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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2003 / 09 

VT Writing Expert Challenges Scientific Delivery Methods

September 8, 2003

Michael Alley's hot-selling book on scientific presentations goes beyond providing helpful tips to students and professionals. The Craft of Scientific Presentations also challenges the practice of relying on Microsoft's defaults to prepare a scientific or engineering presentation.

Alley, a technical writing instructor for the Virginia Tech College of Engineering, feels as if he is on a crusade to educate people about better ways to present scientific information. He is not suggesting to avoid presentation programs such as Microsoft's PowerPoint, but to assess the defaults of such programs for their effectiveness in delivering scientific information. "In those cases where the program's defaults do not serve the presentations, then you should be proactive and change them," Alley says.

The manner in which scientific information is conveyed in a presentation can make a big difference in the resulting action. In that regard, Alley is a proponent of a clear, concise delivery of information so that the audience is sure to receive the main message.

To illustrate this point, Alley shows a slide on page 130 of his book that was used by engineers to warn NASA officials of the dangers that the Space Shuttle Challenger faced. Unfortunately, the slide was full of text and numbers with no clear interpretation of the data for the audience. The lack of clarity in the slide made it difficult for NASA officials to see how dangerous the situation was. In the end, the presentation failed to prevent the shuttle launch.

For slides in a technical presentation, Alley suggests abandoning the use of a phrase headline supported by bulleted text. Instead, he recommends using a short sentence headline that clearly states the slide's assertion. That headline should then be supported primarily by images and graphics in the slide's body.

What prompted Alley to begin thinking about this book was not the issue of slide design, but the issue of delivery-in particular, the issue of overcoming nervousness. "Presenters go through the same nervousness that athletes feel before a competition," says Alley. Although a good portion of the book discusses delivery, Alley does not believe that there is a single delivery style that is best for all presenters. "The delivery style that was best for Linus Pauling was not necessarily best for Lise Meitner."

The book, which is Alley's third, contains a host of examples on strong and weak scientific presentations. At present, lists The Craft of Scientific Presentations as the best-selling book, out of 66 titles, in the category of technical presentations.

In the past two years, Alley has conducted workshops on technical presentation skills at Virginia Tech, the University of Illinois, the University of Texas, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Parc de Cientific in Barcelona, and the University of Oslo.

The need for education in this field is clear. Leaders in industry and education around the nation are reporting that recent science and engineering graduates are lacking necessary communication skills. To help address this problem, the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech has been hiring people such as Alley. The College has also begun hosting Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students, a web site that Alley developed. Other contributors to this web site include Leslie Crowley at the University of Illinois, Christine Moore at the University of Texas, and Jeff Donnell at Georgia Tech.

The site provides scores of pages to help students in engineering and science better communicate their work. The site also provides resources for instructors who want to teach such skills. This site has become popular, often receiving more than 4000 hits a day. More impressive, the Google search engine ranks this site as the number two site, out of 40,000 sites, in the category of scientific writing. To reach the site, go to

Alley believes his move to Virginia Tech was the best thing that could have happened in his career. "The people I work with on campus are open-minded and energetic," says Alley. "Not only have they given my ideas a fair hearing, but they have strengthened those ideas with insightful critiques."