Your talk toolbox: Making great scientific presentations

This is the second post in a series on scientific presentation design.

In a paper, give me enough to draw my own interpretations. In a presentation, give me your interpretation.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in a decade of giving scientific presentations, it’s this: the software doesn’t make the slides, you do.

It’s true, Keynote will help you make better looking presentations than does PowerPoint. But to really unleash Keynote’s power (and your own creative energy), you need a broader assortment of tools. Here are mine:

Stock images

Let’s start this discussion with a healing cleanse. Try this:

  • Breathe in deeply, expanding your diaphragm, holding your core steady.
  • Search your hard drive for all “clip art.”
  • Select all. Press delete.
  • Release the air slowly and resume your activities.

OK, now let’s proceed. Good presentations start [and usually end] with good images. I don’t mean cartoons. You know the maxim: “a picture is worth a thousand words?”

It’s true.

It doesn’t apply to cartoons.

Most presenters can greatly reduce their use of on-slide text by using a strong image-based background. That’s right, I’m recommending that you reject the template.

Let’s face it. Most templates are hideous. They constrain creativity and are mostly designed for uses other than science. So why do we use them? I suspect most think: 1) they help with marketing, 2) by standardizing the background, people will focus on the content, 3) it’s convention, 4) we don’t know any alternative testing approaches.

If you believe #1-3, let’s talk. Otherwise, keep reading.

Imagine that you’re doing a talk on poverty, health inequities, children’s health, or global health. How about this as your background?


Or, this:


These images look great, but that’s not all. See how each contains open space for text? That makes them ideal backgrounds.

Here’s how I used an image in a recent talk.

Screen Shot 2013-04-10 at 9.06.15 AM

(Incidentally, this is a good example of a slide is still way too text heavy. More on that next time).

So, where do you get these great images? There are tons of great search sites for royalty-free images, but I use The site searches a bunch of repositories for stock photos. All are free for non-commercial use (be sure to check the rights statements, but in most cases you can acknowledge the photographer in the slide notes).

Pro tip: Always search for the largest image possible. Large size usually means high resolution. Because your slide is likely to be projected on a large screen, you want to make sure that it isn’t pixelated. If it’s only available in a small size (say, smaller than 1024×768), move on.

Design inspiration

When you get stuck (and even before getting there, check out Note and Point. There are great presentations here, on a wide range of topics. Those in the tech world often have fewer constraints than we do, so ignore the content and focus on the design.


Why use Times New Roman or Arial or Cambria? Just like the right image, a strong font can greatly improve the “feel” — not to mention the readability — of your your slide text.

There’s been surge of interest in typography, with enough font options to make you dizzy. Easiest option? Head over to Google Fonts where you’ll find tons of font choices (and a nice preview interface). Note that Google Fonts is primarily intended to make it easy to use great typography on the web. To use a font in your presentation, click the download arrow on the upper right side of the screen. Install your font and your presentation will read as good as it looks.


One should use video sparingly, but it can be hugely effective. My favorite design device — setting a video as my slide’s background. The video moves in the background behind [just a little] text. I often use this to show people using our digital health technologies, while descriptive text appears in the foreground.

Let’s say that you’d like to include some stock video from YouTube. Of course, they don’t make it easy to download videos (given concerns re copyright infringement). So what to do if you want to use video in a non-commercial scientific talk?

Pro tip: Add “pwn” in front of the regular YouTube URL (e.g. becomes

Now that you have the right toolbox, you’re almost ready.

Coming up next: 5 rules for making high-quality scientific presentations.