Most presentations that I see start with a title slide, followed by an overview slide that is intended to convey the structure of a presentation. This is a bad way to start your presentation — overview slides are generally boring, unnecessary and samey. If you want to improve your presentation, get rid of that overview slide! This post will expand on why overview slides are a bad thing.
Talks don’t need a table of contents
Compare an overview slide to a table of contents in a report. Think: why is a table of contents useful? It’s useful for a report because you probably won’t read the report from start to finish in one go. A table of contents allows you to jump straight to the part you’re interested in, either because you’re not going to read the whole report, or because you’ve read it before, and want to refer back to one particular section. To allow you to jump, the table of contents has page numbers or hyperlinks.
None of these table-of-contents advantages apply to slides in a live talk. The audience can’t jump forward in your presentation (much as they might wish they could). They can’t just pick out the one part they want to listen to. In pretty much all talks, the audience is captive. The vast majority are going to be sitting there for the duration — so don’t bore them by giving them an overview of what they’re about to see anyway.
The audience don’t need to know your talk structure
Some people advocate overview slides (or similar) to help the audience know what is coming. Michael Alley, in his book “The Craft of Scientific Presentations”, claims that there are four things the audience want to know about your talk:
- What exactly is the subject?
- Why is this subject important?
- What background is needed to understand the subject?
- In what order will the subject be presented?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never worried at the start of talk about the order in which the presenter will cover the material. Going to a talk is all too often like getting your teeth pulled by the dentist: you don’t care which one he’s going to do first, you just want to get it over and done with. I’m not averse to having a slide introducing the topic (to answer the first two questions above, which I do agree with) — but you don’t need to explain the structure of your talk. Introduce the topic, and why it’s relevant, then get to the interesting content ASAP. An overview of the structure doesn’t help — it just delays the start of the content.
Overviews are samey and obvious
Most overview slides are dull as ditchwater, and are obvious even before you attend the talk. In fact, they are probably just a copy of all the other overview slides that the audience have seen before. For research talks, the overview can mostly be boiled down to:
Don’t fill up your time (which is almost always precious in presentations) with this obvious nonsense. Get to the good stuff as early as you can in your presentation. The first few minutes are fairly vital to engage the audience and stop them zoning out (or turning to their email on their laptops). Putting a boring overview slide at the beginning of the talk is an especially bad thing to do, as it eats up the time when they’re paying some attention, and just bores them. Get rid of it!
Postscript: the rare occasions that an overview might be useful
The only use I have ever found for an overview-like slide was when the presentation was going to start on a markedly different topic to where it would end up, or the thread of the presentation was going to be particularly hard to follow (itself a danger sign!). In this case, it might be useful to have an explanation at the beginning as to why you appear to be veering off-topic (but this could just be verbal), or to have a central organisation slide that you can refer back to, to show how the pieces fit into a larger thread. But even if you do this, try not to make it a bulleted list.
Here’s an example of a slide I used in a talk where I wanted to first explain two obvious solutions to the problem, and why I didn’t take them, then explore three different aspects of the work. Here’s how I could have done it with a bulleted list that I slowly built up through the talk, and how I actually did it with a literal roadmap diagram that I built up through the talk:
I wonder if the roadmap ended up being not quite as clear as it could be at first glance, but I think I’d still take it over the bulleted list. And to be honest, I think the fact that I needed that slide probably showed that the talk was a bit too ambitious in what I was trying to include in it.