practicing professionals. I’m not good at this. I don’t know how to do this. This doesn’t make any sense to me. And then there’s also the emotional bit where people are very attached to their communication efforts because they feel like it comes from the heart.

[00:11:51.020] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

That might be true for fiction or memoir writing or something like this, but we really have to work to separate. Like talking about solid rocket fuel regression rates should not be emotional. You should be invested, and care. So helping them pull apart emotion from investment in a topic in their performance was really a big piece that we still, every day, you have to work. Every new person you meet you have to work with them on that.

[00:12:29.510] – Janice Summers

So separating the passion from the facts?

[00:12:33.050] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Not necessarily. When people write a story, and junior high and high school stories about, oh, it’s fiction or it’s a story about your grandparents or your best vacation or something, and that does come from your heart. And yes, you’re passionate about it but it comes from personal experience and all this. Doing work communication, you still have to have passion, excitement, or I like to call it investment, but it’s not your life or I hope it’s not.

[00:13:06.130] – Janice Summers

Oh, I see… So you’re still invested in it. You’re still invested in it, you still have interest in it and there’s what I would refer to as passion but it’s not impassioned. It’s not like a personal thing. It’s just this is really great technology and this is why this is important I can convey that through some emotion but not-

[00:13:32.620] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Yeah, excitement or investment or keying into an idea that’s not the same as talking about your relationship with your grandparents or something, right? And that has not ever been pulled apart.

[00:13:47.920] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And so when they go to communicate they just want to follow the rules because it’s really intimidating. And so that was a big and still is every day a big part of it, helping people understand that you can be invested and excited but this is not your soul. And so pulling that apart is a continuous wonderful thing to help people do. But when they use the techniques that we do in Slide Rules, what happens is the drudgery disappears.

[00:14:22.700] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

So one of our past students called those bulleted slides the “decks of drudgery”. And I’ll never forget, it’s so awesome, right? He’s like I feel I’m a whole new person that I can talk to my expertise. So it’s really an amazing thing to see that shift.

[00:14:43.590] – Janice Summers

Yes. Yeah. Because I think over-reliance on too long of bullets, you’re requiring people to read, and then sometimes people read those bullets when they’re presenting.

[00:14:55.400] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Will always. So if you have a big glowing screen or even one like this. So if we’re in Zoom and I would share my screen, all of a sudden the people get small.

[00:15:04.790] – Janice Summers

You’d be tiny. Yeah.

[00:15:07.190] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And see, that’s weird. Because we pay to be in rooms. With the experts. We don’t pay to be in rooms with the slides.

[00:15:20.170] – Janice Summers

It’s funny that you mention it because I notice when I’m watching presentations online if they’ve got slides, I might glance at them, but if they’ve got their face that’s what I’m looking at. And if their face is not there, I’ll go read something else.

[00:15:38.270] – Janice Summers


[00:15:38.270] – Liz Fraley

And that’s one of the lessons VMware learned decades ago that people were more inclined to follow the video and follow the instructions if there was also a human face in front, not tiny and small in the corner, but they’re on-screen. Because we respond to faces and people.

[00:16:03.670] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

It’s really an important thing to recast that whole experience and so whether we’re in an online atmosphere like this or we’re in a room, the idea is we want to use slides like jumbotrons. They’re the background, they should not be the thing itself. The expert talking should be the thing itself. And then we can point to something and say, look right here.

[00:16:32.470] – Janice Summers

For a special emphasis.

[00:16:32.140] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Right. And if we have slides that have a whole bunch of bullets one of two things is going to happen. Like you were saying, Janice, you either shut down because it’s information overload, or we don’t listen to the speaker and we just read because whether you’re online or whether you’re in a room, a big glowy thing is quite compelling. Our little reptile brains take over.

[00:17:04.290] – Janice Summers

That’s how we’re taught and conditioned. Television is on you’re going to look at it. If my computer screen’s on and my boyfriend walks in the room, he’ll look at my computer screen, not at me, I’m like, I’m right here.

[00:17:14.580] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, and so the glowy thing, then if there’s a whole bunch of bullets there then they’re going to concentrate and they’re concentrating super hard on those bullets because they are also ignoring the speaker.

[00:17:28.650] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

So it becomes a different technique that is the one that Christine and I promote, and Michael Alley, where the idea is to have a sentence header, a very short sentence, and we always say no more than two lines. A complete thought. Subject, verb, object, period. A complete encapsulated thought. One idea per slide and then use the other acreage in the slide for a visual.

