Archives for the month of: February, 2013


Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, the case before us is a straightforward one: the crime obvious, the perpetrators guilty and their conviction assured.  This is a crime of which we are all victims, and the charge I speak of is one of slide crime.  Anyone who has attended a large conference where there are many and varied speakers or who has, as a student, enjoyed and endured a succession of lecturers, will have witnessed slide crime and suffered because of it.  Unfortunately, this crime abounds and in some fields it is reaching epidemic proportions.  Every eyewitness can describe his or her own experiences.

These five are real life examples that happened at recent meetings I attended.

  1. ‘This slide is terrible and I apologise, but….’ the speaker announced with sham regret and more than a little ‘well I’m so busy and important I don’t really have time to fix it’.  The slide in question had 46 lines of text – I counted them.
  2. ‘Just look at this part here and ignore the rest.’  The slide was a photograph of a composite figure from a journal article and had eight separate panels with a different graph in each.  The figure we were being asked to focus on occupied no more than 10% of the slide.
  3. ‘In conclusion…’ the speaker said as he showed a beautiful picture of a sunset, over which were listed several bullet points written in a red comic sans font, all of which made the slide a veritable canine feast.
  4. As one slide transitioned to the next we were treated to an assortment of animal noises.  The presentation was not about animals.
  5. ‘I’m sorry this table is incomplete – I downloaded it from the internet and the last two columns dropped off.  Unfortunately that’s the important bit – so I’ll just talk you through it.’  Need I say more?

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, the case for the prosecution rests.

There are simple rules for making good slides, but most presenters are either not aware of them or do not feel they apply to them.  I suspect it is the latter.  The application of these rules generally results in simpler, cleaner, less cluttered slides, but many lecturers apparently see simplicity as something undesirable, preferring to present more rather than less, in case their lectures will be deemed simplistic and therefore insubstantial.

In this respect, the approach of the renowned architect Mies van der Rohe is appropriate – ‘Less is more’, he counselled, and he was right.

Some think simplicity will betray them, leading the chairman, the other speakers and the audience to conclude that their work itself is simple, and therefore lightweight, just because they are explaining it in a simple fashion.  In fact, simplicity is appreciated by audiences the world over. Indeed, it was Leonardo da Vinci who said, ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,’ although admittedly he did say it backwards and written in code.   If you prefer your inspiration a little less esoteric and a little more up to date, Coco Chanel said, ‘Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.’  Or, in other words, when it comes to slides, think: little black dress.

Clear, concise messages unadorned by the complexity that is possible through modern technologies, delivered in a simple unassuming style will usually win the day. As you gain experience and confidence you will develop your own style, but this should never be at the expense of the simplicity with which you began. Great presenters have style, but they also have clarity and above all, simplicity. Never mistake simplicity for lack of content.

Thus, keeping it simple is a highly desirable approach, and one that your audience will welcome.  To help, I have repackaged the basic rules of slide design into a simple five-step process.  You can remember this approach using the following mnemonic – SWIPE.  This stands for Style, Words, Images, Palette and Extras.

1. Style – pick one and stick with it.  Make the background simple and contrasting with any words or images on the slide.  Avoid background graphics and don’t clutter the slide with unnecessary affiliations, logos or meaningless clipart.

2. Words – most slides have too many words on them and the single most important thing you can do to improve your slides is to cut the text.  Have no more than 5-7 lines of text (and that includes the title line and any footer) and in each line have no more than 5-7 words.  For those who mistakenly believe that their slides are their script, this is of course impossible to achieve.  But, remember your slides are not your script, they are your visual aids and it is the audience they are supposed to be aiding, not you.  Use a font size and style that is easy to read from the back of the room.  This means nothing less that about 24 and a style that is sans-serif (i.e. without twiddley bits) such as Ariel or Verdana.

3. Images – pictures are the most important things on your slides. You can, after all, say the words but you can’t say the pictures.  Make them clear and as big as possible and if you are using graphs make sure you spend sufficient time walking the audience through them.  Don’t just flash your graphs, but explain the axes and what the graph means.

4. Palette – think about colours.  Make sure you use a high contrast between your text and the background e.g. dark blue and white or yellow, or even black and white.  Avoid red-green combinations and if possible avoid red altogether, for despite appearing bright on your laptop’s screen, when projected it will be dull and difficult to see.  Be consistent with your colour scheme and if possible limit your palette. Just because you can use a million colours doesn’t mean you should.

5.  Extras – bells, whistles, animal sounds, video clips and animation all have their place but should be used very sparingly.  An appropriate video clip may bring a presentation to life, but, equally, an inappropriate one or the overuse of cute animated gifs may be at best irritating and at worst deadly.

In conclusion, it is worth acknowledging the subjective nature of this topic. For every pointer I offer there will be a presenter somewhere, who either disagrees with me or who thinks that my point is simply irrelevant. I would argue, however, that these rules are not about artistic niceties, but about whether your audience can see your slides, read them and assimilate your points quickly.  Unless they can do this, your presentation will not be enhanced by your slides and may even be destroyed by them.  If, on the other hand, you do follow these pointers you will produce slides that are clear, simple and that go a long way to enriching your presentation rather than diminishing it.

© Allan Gaw, 2013

You can read more about my thoughts on how to give a good presentation in my book: Our Speaker Today: A Guide to Effective Lecturing or in my e-Article Speakeasy: 7 Ingredients for Effective Presentations both of which are available on Kindle.

