Talk Guidelines

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The goal of an academic talk is to communicate your ideas, and to convince others that your approach has merit.

Doing the following will generally help you give a more effective talk.

General talk advice

Be prepared

You should know the material of your talk well before you give a talk. You should know the order of the slides in your talk, and you know how you will transition from one slide or point to the next. Knowing this will make you feel more comfortable giving the talk, which will make it easier to discuss your work.

Practice with an audience and time yourself

It can be difficult to critique your own work. Give practice talks to them, and encourage them to give helpful feedback. Also time yourself and make sure you are able to finish in the allotted time.

Also, make sure your time allocation is effective. Some veteran presenters give advice similar to the following.

"Plan on spending most of your time talking about your new ideas. I have seen talks where the speaker spends 13 minutes giving a review of the field and a justification for why their specific problem is interesting. Then -- what do you know?? -- there's no time left for the meat of the talk."
-Jim Blinn[1]

Know takeaway message

If you don't know what messages you want the audience to take away from your talk, it's quite likely the audience will not know what messages you want them to take away. There is nothing wrong with saying "The takeaway message from this talk is," and then saying what you want the audience to know.

Finish strong

The last thing you say in a talk will stick quite strongly with the audience. Don't end by saying "I think that's it." Conclude with a strong statement that summarizes your talk.

Make eye contact

Making eye contact with the audience makes it feel like you're talking to them, not that you're reading off text at them. Try to look up and around when you can.

Smile

A talk is a sharing of ideas, which is a happy occasion. You should be proud and happy with what you are presenting. Smile and help the audience realize why they should be pleased with your presentation.[2]

Be audible

What you are saying is important, so you should make sure that everyone in the audience is able to hear what you are saying. Many conferences have microphones for speakers. If you are at a smaller conference, a less formal gathering, or there are technical difficulties, you might need to project your voice so everyone can hear.[2]

Know when to be silent

If you get stuck, confused, or lost, don't say "umm." Feel free to silently take a few seconds to compose yourself. It's entirely possible that the audience won't even notice.

Handle problems well

Presentations involve computers, so there is always the chance that something can go wrong. You should try to be prepared and able to handle whatever difficulties may arise, but there still can be problems. If a problem happens, you should acknowledge that a problem happened, and either try to (very quickly!) fix the problem, or continue with your talk as best you can. Many people in the audience will have previous experience presenting, and will be understanding.

Stay calm

Nervousness is very obvious, and can make it more difficult for the audience to get your messages. Remember that a presentation is a joyful sharing of ideas, and that the people in the audience are wanting you to do as well as possible.

Presentation software advice

Most modern talks are given with the support of presentation software, such as Powerpoint or Keynote. Your talk will be judged as much by what you say as by what you show, so creating a well-designed presentation is of great importance. Standard rules of good writing apply to the text you put on your slides.

Make your slide text legible

When you create your slides, you are most likely only a few feet from the computer screen. When you present, the audience will not have as ideal viewing conditions, and as such, you should avoid having small fonts. The audience will think that all the text on the slide is important, so illegible text can distract the audience from what you're saying.[1]

Make your figures legible

Again, the audience's viewing conditions are not as good as you have on your monitor. Make figures large enough to be clearly read. You might need to simplify figures from papers in order to have them show up well. If you have a complicated figure, reveal it piece-by-piece. Doing so can focus the audience's attention on the new parts of the figure.

Make your slides visually appealing

While you are not expected to be an expert artist, following basic graphic design principles will make your slides more pleasant to look at, and will influence how others see your work. Spend the extra time needed to make sure you and others like the way your slides look.

Put key points on slides

Your main point on every slide should be written on that slide. Some people may only read the slides and ignore what you say. Some others might glance up at the slides and be reminded of your main point. Having something written on the slides will emphasize that it is a key point and that you want others to remember it.

Pause when switching slides

When you switch slides, many members of the audience will immediately ignore you and read all the text on the screen. If you pause for a few seconds when switching slides, you'll be giving hopefully enough time for people to quickly scan the slide and then pay attention to you. However, this is not always the right approach, especially if you have a good logical flow between slides and are able to maintain the audience's interest.

Use a remote

Having the additional freedom to walk away from your computer can allow you to be more animated and involved in the talk. It also helps you make eye contact with the audience, which makes the talk more interesting. If you intend to use a remote, you should practice with it, so you are comfortable using the remote with your presentation. This should also help you discover any bugs that might show up in your presentation.

Have backups

This is good general advice, but it applies here as well. You should have a backup copy of your presentation on a flash drive and possibly hosted somewhere online. If you are unable to present using your computer, you will then be able to borrow someone else's computer and still present.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Jim Blinn: Things I Hope Not to See or Hear at SIGGRAPH
  2. 2.0 2.1 Centennial College: Presentation Skills