[00:17:58.980] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

That way, this idea that a lot of people have of storytelling starts to make more sense. So if you read all of the sentence headers, that should cascade the story of the technology or the science or the experiment and then you have all that lovely slide acreage for a visual. And sometimes no visual’s needed. It can just be the idea itself.

[00:18:24.750] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And then when people start to panic, they’re like, no, I need my bullets. They need to have everything. We get that a lot. They need to have all the stuff.  Cut and paste and put it into the notes pane. That way you can show your slides and it’s embedded. It never gets off. It’s still with the file. So, I’m looking at all these questions about-

[00:18:50.490] – Janice Summers

Don’t read the questions, it’s okay. One of the things is what if there’s not a chance, you can only show slides and there’s no chance for your face to be on there anywhere and you can only do slides. Do the rules change on the presentation?

[00:19:07.080] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

I would say practice really, in that moment, voice modulation. Because then the enthusiasm or the moments to pay special attention, to highlight, will have to be done with your narration voice. And a lot of folks are not very comfortable with voice modulation and really emphasizing out loud. So a little bit of practice will help you accomplish that.

[00:19:38.020] – Janice Summers

And pausing.

[00:19:40.210] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Oh. One of my colleagues, her name is Annette. She is the queen of the strategic pause. She’s amazing. I don’t think anybody can do it as well as her. But she’ll be talking, she’ll be keynoting patiently and then she just stops. Sometimes she doesn’t mean to and sometimes it’s planned, but who knows? And she’s like, “I’m having an idea. Hold on just a second.” So she announces her pause and everybody’s like, oh. It’s stunning. It’s stunning, she does a great job.

[00:20:15.100] – Janice Summers

That’s a great trick for pregnated pause.  A long pause. What if have you have a lot of information that you do have to present on a screen? Is there a technique that you can use to have space pauses while you’re giving them a chance to digest the screen change?

[00:20:39.160] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

If something like that happens and this is even for bullets, because sometimes bullets are the answer, not very often, but sometimes you need a list. Bring items in one by one. So you want to do a layer or a build, whatever the word is that you like the most. I like to think of it in terms… I was discussing this the other day with a math instructor. In the old days when we would instruct we would write it on the blackboard and talk at the same time, right?

[00:21:10.660] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

That’s a human pace. His slides he would bring up everything at once. So here’s the entire multi-step equation and all of his students would just be like, no. And then, like you suggest, you just shut down.

[00:21:29.480] – Janice Summers

Because too much information overload.

[00:21:31.770] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

It’s too much. Somebody has said this to me once and it stuck with me.  That’s hazing. If you can get through this then you’re worthy. That’s not cool.

[00:21:45.090] – Janice Summers

Yeah, because I know for me personally when I’m hit with a big, huge fat slide with a lot of content on it, I’m like, well, look, speaker, pick one. Which one do you want me to pay-? Do you want me to pay attention to you or do you want me to pay attention to the slide? I’m like, you just dump this on me and I have to digest this and you at the same time, that’s not fair. To me, it’s not.

[00:22:07.120] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

So you want to pace it. So you bring in… Maybe it’s a really complicated chart, you bring in one swim lane first or you bring in everything that’s coming next week first, whatever it is. And then we talk about this and then we bring in the next thing. And then now we’re back to a human pace. We’re back to equations on a blackboard which is the pace at which our brains can learn even if we’re brilliant, we’re not Instamatics.

[00:22:39.270] – Janice Summers

Right. Because when you’re trying to inform, you want them to retain the information. So you need to give them time to chew and digest the information.

[00:22:51.630] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

All of those things that we’re talking about where the slide is really full of information and we want to get all that information to our people, we don’t want to forget anything. There’s all these really compelling reasons why people push back and say, no, I need everything on the slide. And it is never true. Okay? So there’s different ways to handle it.

[00:23:16.130] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

So you’ve cut and paste all of your personal notes and you put those in the notes frame. That way like I said before, it travels with the slide. So the slides that are being shown to your audience should be for your audience. They should not be your personal set of note cards. That’s the real paradigm shift there. What can I do to make this event for them and not just a set of note cards for me? So you move all of your little notes to yourself and whatever it is that’s making everything full of bullets and too much, you cut, paste, put those in the notes pane.