My books available on kindle:

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“I want to work in medicine.  I’ve been reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and it’s amazing, but I wonder if you could recommend some other books.” My questioner was a teenage girl who had waited patiently to speak to me at the end of a lecture I had delivered at her school. The lecture, entitled On Moral Grounds, was about the ethics of clinical research, and it had been a special pleasure to speak to the group of 50 or so 13-18 year olds who had come along, and more specifically to answer their questions. Questions, I might add, that would have been searching even if they had come from professionals three times their age.

I thought about her question and, in truth, I am still thinking about it. What would I recommend a young person to read to ignite and further fan the flames of their enthusiasm for a medical career?  Some obvious titles sprung to mind, but what had I read that had done it for me?  And, how could I be sure that those books would have the same effect on others?

All I can offer, I decided, is a list of my favourites past and current – some obvious, some more obscure and others perhaps surprising.

So here are my top ten reads for would-be medics and why.

The Double Helix by James D. Watson.

Now, we all know (or at least those who read my blog know) that I am not fond of James Watson.  But, that’s just a personal thing. Professionally, he is a giant. And, his stature is in part due to his autobiographical account of the discovery of the structure of DNA in this book.  It is the kind of scientific detective story that would make anyone want to join up.  The fact that the reality of science is not quite like Watson’s account is almost unimportant.  His shabby treatment of Rosalind Franklin in the book and his casual approach to the intellectual property of others all add to the mystique of this early1950s story of the goings on in Cambridge and London.

The Discovery of Insulin by Michael Bliss.

I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture given by the Canadian author of this book when he visited Glasgow and it was simply the best lecture I ever heard.  The story of the discovery and first clinical use of insulin is one of intrigue and excitement every bit as great as the discovery of the structure of DNA, but is one much less well known.  The author is a distinguished medical historian working in Toronto where much of this story of discovery takes place.

Yellow Jack by John R. Pierce & Jim Writer

This book is subtitled: “How yellow fever ravaged America and Walter Reed discovered its deadly secrets.”  Like the first two books this is another unraveling of a medical mystery.  It is also a tale of clinical research in action and an important milestone in the development of clinical research ethics.

Notes on Nursing by Florence Nightingale

Healthcare is often about opening the windows, changing the sheets and emptying the chamber pots.  Simple things done very well and consistently may make all the difference.  But, Nightingale was more than an advocate of cleanliness in the sick room, she was also well ahead of her time in recognising the importance of observation and recording in clinical care and in clinical research.  “…it must never be lost sight of what observation is for,” she writes,  “It is not for the sake of piling up miscellaneous information or curious facts, but for the sake of saving life and increasing health and comfort.”

It is surprising how many nurses have never read anything written by their founder and I recommend this short paperback for anyone who is contemplating a career in nursing or any of the caring professions. She may be a little out of fashion, but why not read and decide for yourself?

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

The emergence of a deadly influenza virus, at the close of the First World War, that would claim the lives of 100 million people is charted here with forensic precision and transformed into a moving narrative of great breadth.  Lest we draw a modern parallel with the rise and spread of HIV/AIDS we are reminded by the author that influenza killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS has in 24 years.

The Body in Question by Jonathan Miller

This book was originally published in 1980 and was reprinted in 2000.  It was written to accompany Miller’s ground-breaking television series of the same name in the late 1970s, which was largely responsible for making me write “Medicine” on my UCAS application.  You can watch with wonder the series on YouTube, including the first-ever televised autopsy, and marvel at Miller’s analogies in the book.  The text is as fresh and relevant today as when it was written over thirty years ago

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

This is a short book, but the effort needed to write it was nothing short of herculean.  The author was the Editor-in-Chief of French Elle.  His life changed forever when he suffered a massive stroke that left him almost completely paralysed.  He was able to move only one eyelid and with this he “dictated” this memoir from inside the prison of his body.  Many books claim to be about the “triumph of the human spirit”, but this one actually is.

The Citadel by A. J. Cronin

I never wanted to confine this list to non-fiction.  The greatest truths are often to be found in fiction, and the clearest expositions of what it is to be a doctor are perhaps to be found in the characters created by doctors who become authors.  There are others you could pick – Chekhov or Bulgakov – but this was the one that made the biggest impact on me.  Written in 1937, Cronin describes the idealism of a young Scottish doctor in a world before the National Health Service. In part a love story, and in part a semi-autobiographical account of medical practice, this is one to move you and motivate you to do better.

Talking Heads by Alan Bennett

These monologues will allow you to travel into the minds of the lonely, the disturbed, the manipulated, the mentally ill and the frustrated and they will ease the journey with humour and breathtaking poignancy.  If medicine requires you to understand all kinds of people, here are some you may not have met yet.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Few of us can write as well as Orwell, which means few of us have the ability to describe the injuries or diseases that afflict us.  Orwell was shot during the Spanish Civil War and is able to describe his experience in this book with all the power and skill he possessed.  To understand injury fully you have to experience it, but not necessarily first hand if you are fortunate enough to have a patient like Orwell.

I was sorry to have been unable to answer my young questioner at the time.  I did give her a copy of my own book, on which the lecture had been based.  However, that was far from adequate. Curiosity and enquiry deserve reward, and it was all I had.  Perhaps, by way of this list, I can now offer her and others like her something more substantial.  If you have your own suggestions, I would be interested to know.

© Allan Gaw, 2013

My books available on kindle:

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