Death by outline

By Victoria Metcalf 03/07/2015

Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by le L.E.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by le L.E.

When you watch the news do the presenters first grab your attention by saying: “First we’re going to show you the top headlines in priority order. Then we’ll show you a trivial item or two, followed by the sports section, then the weather, before we wrap it up with a quick recap of the main headlines. Right now that I’ve gone over that and you know the format, let’s get started with the news”? If news presenters did do that, everyone would be screaming at the TV “ENOUGH ALREADY!” In fact, if that happened with any visual or many written formats, then the yawns would cut in almost immediately; people would likely vote with their remotes or their fingers- closing print media, or simply ignoring the pointless intro and skipping ahead.

Human beings are storytellers- it’s hard wired into us and the idea of a story is that you draw the reader or the listener in immediately. There are many devices to do this- we can make use of the shock-factor, a relatable situation, be intriguing, or use the slow-burn, but there has to be some instant hook in the language, the presentation or the images.

The dreaded talk outline slide

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Why then do some presenters – thankfully, it seems to be a diminishing quantity – still persist in starting their presentation with death by outline? One of my absolutely pet peeves (and yes I will be passionate about this) is still relatively common in the academic space, either for conference talks or guest seminars. At the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI) conference I’ve been at this week, there were many examples of death by powerpoint* **. And some of the talks caused my teeth to clench as they started with the unbearable talk outline slide.

It goes something like this and forewarning it is boring: “First I’m going to give you an Introduction, then we’re going to discuss the methods, then I’ll go through my results and then I’ll discuss my conclusions”.


For a mere ten minute talk spending a minute or more outlining what you’re going to talk about in this format is insane and wasting everyone’s time. In fact I think this applies to pretty much any oral presentation.

When I voiced my despair at seeing another dreaded outline at the conference on Twitter I had mixed responses. Some liked seeing talk outlines and saw them as ‘useful’- safe perhaps? Consider the safe concept in the context that during a good talk everyone should be pushed slightly outside of ”what they know”.


I think most likely this is a cultural expectation- someone sometime unfortunately decided talk outlines were a way to command authority and now we expect them without considering whether they aid or hinder. Reference was made to the talk tips by John Roth here and that he suggests a talk outline:

Outline your talk
Before you start, put up a brief outline on the board. Go through it quickly, spending just a few moments (one minute maximum). Don’t dwell on details they can’t understand yet. This outline lets them know that you’ve got a plan and are likely to be a competent guide. As you go through the talk refer to your outline. E. g. “We’ve gotten through the background section and have posed the major question. Now we’ll proceed to describe experiments that are designed to approach an answer.” This is another device for punctuating your talk, breaking the tension and allowing people to reset the clock of their attention span.

There are many good tips in his post but it was also written in 1996. Communication ideas have changed a lot since then. And I would say to his talk outlines ideas shown above: “Really? You need to convince people that you have a plan and are ‘likely to be a competent guide’? Surely, people start from a hopeful place when someone starts to present, assuming the person has a plan for their talk? Isn’t everyone meant to be prepared? Isn’t the demonstration of competence achieved by hooking people in with the story at the start, rather than boring them with comfort? There are plenty of strategies for letting people know where they are in the telling of your story, but punctuating a talk with letting them know that you’re about “to describe experiments that are designed to approach an answer” is just plain dull.

To be human is to tell stories

Using a talk outline is a safeguard but not a constructive one- people use them to try to convince the audience as indeed Roth suggests that they are the authority for what they are going to discuss, as well as probably also to self-reinforce they can be proper and serious; in other words up to the gravitas of the task. Except talks shouldn’t be so serious. And showing the audience that we need reminding too of the talk content we are about to tell in my opinion leads to the opposite of convincing them you are a competent guide.

Demonstrating authority might be one way to manage a room, but I much prefer a leadership model where you create a respectful space through demonstrating passion, empathy and storytelling skills. Pierre Roudier hit the death by outline scenario on the head with these tweets:

Pierre 2

Pierre 3


And given that science papers can be pretty impenetrable as I recently wrote (Making the impenetrable penetrable: science publications as videos), it’s really not a good model to base a talk on. Powerpoint is a much used and also a much maligned presentation tool that comes under frequent criticism. More often than not it’s used poorly but when presentations are constructed carefully it is a useful and constructive AID to what we are saying. Talk outline slides do not sit in the constructive category. Instead, make use of storytelling techniques at the beginning of a presentation to more beautifully cover what your talk will delve into.

Let’s be passionate people. Let’s fill our talks with excitement and our story, which is uniquely ours to tell. And for goodness sake ditch death by outline.

*Some tips for avoiding Death by Powerpoint are here.

**I’ll write more on presentation tips of what to do and not to do in the future (sorry if that sounded like the outline of a future blog post(s) – it’s why I put it as a footnote-because it’s not important to my story).




0 Responses to “Death by outline”

  • Nice post. I find that “Death by Powerpoint” scenarios can also have a cultural cause, where it’s expected that a talk will be accompanied by Powerpoint slides. So instead of genuinely thinking about what can improve the talk the slideshow that gets made is more of an obligatory thing that doesn’t help the presentation so much as it ticks the “has slideshow” box.

    I feel like I’ve fallen into this trap a few times myself.

    • You make a good point Mark that so often we get into default mode of using Powerpoint for presentations- do we really need it? Does it enhance? How can we use it more wisely?

  • Interesting post, Victoria.
    I think outlining a talk comes from teaching. If you are lecturing a class for 40 to 50 minutes it is a good idea to give them the structure of what you are covering, though I would attempt to do this in no more than a minute. The same possibly applies to any talk that is more than 30 minutes long.
    But for a short 10 minute talk why bother? Except perhaps for a quick 30 second this is what my talk is about. Having said that sometimes it is more useful if people don’t quite know what you are talking about for the first few minutes, particularly if you start with an engaging story. (as you say “human beings are story tellers”).

    • Michael- good point- the lecture format could well be where it comes from. The point of my post is that slide outlines of a presentation are probably in general to be avoided. I’d like to encourage others to think outside the square in how to cover what you may be talking about (even in a lecture) with use of storytelling techniques rather than “Today I’m going to talk to you about XXX”. How can you repackage that in the precious talk time into something more memorable and more exciting. For example, when lecturing I provide online all the notes beforehand (both pptx and detailed notes as well as additional resources) if doing a more routine style lecture. Alongside those files I also provide a learning outcomes file- with what students are expected to walk away with at the end of the hour. They’re expected to read this beforehand (semi-flipped). In the lecture space it’s all about making things come alive.