[00:23:58.730] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And like I mentioned before, that will now travel with the slide file. So somebody says, oh, I missed the meeting, which happens all the time as we know. I missed the meeting. Can you just send me the slides? Okay, so what you do is you save it as a PDF and you save it with the notes pane showing. And that way the PDF that they get has the slide at the top.

[00:24:26.570] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

So if there’s a graph or something they can see the graph that you used during the talk. All of the talking points in print with the notes down below on that page, and problem solved. There is no way that they can possibly miss both your slide that might have some graphics that they need and all of the talking points below. It makes it accessible, it makes it screen-reader friendly, all of these things that we need to pay attention to.

[00:24:57.920] – Janice Summers

And if it’s one of those complicated slides where you had to do a build, however you do the build like sometimes you can’t animate builds on certain presentation platforms you have to actually do slide, slide, slide and build that way, so if you could just take that final bill and add copious notes on that one so all of the notes that go with it on that one, right? Probably-

[00:25:20.150] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

That’s exactly, Janice. That’s what we always coach people to do. So for the live presentation, if you’re using something like WebEx or something that’s a little unpredictable, instead of making animations or build, you separate it out across five slides or more.

[00:25:36.470] – Janice Summers

Right, or however many slides.

[00:25:38.250] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Yeah, and then there’s the grand finale and that’s where all those talking notes should be. When you make that PDF for somebody else, you just cut out all the interim slides.

[00:25:48.230] – Janice Summers

You just rip those slides out. Yeah. So you can have a PDF ready to send, because a lot of people want to see the notes, and it’s nice to have those and that’s prepared for them so it triggers them too to remember when you were talking.

[00:26:00.320] – Traci Nathans-Kelly


[00:26:01.760] – Janice Summers

They’ve seen the slide and then they see these bullet points. When you talk you’re a little extemporaneous, I hope, and not just reading the bullets, you’re not showing them-

[00:26:13.610] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Another advantage of no bullets. You become authentic again. Your authentic knowledge starts to shine again.

[00:26:21.410] – Janice Summers

Yeah. Can we talk about that?

[00:26:25.110] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

So not being beholden to your bullets and not being the person who reads those bullets allows you to be in the moment. It allows your expertise to shine. If you are reading bullets, you don’t look like you own the information. You look like you’re reading the information.

[00:26:50.210] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

You’ve got to own it. This is all yours. If you’re in front of people this has to be you. And there’s another advantage in that if you are interrupted, it doesn’t freak you out. Right? Because like we’re doing today is kind of a conversation. So if you’re nervous about not being able to see your notes pane or you’re nervous about not being fully scripted, practice a couple of times more but don’t memorize because then again you’re going to get frozen, you’re going to get locked in. Practice a little bit more.

[00:27:24.240] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Recently I did a keynote for eCornell and whatever system they were using I could not see my notes pane. I didn’t really need it, but I wanted to remember some stats and stuff just in case. Their system did not allow me to see both- slides that I might want to use and then also my notes pane. So I simply just printed them out. I actually had them on the desk in front of me. So just in case I needed that little…

[00:27:56.070] – Janice Summers

We had the link for that, too, but I want to make sure we share that with everybody. I just want to encourage everybody to watch that eCornell video presentation. It’s fantastic. It’s a wonderful presentation.

[00:28:08.400] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

It was a lot of fun and in the end, after discussing it with the host that I was doing there, we decided that we would not use any slides necessarily but then I could call… It’s a fancy set-up for them, right? I could call them and say can you put up example Number 13 and then Nick in the background would throw it up on the screen for a few minutes. So it was really nice for me to know in advance I wouldn’t be able to see my notes. And so I just took care of business in a different way because I did not want my audience just to see a bunch of bullets.

[00:28:46.080] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

That would not do.

[00:28:46.590] – Janice Summers

That would be a bad thing. I think, too, when you talk about– know that sentence. I like that the title is the sentence, a simple sentence that conveys the information, encapsulates what those bullets are about. So you might not be showing the bullets, maybe you’re showing the visual and your bullets are the notes but just knowing what that sentence is when you’re rehearsing before you present, you should always rehearse, but that should be your trigger, right?

[00:29:26.170] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

It is.

[00:29:27.010] – Janice Summers

You’ll get through the bullets in whatever order and maybe you’ll forget one. That, I think, is something that a lot of people fear, is that they’ll forget one.

