In a million and one grad student talks the second slide looks like this: the table-of-contents or the outline-of-the-talk. It may be a bit more colourful, with banners and logos and exciting pictures, but it’s basically the same, and the speaker will repeat the traditional phrases “After an introduction and a survey of the literature, I’ll describe the methodology we used…”
By this stage, one minute into the talk, the members of the audience are all thinking “Here’s another grad student talk like a million others… so predictable. ” and their attention will wander to their unanswered emails, or their plans for dinner, or an attractively-filled T shirt two rows in front, and the poor speaker has got to work really hard to get them back.
Do you need a contents slide at all? It’s not compulsory. Even though some presentation packages provide it almost by default, with sections and subsections, you don’t have to have one. Before you include it you should weigh up the reasons for and against.
- It cuts into your time allocation.
- It disrupts the flow of the talk as, by definition, it stands outside the narrative.
- It will tend to shift the focus onto you as the speaker rather than on the material
On the other hand:
- It can give structure to an otherwise amorphous talk
- It can help the audience keep track of a complicated sequence of ideas
So its inclusion or exclusion depends on the talk length, the nature of the material, the links between you and your audience, and your personal style. In a 10 minute conference oral where you’re developing one idea it’s almost certainly not wanted. In a one hour seminar covering disparate but linked topics it could be really useful. If you’re going to include an outline, that should be a conscious decision, not just something you feel you ought to do.
If you do decide to include one, then make it work for you. Refer back to it during the talk, showing the audience where they’ve got to on the map you set out at the start. (There are some Beamer themes that do this automatically – Berkeley is a standard. UpSlide does it for PowerPoint. But it’s easy to do it by hand.) If you’re including an outline then make full use of it.
The final point is: if you’ve decided to include a table of contents then customize it. Make it your own and unique so that it’s not just the same as every other grad student talk. Here’s a revised version of that original outline slide (with some invented details). It’s the same slide: the first bullet is the introduction, the second is the literature search, and so on. But don’t call them that. Fill in your details in the generic slots, and that will keep the audience engaged and attentive and get them into your world and your language from the start.