Talks don’t get better than this

We scientists [should] spend a lot of our time thinking about how to convey information in a manner that will activate an audience. Jobs’ introduction of the iPhone is a master class in giving a compelling talk. Jobs wasn’t a perfect orator — he had a odd cadence, was a little stiff at times, and wasn’t as warm as the best speakers. But Jobs had passion and you feel that in the iPhone keynote. It’s best passage:

This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two-and-a-half years.

Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that
changes everything. … One’s very fortunate if you get to work on just
one of these in your career.

Apple’s been very fortunate. It’s been able to introduce a few of
these into the world. In 1984, we introduced the Macintosh. It didn’t
just change Apple, it changed the whole computer industry. In 2001, we
introduced the first iPod, and it didn’t just change the way we all
listen to music, it changed the entire music industry.

Well, today, we’re introducing three revolutionary products of this

The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls.

The second is a revolutionary mobile phone.

And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device.

So, three things: a widescreen iPod with touch controls; a
revolutionary mobile phone; and a breakthrough Internet communications
device. An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a
phone … are you getting it?

These are not three separate devices, this is one device, and we are
calling it iPhone.

Healing the poor, digitally

(In case you’re looking for something to take your mind off the election, watch this).

I was thrilled to close out the Duke Forward road events in New York City, along with my graduate student colleague, Shelley Lanpher. Shelley and I talked about our work using digital health to improve obesity treatment in medically vulnerable populations.

Oh, and make sure you #waitforit — there’s a “surprise” reveal at the end.

How do you pitch an innovative idea? Portion control.

One of the key challenges in a new-ish area like digital health is not being too innovative when pitching new ideas. This piece from Derek Thompson does a great job of explaining the challenge:

Knowledge doesn’t just turn us into critical thinkers. It maybe turns us into over-critical thinkers.

That’s absolutely been my experience —  in NIH study section meetings, product pitches, and brainstorming sessions.

Thompson’s solution? Portion control.

Most people really don’t like new ideas that sound entirely new, particularly the experts that often have to approve them. The trick is learning to frame new ideas as old ideas—to make your creativity seem, well, not quite so creative.

Thanks to WIC

I had a wonderful time today speaking at the national WIC association meeting. It’s rare to see such an amazing group of uniformly passionate and committed people. Hope to visit with y’all again soon.

Join me at the National WIC meeting


I’ll be speaking at the upcoming National WIC Association meeting in Pittsburgh, PA on Tuesday May 20, 3:30-4:30pm. I’ll be performing an acoustic version of my favorite standard:

When Obesity Becomes the Norm, What Do We Do?

I’m sure you know WIC, but for the other 2 of you:

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is a public health nutrition program under the USDA providing nutrition education, nutritious foods, breastfeeding support, and healthcare referrals for income-eligible women who are pregnant or post-partum, infants, and children up to age 5.

Hope to see you there.

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.

Using Keynote in a Powerpoint world: Making great scientific presentations

This is the first in a series on scientific presentation design.

I only have a few pet peeves. Stop snickering, honey.

Here they are:
1. Flip flops.
2. Use of the term “emails.” “Email” is plural.
3. One doesn’t “use tracked changes.” One simply tracks his/her changes.
4. The assumption that everyone uses PowerPoint. Even if most do. You see, in my opinion, no one should.

Much has been said about the abomination that is the PowerPoint slide deck. Academics are particularly PowerPoint challenged. We generally think it’s okay to splatter the screen with rows of data, as long as we preface the reveal by saying, “this is a busy slide.”

Perhaps inspired by TED and IGNITE, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in designing high-quality presentations. Several people have asked about my own workflow — so here goes.

Step 1. Get Keynote. Lose PowerPoint.

There are many good reasons to use Keynote over PowerPoint. Much has been written about the technical differences between the two. But here’s the key issue:

Keynote presentations look better.

No, really. Remember Al Gore’s little Academy Award-winning documentary [that everyone said was done is PowerPoint]? Nope. Keynote. Keynote is like a Monet to PowerPoint’s Thomas Kincaid. It’s like the skies of Phuket compared to those of Beijing. It’s like Duke versus UNC. Get my point?

So get Keynote.

But here’s the problem. PowerPoint-centrism is rampant. I give about two dozen talks each year and it seems that, independent of venue, organizers are becoming increasingly rabid about getting my slides early so they can “load them into PowerPoint.” When I’m the main course, I usually go all Jennifer Lopez and insist that I be able to present using my Mac. Otherwise, I’ll surrender. That brings me to problem #2.

Keynote doesn’t play nice with PowerPoint. It isn’t for lack of trying – Keynote can export a PowerPoint file. But it’s sort of like when you try one of those fun “DIY projects. [Usually] it just doesn’t turn out right. After hours of preparation to get my slides looking just right, there are few things worse than seeing them after a PowerPoint export. So here’s my Keynote to PowerPoint workflow.

Step 2. Export as a PDF.

Keynote allows you to export your slides as a PDF. Use the settings shown below to ensure that you have the highest resolution export, minus all of the extras. Note that at this point, you will not be able to modify your presentation. So do this when you’re absolutely finished editing your talk.

When I create a presentation that includes some animation (which you should probably limit as a rule), I will check the “print each stage of builds” option. This is really important for a reason that I will mention in just a moment.

During the export, Keynote will create a PDF file that is essentially a snapshot of each slide from your presentation. The file size will be huge, especially if you’ve used high resolution images. If you want to know why, bug me. For most though, it’s enough to know that from here on, your file sizes will be much bigger than normal.

Step 3. Make a new Keynote file from your PDF

Next, go get this program: PDF to Keynote. Amazingly, this program is free. This little app will take your PDF and turn it into a Keynote presentation file.

Open your .pdf in PDF to Keynote. For most, the settings below should work wonderfully:

Press Command-S to save your new Keynote file. Name it something that will allow you to differentiate it from your original Keynote presentation.

Step 4. Export a PowerPoint file from Keynote

Almost done. Now, open the Keynote file that PDF to Keynote just created. Choose Export, and choose the PowerPoint option. You will now have a .ppt file that includes a perfectly formatted version of your original Keynote presentation. It will show beautifully, everywhere.

Why all the run around?
It’s actually a pretty complicated programming task to allow interoperability between apps as sophisticated as these. So in the meantime, what we’re doing is creating images for each page of your original Keynote file and, only then, asking Keynote to export a .ppt. You can’t mess up exporting a bunch of images (at least not too badly).

This may seem like a lot of work, but trust me — it’s worth it.

A note about transitions, animations, movement, oh my.
I’ll talk about animation in an upcoming post. For now, keep it simple. Let’s say that you are using an “Appear” animation to make bullets show sequentially. When you export the PDF, Keynote will create a separate page for each step of the animation. So for the “Appear” animation, you’ll get 2 pages — one without the bullet and one with it. Once you’ve exported your PowerPoint file, it’ll be the same. So in your presentation, you’ll simply advance through your animations — much the same way that you would anyway. However, if you use more complex animations, you’ll need to do a lot more clicking. That’s why I recommend keeping it simple.

Coming up next: Assembling the right tools to make high-quality scientific presentations.