[00:29:35.800] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And you know what, if you forget one and it’s three minutes later during your talk, you’re like, you know what I forgot to say… Your life is not going to fall apart. And the people in the room will be like, oh, cool, they’re going to go back. It’s not this devastating thing that everybody thinks that it is. If somebody needs that information, they’re like, wait a minute, wait a minute. I think you skipped the step.

[00:30:02.320] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Great. Talk about it.

[00:30:04.360] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Again, being the authentic expert in the room isn’t reading bullets and it’s not reading your notes. It’s being there and having the sharing of expertise. They’re there to learn from you and you should learn from them. Like if they’re asking questions, there’s a gap somewhere. Now you know.

[00:30:27.340] – Janice Summers

Yeah, that’s another really good point that you bring up because when you’re in a professional situation, oftentimes there’s a lot more interaction rather than when you’re representing at conferences it might be a little different. It might be that people are reserved and they’re not going to ask you questions until the end or they’re not going to ask you questions until they see you in the hall. But when you are professionally presenting,  you’re oftentimes in a conference room and they’re right there with you so they will interrupt and they will ask questions.

[00:31:01.570] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

They will and sometimes that conversation that happens because of those interruptions and that might be the best thing that happens all day.

[00:31:12.880] – Janice Summers

Exactly. And I think that’s the other thing that is harder, I think, from an engineering perspective, to let go of. I need to get through all of this material, I need to give all of this to you. Probably is it harder to let go that in favor of the extemporaneous conversation, the discourse that happens that’s spawned by a topic that you bring up. Maybe it’s one slide and there’s the sentence and it gets everybody involved, and you spend 20 minutes on that one point but you’ve only got an hour to talk. So you can’t get all the other points then.

[00:31:51.540] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

But obviously, the value that everybody in the room if that discussion has happened, that’s the value point. And the rest, if you’ve done your work and you’ve got stuff in your notes pane, it can be sent later or you schedule a follow-up meeting, or in some cases in like masters students will to say, yeah, we just worked through lunch because we were all in.

[00:32:15.450] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And that excitement does not happen if you’re reading bullets. So there’s something about having a distilled, pointed idea at the top and we really emphasize the point that that should be a complete sentence. Because the prompt — add a title. I wish that prompt would say “click to add your idea” or something else. Because clicking to add a title means you’re going to put a fragment of the introduction or results. And in that moment, you just put results up there, you got a bunch of data.

[00:32:56.870] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

What that does, at a very deep level, nobody consciously thinks about this but this is what’s happening in the back of our brains, is that everybody’s going, is this going to be good? Oh, my God, and what if it changes my workflow? And if it’s bad, that means I’m going to have to retool everything and di-di di-di di-di-di in that moment. But if you say instead, the results were very promising. Everybody goes, let’s hear. Nothing happens inside your head in that moment.

[00:33:31.440] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Or the results showed us that we have three things to work on. Okay, that’s great. It’s not 17 things to work on.

[00:33:39.010] – Janice Summers

It sets the expectations for the attendee. So is that a big shift at teaching people to think not from the information you need to communicate out, but from the audience that’s attending? 

[00:33:57.730] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

What do they need. What do they need when they walk out of this room, whether it’s a virtual room or a real one. What do they need when they go back to their desks. Do they need every single little teeny tiny detail? No, because they can email you and ask you for those data sheets. What do they need? So that’s usually a higher-order distilled thing, even if you’re talking about new materials for your spark plug, whatever.

[00:34:25.080] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Heard a great talk once from a Harley Davidson guy about a new spark plugs. It was a great talk. He made it awesome talking about that, stupid spark plugs, and he pulled it off because he was there. He was invested. It was what seemed really cool at the time. It was perfect and everybody went, Oh, my god, we should do the new spark plugs. That’s what we should do. It was so obvious because he had paid attention to what the audience would want rather than proving that he had looked down every single technical avenue and sussed out all the information.

[00:35:07.010] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

They assumed that’s what he did, that was his job. We needed to know how his research affected them. So that’s that shift. Slides have to be for your audience and the takeaways have to be for their audience.

[00:35:21.040] – Janice Summers

Well, and your presentation, that’s for the audience. And that’s something that’s inbred in everybody who’s in technical communication as a professional field.

[00:35:40.090] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

All your work is for someone else. Like Christine said, “Presentation. It’s a present.”

[00:35:45.400] – Janice Summers

Oh, I like that.

[00:35:47.530] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

I know she says it better than I do.

[00:35:52.180] – Liz Fraley

But it’s fascinating how… This ties back to what you were saying earlier to it’s how we kind of forget that that’s where our expertise is and we fit into what we think we’re supposed to do.

