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Be like the sword-billed hummingbird: Create presentations that stand out from the crowd

October 01, 2018 5:31 PM | Deven Wisner

Do you want to make a positive social impact with your work? 

When you work with clients, when you present your research...why do you do it? 

Is it just a CV-builder? If so, then this probably isn’t for you :) But my guess is that it's because you actually want people to be inspired and motivated enough to use that information for social good. 

When you present about the strengths of a program or policyI'm guessing it's because you your clients to keep those elements. 

When you present about the weaknesses of a program or policy, I'm guessing it's because you want them to implement changes to improve those things.

You get the point. 

But what if I told you that you'll probably never achieve that goal if you're presenting in the standard way. 

You've heard of the "Standard American Diet" (SAD) right? Well I'm calling this the "Standard Academic Delivery" (also SAD). 

Here's what the SAD looks like:

  • Slides that consistently have 50+ words per slide.
  • Presentations that follow the 1 minute per slide rule.
  • Presentations with no storytelling, passion, excitement, or enthusiasm. 
  • Overwhelming presentations that have too much information and not enough audience engagement. 
  • Presentations that aren't well-rehearsed. 
  • Presenters who say things like, "Oh that's a lot of text, I'm not going to read all that." *next slide*
  • Dataviz that's just graphs/charts copied & pasted from a pub. 
  • No visuals. 
  • Visuals that are word clouds, puzzle pieces, hands shaking, or bubble men (WTF ARE THOSE OMG).
  • Presentations where the main "visual" is a slide template

Evaluators aren’t immune from this just because they aren’t (always) “academics.”

So how can you prevent yourself from following the SAD? It is, after all, standard...which means it's the status quo. That's both good news and bad news. 

The bad news is that is there's a lot of pressure and nay-saying to keep people following the status quo. Any time you're going against the status quo, you will have people trying to convince you to "get back in line." Just remember: That's usually because they don't want the bar raised and they don't want to be required to put more effort into their presentations. When they tell you that effective, visual presentations are unprofessional, they're wrong. What's unprofessional about creating presentations that inspire people to act? That increase the retention of scientific or academic information? That increase the accessibility of complex info? That's exactly what professionalism is to me. 

Look. There's a reason #DeathByPowerpoint is the SAD--it's easy. 

The good news is that most presentations are boring, ineffective, and unengaging. If you get started on creating better presentations now, then you actually don't have to do all that much to create presentations that stand out for being awesome! You can learn the basics and stand out, and then increase your skills from there to be even more awesome.

Don't wait until most people are creating awesome presentations because then you'll be scrambling to catch up. 

This is something that even hummingbirds can demonstrate. Let's check in on my friend, the sword-billed hummingbird, so I can show you what I mean. 

Please keep in mind that I'm not a scientist who studies birds, so this is a highly simplified summary with a sprinkle of Echo Flair :) 

OK, so here's the setup.  

We're in South America, and there are lots of flowers and pretty hummingbirds here.

Which is kinda cool, we have a nice community of hummingbirds here...except there's also a lot of competition for food. A single flower's nectar only goes so far, amirite? 

That was like, super stressful, for some hummingbirds at one point. I can relate to that. It's kinda like being anti-capitalist in a capitalist society. I hate competing with folks. I'd rather we just, I dunno, collaborated and sh*t to end all these problems. But hey. I'm just one person.

Anyway. Then evolution happened and a new hummingbird came along: the sword-billed hummingbird. Unlike these standard hummingbirds, this one has a really long bill. It probably didn't want to mutate and be different. It probably just wanted more flowers to be available, but hey.Evolution, amirite?

So I want you to guess: how do you think that turns into an advantage for this hummingbird? 

If you guessed that it can essentially cut in line to reach that flower first, you'd be ...


Their long bill let's them bypass the whole competitive environment altogether. 

Their long bill let's them access whole new--really long--flowers, like those in the Passiflora and Datura family. 

As a result, this hummingbird effectively has no competition (from other hummingbirds) for food. 

Think about it. That's a less stressful existence for this hummingbird. It can float around the flowers, bypassing the crowd, and achieve its food goals without worrying about others. 

I want you to have that same advantage when you're presenting your work. 

The hummingbirds are born the way they are--they have no choice to have either a short bill or a long bill. Luckily, you have a choice when it comes to designing ineffective presentations or engaging presentations. 

Right now, the SAD is ineffective presentations. But, there's nothing to say that pretty soon the SAD will be effective, engaging, awesome presentations. In fact, I'm trying to change the SAD from #DeathByPowerpoint to #InspiredByPowerpoint. 

So now I ask you: Would you rather be part of this movement with me? Or, would you rather be sucker punched in 5 years and realize that now your slides stand out for being ineffective :( 

Clearly, I want you to join me. But here's some more illustrations to make my point even clearer (hopefully). 

An Illustrated Story of the Standard Academic Delivery (SAD)

People using the SAD start with slide templates. 

And then type their entire presentation and read from their slides to their audience, apologizing for this (but still doing it every time). When they realize they're running out of time they start saying things like, "Oh that's a lot of text, I'm not going to read that to you" ... and then skip a few slides.

Pretty soon, a pattern emerges across presenters. All templates, almost all text, no good storyboard or storytelling, and no inspiration. The audience is bored, stares at their phone, wondering why these always feel like a waste of time. 

Not a single audience member thinks, "Well, at least they're being professional!" 

But then a breath of fresh air comes along.

Someone who actually practiced the presentation beforehand and delivers it with enthusiasm. Someone who doesn't use a template, uses effective information design principles, and uses the slides as a visual complement rather than as their speaker notes. 

The audience is actually interested, engaged, and checking their phone approximately 50% less this time. They feel like they learned something new, feel empowered to act, and actually want to get to know this presenter more and make a note to network with them later. 

Which one do you want for you?

I know which one I want for you :)

Want more tips? I’ve made a free download available that has more effective presenting tips. You can down download those presentation tips here.  

About the author

Hi! I’m Dr. Echo Rivera, owner of Creative Research Communications, LLC via echorivera.com. My passion is helping researchers, academics, scientists, and evaluators become effective visual communicators. I love training folks on how to create astronomically awesome slide presentations for lectures, conferences, and workshops. I also love to draw comics and want to see more comics used in research, evaluation, and teaching. I’d love to connect with you on twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn.

psst...this blog includes copyrighted illustrations I made. You can share this post widely, but if you want to use these, email me first!

This blog post is an adapted version of an article that originally appeared on Echo's blog

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