Jeremy Côté

Give The Easy Examples

You’re giving a presentation. Mindful that you should ease people into your topic, you start gentle. Things are going great, and then you go to your first example. When planning your talk, you had an easy example, but then you figured that people would think it was too easy. So you added a more complex one, closer to something you were studying in your work.

The result? Blank faces from everyone.

This is the curse of the expert. What seems easy to you is only a result of studying this idea for a long time.

For those seeing your work for the first time, chances are your definition of a “simple” example is probably much more complicated than it needs to be. If you want people to hang on in your presentation, don’t rush to complicate things. Simple examples are good. Simple examples with diagrams to illustrate your point are even better.

Think about a presentation you’ve recently attended. After the person switches to a new slide, how long do you remember what was on that previous slide? If you’re anything like me, your attention span may be a few minutes at best. There’s no way you’re going to remember it for a long time, unless it was particularly vivid. So imagine how much worse this becomes when you give a complicated example!

Save your complicated examples for the paper. That’s where you can dig into the details. When giving a talk (unless it’s a very technical one), it pays to spend the time on easy and simple examples. They will latch onto the mind of your audience, and it gives them a stepping stone to understanding the conceptual part of your work.

It’s all about fitting your presentation to the goal. If you want to convey an idea across, a simple example is often enough (and the best way) to do the job.

This is why I like comics and metaphors. They give the mind an anchor to remember a concept. If I can map a difficult scientific concept to a comic I’ve seen or drawn, it makes it easier to recall later on. Will these capture everything about the idea? Of course not. But by giving the audience easy examples, you’re saving them the trouble of digging through their mind to remember what you touched on twenty minutes ago in the presentation.

Giving a good scientific presentation is an art. It’s not an audiobook version of your paper. If you want people to actually remember the ideas you were trying to transmit, don’t burden them with the tough examples. Give them the gentle ones, and if they are curious, they will ask for more later.