[00:36:05.120] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And the people who created PowerPoint, they were creating an organizational tool. They had no training in training. They had no training in working with people. They had no training in cognitive function. If you look at it, it is an index card, that’s what they meant to create and now they’re fancy.

[00:36:29.080] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And even Prezi is an index card. You can zoom in, zoom out, and you can do this, this and this and this. It is an index card. And Prezi is not great for a lot of things. It has its moments where it can be very useful. I like it for like a process, the movement is easier than if you’re designing it in slides, but it’s it has all the same bad underpinnings that PowerPoint does. It just can kind of move around and unless you know how to control that, you’ve taken a filmmaking class and you know how to control and manipulate pan and zoom, I would say don’t do it. I get motion sick from a lot of Prezis because people don’t know what the heck they’re doing.

[00:37:17.840] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And they’re not ADA accessible. They don’t plan to be. They openly state that. Yeah, so, which I thought was weird. Why are you not…? Hopefully, that’s changed. Maybe. I haven’t looked. I have to admit, I haven’t looked in like six months and… Which is too bad. It could be a useful tool to a lot of people, but that’s just me.

[00:37:52.630] – Janice Summers

So what are some of the key… I know, I know I need to go look at all my slides and say, am I writing sentences? This is what I did when I did it because I had to do slides and I’m present on camera too at the same time but I don’t like to put a lot of content on the slides because if I’m there talking to you, I want your attention and I want you to engage and I do better with engaged audiences. I don’t do good if I’m just talking to myself.

[00:38:29.020] – Janice Summers

I get better with engagement and that’s part of why you’re going to show up live with me is for that engagement. So I need to go back and look at my slides and say am I writing sentences because I don’t think I am.

[00:38:43.990] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

We often don’t and there’s a really interesting moment where people– they’re still writing titles, they’re just really long titles, they’re not sentences yet. Okay, think about how you would say this out loud as a human being. Make it a complete sentence. So there is that remembering your grammar moment. Subject, verb, object is what we usually like and that’s, of course, the kind of sentence we usually write in technical communication anyway. We answer all kinds of questions in the book with tons of FAQs where we get down into some nitty-gritty.

[00:39:22.360] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

But it’s an interesting moment, too, when people understand how much that sentence header changes everything. It changes for the audience, it changes it for you. I like to tell this story. So I had this student. She was something else. Super smart. Doing some really amazing work with plant imaging under the soil and I don’t know, using some new photography techniques. It was really stunning work and she had to take my class and she was not happy with me.

[00:40:03.550] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

We also have a story in our book about a guy who actually reported us, Christine and I, when we were teaching the graduate course to practicing professionals. He worked for a major automotive thing. He reported us because he was so mad that he had to do sentence headers and no bullets. But both of them, the story ends the same. Christine and I, because these atmospheres were like, okay, well, you have to deal with us anyway, we’re the teachers.

[00:40:32.430] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

So sometimes we pull out the teacher card even with the practicing professionals. And we say that you have to try it anyway. Okay, so this woman with the plant imaging, she was mad at me, in my office yelling at me. Not just steaming, right, like she was mad. Like you are so completely wrong. And I said, I don’t care, just do it my way, it’s just a grade who cares, just try it. So she gets to her big presentation and she’s done the thing, sentence header, high visuals.

[00:41:04.500] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

She had the best visuals around. She’d plants and cool photography and roots and all this imaging. And she’s giving her talk and she’s about two minutes in and it’s like it washed over her. She felt the power of not being beholden to her bullets.

[00:41:25.460] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Now I’m in the back of the room, she can’t really see me and all of a sudden she’s moving. She’s not gripping the podium and she’s going over and she’s pointing to the things on her slides, which she would not do in her practice session. It was a 180. It was stunning and all of her expertise just came out. Her voice was strong. She was standing up straight. She wasn’t hiding behind the podium. It was stunning. This happens again and again and again.

[00:41:56.060] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

And so when she was done, she packs up her stuff and the moment is over and she runs around to the back of the room and she just stood in front of me and she went–. I’m like, I know! Do you see this!

[00:42:04.920] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

We give an example of this in the book, this executive at this car… The one who filed a complaint against us. We are like just do it anyway. It’s just a grade, who cares, just do it. So then he reported back we couldn’t see the actual presentation because, again, proprietary concerns. So he gave this talk at work. With all these other practicing engineers was one of his underlings. So this executive gave his report back, he said actually it went really well and I’m completely surprised and I’m apologizing to Traci and Christine because this changed everything.

