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Rethinking Laser Pointers

Are you giving a talk to cats? No? Then you should probably put the laser pointer away.

February 23, 2020
 
 

Carolyn Trietsch recently defended her Ph.D. in entomology at Penn State. You can view her website or follow her on Twitter @carolyntrietsch.

Laser pointers are perhaps the most abused visual aids in lectures and conference presentations. Yes, I know that they’re a lot of fun to use, but when you’re giving a talk, it’s not about you -- it’s about your audience and how to effectively communicate your work to them.

Laser pointers can work against you in several different ways. First, a laser pointer itself can be a very distracting thing. You know how dogs and cats can become transfixed by following a laser pointer and ignore everything else around them? Yeah, the same thing can happen to your audience members.

That is, if your audience members can actually see it. Laser pointers can be very hard to see for people with colorblindness or other visual problems, so if you’re relying heavily on a laser pointer to go through parts of a diagram, you may be losing a significant number of your audience members.

Laser pointers are also terrible for hiding how nervous you might be while giving a talk. Even if your hands aren’t shaking, it’s hard to hold a laser pointer steady, and the twirling, bouncing ball of light can give the impression that you’re more nervous than you actually are.

Finally, there are so many alternatives that are so much more effective than using a laser pointer, to the extent that you might not even need a laser pointer to begin with. If you find that you’re using a laser pointer throughout your talk and you can’t give the talk without it, chances are good that you need to rework your slides.

Most of the slides in your presentation will fall into one of two categories: graphic slides and text slides. If you’re using a text-heavy slide, you probably don’t need the laser pointer at all. Don’t use laser pointers to point out bullet points or things your audience can read. And definitely don’t read text off the slide while pointing the laser at each word -- this is not a singalong, and we don’t need a bouncing ball of light to follow.

If you have slides with lots of visuals and graphics, there’s a good chance that you can rework your slide so you don’t need to use a laser pointer. A well-placed arrow, circle or other animation built into your slide will often show something more effectively, and then you don’t have to worry about remembering to show it with a laser pointer while you talk. If you are presenting a diagram with a series of steps or components, such as a chemical cycle, animate your slides so that each part of the cycle pops up in sequence as you talk about it. This way, you can show each step of the cycle one at a time, naturally building on it, rather than just showing the whole thing at once and darting around with a laser pointer.

This is not to say that laser pointers cannot be useful tools when used correctly. Laser pointers are great when answering questions from your audience, where you may need to point to something in a picture or a diagram that you don’t have an animation for. In these scenarios, use the laser pointer to point out the important part of the diagram for a minute, then turn it off and continue. Don’t talk and laser at the same time.

Since lasers can be hard for some people to see, there are alternatives that work more like a spotlight, lighting up only the portion of the screen you want to focus on. But again, don’t abuse them -- use them when you need to, then put them away.

Unless you’re in a rock band, your audience members are not there for a laser light show. And of course, never, ever point a laser at your audience members. You want to blind them with your brilliance, not with a poorly used laser pointer.

Photo credits: David Anderson on Unsplash.

A special thanks to Elizabeth Rowen and Anne Jones for their insights and contributions to this post.

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