Figures in Talks Versus Papers

I am coming the realization that not everyone in space physics reads my blog and adheres to all of the advice that I sometimes dispense. I could be sad about this, but then I remember that I don’t read everything that all of you write, so we’re even. 🙂

Seriously, though, as I attend the Fall AGU Meeting this week, I have to bring up a point I made 6 months ago that the method of conveying your study to the community is very different between publication and presentation formats. In a publication (like a paper in JGR Space Physics), the reader controls her own pace through the material and can dwell on any paragraph, equation, or figure as long as she likes. In a presentation, especially an oral talk under a strict time constraint, like we have here at the Fall AGU Meeting, the speaker controls the pace and viewers have to pay attention to absorb the information. Therefore, the style has to be very simplistic compared to the presentation format and content level in a paper.

Concept image of a lost and confused signpost against a blue cloudy sky.

When a presenter blasts through slides with multi-paneled figures, the audience does not get the speaker’s point. The author will lose the attention of many people in the room. So, please get this message: you are not doing yourself any favors by cramming lots of plots on the same slide and then going through them at a breakneck pace. In addition, when the labeling is small or faint, the linestyles are too thin, or main features are not highlighted, it is difficult for the audience to quickly grasp the significance of the content. The laser pointer doesn’t actually help much, either, because it is often too bright to see the content exactly where it is focused and whipping it around blinding and confusing. In addition, the inclusion of multiple panels usually just distracts the viewers from keeping their attention on what you are talking about at that moment. Crowded, complicated figures in a talk are not beneficial and are actually detrimental to getting the message across to the audience.

Instead, please keep it simple. Put only one panel on the screen at a time, fill the whole screen with it, and make the labels as big as possible. Add circles, arrows, and annotations to keep eyes on what you are currently talking about. When it is time to talk about another panel, start fresh on a new slide. Maybe you can have two panels on the same slide, but more than that and you are risking obfuscation. Please, keep it clear and easy.

That is, it is often not a good choice to use the exact same figures in both the paper and the talk on some topic. I encourage you to remake everything for the presentation so that it can be understood at the cadence of a fast-paced science talk. For the paper, feel free to cram it in. In fact, it is cheaper: with the current publication fee system of one figure equaling one Publication Unit, it is useful to create multi-paneled figures to save money. The readers can stare at it as long as they wish, so as long as the font is readable, it’s fine to be complicated. In an oral presentation, however, please show them one at a time.


2 thoughts on “Figures in Talks Versus Papers

  1. Pingback: Communicating Science To Scientists | Notes from the JGR-Space Physics Editor-in-Chief

  2. Pingback: Carefully Plan Your Figures | Notes from the JGR-Space Physics Editor-in-Chief

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