[00:42:50.620] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

It changed everything.

[00:42:52.330] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

His underling, brave soul, breaks into the meeting at this point and he goes, I’m going to tell you right now that after working with you for a decade, that was the first presentation where I ever understood what the hell you were talking about. It was stunning. It was stunning. Like everybody is so quiet and ooooh. And this happens so many times. We have all of these stories.

[00:43:19.090] – Janice Summers

This is good advice for everybody. If it’s not for you, get it for your boss, Slide Rules. Buy it for yourself. Buy it for your boss if they’re giving, you know. Buy it for an engineer you know and love.

[00:43:36.310] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Try it a little bit. Try it for a couple of three slides. If it’s not comfortable, you’re innovators, you’re experimenters. You know how to do control groups versus experimental groups. You know how to innovate and try something out and then retool it, hone it, try again.

[00:43:56.160] – Janice Summers

Break the mold. Break them up. Our time is up. We’ve gone a little over time. It’s so fun to talk with you and I could go on for longer, clearly. But yeah, absolutely, everybody get the book and the Cornell… Liz, did we share the link for the Cornell presentation?

[00:44:18.100] – Liz Fraley

It should be on the event page. If not, I will get it from Tracy. Her course starts in a week and a half, two weeks?

[00:44:24.970] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Something like that.

[00:44:27.100] – Liz Fraley

We should take it.

[00:44:28.840] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

They just shoot me an email saying it’s started and then my calendar perks up. But it’s a rolling enrollment so if you have any questions feel free to reach out I’ll get some answers for you.

[00:44:40.020] – Janice Summers

Right. So but if they’re inspired to they should sign up for the course.

[00:44:44.520] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

We talk about all the things we talked about today, but we talk about international work and accessibility and being in rooms and-

[00:44:52.140] – Janice Summers

Well you go so much deeper into things in the course. I mean, we don’t have time for that now. We have time to talk about the subject line. It’s just been so good to talk to you, Traci, really.

[00:45:08.220] – Liz Fraley

Tons of fun.

[00:45:08.220] – Janice Summers

Yes. Thank you so much for coming and thank you, everybody, for showing up and we’ll see you in the next Room 42.

[00:45:16.920] – Traci Nathans-Kelly

Thank you.

[00:45:18.210] – Liz Fraley

Thanks, Traci. Bye, everyone.

In this episode

Dr Traci Nathans-Kelly, is currently the Associate Director for the Engineering Communications Program at Cornell University, College of Engineering. Traci has taught technical, business, engineering, and scientific communication courses since 1989. She co-authored IEEE’s “English for Technical Professionals” online course, and she serves on the IEEE Educational Activities Board, the IEEE Continuing Education Committee, and the Editorial Board for IEEE’s Teaching Excellence Hub. Based on her extensive work in the field of presentation design, she co-authored the book, Slide Rules: Design, Build, and Archive Presentations in the Engineering and Technical Fields with Christine Nicometo, published by IEEE-Wiley. Her most recent online certificate for practicing professionals is “Technical Presentations,” offered through eCornell.

There are better and worse ways to calculate the multiple uses that any slide deck may have for a single project. We will discuss how to optimize the design of slides to 1) best support speakers in their live talks, and 2) create slide files that have lasting documentation, archival, or legacy value. Current default slide templates perpetuate the worst practices possible for content developers, audiences, and users alike; learn how to change those poor practices!

Dr. Traci Nathans-Kelly discusses how to create slides for technical presentations that support you and add value to your message. She is an expert in guiding STEM students in crafting better presentations and adopting habits that help them maximize the value of their slides. Imagine creating slides that not only support speakers in their live talks but have lasting archival value as well. Learn how to put a good presentation together rather than simply low value cue cards.




Slide Rules: Design, Build, and Archive Presentations in the Engineering and Technical Fields with Christine Nicometo, published by IEEE-Wiley

Watch her keynote, “Being Present: Giving Talks That Highlight Authentic Experience”:

Her eCornell course, Technical Presentations:

Mentioned during the session:

Michael Alley: The Craft of Scientific Presentations (undergrad focus, but applicable to all) and his website (with great templates, videos, TONS of materials) 

Nancy Duarte’s book Slide:ology. (more for marketing, but some great foundations here)

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