By Fraser Raeburn |

Every time I go to a conference, I’m struck by the different approaches people take to visual aids. Some people are really good at it. Most people are, to put it in technical terms, meh. Some people need to cut their losses and just stop.

Those people who do manage to use PowerPoint well tend to be those who have actually thought about what they want to achieve and how to do it. Of course, none of us got into academia to waste time thinking, so to save everyone the effort I’ve thought about the most common approaches to presentation slides, and their advantages and disadvantages. Because I’m nice like that.

meeting“We just don’t understand why you persist in making such transparently false claims”

1. Compensating for a lack of footnotes

To start with my own personal philosophy, just because it’s easiest: I use slides because I feel deeply uncomfortable just saying things without providing references.  As a historian, I have been deeply conditioned to supplement anything even vaguely controversial with a footnote, and their absence from a spoken paper causes me deep existential angst. Slides offer a sneaky way of showing the audience some of your evidence using excerpts or images of documents in a way that allows for proper referencing, and therefore the ability to sleep at night.


  • No creativity needed!
  • Saves time by not having to actually read out long quotes
  • Long quotes/excerpts mean that bored people have something to read while waiting for you to finish


  • Usually lacks bright colours or other stimuli, therefore less effective for keeping people awake
  • Reveals to the audience just how bad you are at taking photos of documents

IMG_6642The blank white bits are where the REAL secrets lie.

2. Summarising what you just said 

I think of this as repurposing lecture slides – a blow by blow summary of the talk so that people who aren’t listening/didn’t show up can still get the gist of things. When used as an outline providing structure and context this can be fine. When used in excess, it starts to feel like you’re resigned to the fact that no one is listening to you. When taken to extremes, it looks like you resent having to talk at all and just wish people could read the bloody paper for themselves.


  • Can help people keep up/find their place again if they fall asleep briefly
  • Easily converted to/from teaching materials


  • Dull for anyone actually listening
  • Adds little in terms of depth or enhancement to your talk

3. Striking visuals

This one can stem from a variety of motivations. Maybe you work with pretty stuff, and want to rub it in the faces of everyone who just gets to work with plain, boring paper. If your methodology is based on physical or visual material, then showing it to the audience avoids forcing the less exciting academics present to actually use their imaginations. Maybe you went to art school and are ridiculously good at making great-looking slides. The danger here lies if you just ticked the ‘none of the above’ box – some topics just aren’t visually striking, and attempting to make them so is difficult at best and actively distracting at worst.


  • Audience likely to be perked up by bright colours or pretty things
  • Easy to reuse for cross-promotion on Twitter
  • If you go the whole nine yards and use Prezi, everyone will be slightly seasick and in no condition to ask questions afterwards


  • Time consuming to do well
  • Not everyone was born equal in terms of design skill, artistic talent or photogenic topics
  • Inevitably leads to the temptation to use white text on black backgrounds
  • Friends will constantly pester you to make slides for them

aloneGenerally not a problem I face, for several reasons.

4. Including information you don’t have time to say

This is by far my least favourite method of using visual aids. It does bear some resemblance to my own use of slides as references, but with the key difference that the talk often doesn’t directly engage with what is on screen.These are the people who have bitten off more than they can chew in terms of the breadth of their topic, or at the very least have no idea of how to filter relevant versus irrelevant information. Slides in this category are generally full to the brim with diagrams, definitions and information, little of which is actually discussed or referred to out loud. My suspicion is that they want plausible deniability if they are challenged for not adequately dealing with something – ‘I think you’ll find I addressed your point in the lower right quadrant of slide 31’.


None. You’re a bad person.


  • Distracting if you try and follow it all, useless if you don’t try and follow it all
  • Ugly as sin
  • Demonstrates that you either are incapable of framing a paper effectively, or unable to decide what is actually important to your central thesis
  • One day I’m going to snap and kill someone who does this egregiously – do you want to take the risk that it might be you?


Until he is eventually taken carefully away by the nice men in white coats at a future conference, Fraser continues to act as a Pubs and Pubs editor. Despite the growing concerns of fellow editors, he is not, in fact, all that bitter in real life unless the conversation gets on to Brexit. You can follow him (possibly at a safe distance) on Twitter and If you happen to be in Edinburgh this August and have a vague interest in Scottish history and Europe, come along to the Festival event he and Laura are organising!

(Cover image; Image 1; Image 2 (c) Fraser Raeburn; Image 3