Giving A Good Talk
IntroductionMany of us, being engineers, researchers, students, or professors at some stage of our careers need to give a talk. Giving an interesting, informative, and well-presented talk can be the difference between getting hired, promoted, graduated, appreciated, or simply being understood. As this is a well-studied subject, we have found some great references, that we will summarize and refer you to the original documents or web pages.
What do the experts say?In this section we have summarized suggestions from some experts in giving a good talk.
On his website, he has a very nice and interesting note about “Giving a Talk”. In his note, he says that there are three main considerations to prepare a great talk:
- Define your message.
- Know your audience.
- Prepare well.
Know Your Audience
After preparing great and relevant material to talk about, the next step is how to effectively deliver your message. Again he mentions three sections for a good presentation:
- Tell’em what you are going to say …
- … Say it …
- … Tell’em what you’ve said.
As you need some slides for the presentation, he suggests:
- One slide, one simple idea.
- Use lots of pictures, few equations
He then goes into the details on each of the above tips. You can find his notes here.
James B. Duke Professor of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Chemistry at Duke University, and Professor of Biochemistry in the Duke University Medical Center. He is also a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Duke Pratt School of Engineering.
Professor Donald has some very useful suggestions on giving a good talk, one of them is to “watch other speakers. Figure out what you like and what you don’t like about what they do and then try to do or not do those things”.
Watch Other Speakers
He then has some hints for a good presentation:
- Speak clearly.
- Use large fonts.
- Use lots of figures.
- Point to the screen, not the computer.
- Do not use a pointer.
- Watch the time.
- Talk to the audience, not the screen.
- Do not read your slides to the audience.
- Use props.
- Use color.
For all of the above hints, Professor Donald goes to some details. His article can be found here.
In an interesting and insightful article on the Harvard Business Review (HBR), Chris wrote an article entitled “How to Give a Killer Presentation”. In this article he says: “I’m convinced that giving a good talk is highly coachable. In a matter of hours, a speaker’s content and delivery can be transformed from muddled to mesmerizing.”
Giving a Good Talk is Highly Coachable
According to Chris here are some essential steps to giving an amazing talk:
- Frame your story: a compelling presentation often comes from telling amazing stories.
- Find out who your audiences are and how much they know about your topic.
- Don’t try to cover too much ground. Instead use specific examples.
- Don’t read your presentation!
- Pay attention to your tone. It is much better to sound conversational.
- Develop stage presence. Don’t move your body too much. Usually it is better to stand still and rely on hand gestures. Don’t forget about eye contact.
- Don’t worry too much about nervousness, it is not a disaster and actually audience expect it.
- Plan the multimedia. Many great talks don’t use slides at all! If you need to use slides look at alternatives. For example a short video.
You can find a detailed explanation of all the above points here.
Professor Ernst has some general suggestions: “Get feedback by giving a practice talk! One of the most effective ways to improve your work is to see the reactions of others and get their ideas and advice.”
He also suggests to think about the presentations/talks you have attended and what you have found interesting about them. Then use the same methods in your presentations. Then he talks about some main considerations as follows:
The ContentBefore you start preparing a talk, you need to know your goal and know your audience. You will have to customize your presentation to its purpose. The goal of a talk you give to your research group is to get feedback to help you improve your research and your understanding of it, so you should plan for a very interactive style, with lots of questions throughout. In a conference talk, questions during the talk are extremely unlikely, and you have much less time; your chief goal is to get people to read the paper or ask questions afterward. In a seminar or invited talk at a university, you want to encourage questions, you have more time, and you should plan to give more of the big picture.
When you give a talk, ask yourself, “What are the key points that my audience should take away from the talk?” Then, elide everything that does not support those points.
A good way to determine what your talk should say is to explain your ideas verbally to someone who does not already understand them. Do this before you have tried to create slides (you may use a blank whiteboard, but that often is not necessary).
Do not try to fit too much material in a talk. About one slide per minute is a good pace (if lots of your slides are animations that take only moments to present, you can have more slides). Remember what your key points are, and focus on those.
- Slide titles: Use descriptive slide titles. Do not use the same title on multiple slides.
- Introduction: Start your talk with motivation and examples.
- Outline slides: Never start your talk with an outline slide. (That’s boring, and it’s too early for the audience to understand the talk structure yet.)
- Conclusion: The last slide should be a contributions or conclusions slide, reminding the audience of the take-home message of the talk.
- Builds: When a subsequent slide adds material to a previous one (or in some other way just slightly changes the previous slide; this is sometimes called a “build”), all common elements must remain in exactly the same position.
- Keep slides uncluttered: Don’t put too much text (or other material) on a slide.
- Text: Keep fonts large and easy to read from the back of the room.
- Figures: Make effective use of figures. Avoid a presentation that is just text.
- Color: About 5% of American males are color-blind, so augment color with other emphasis where possible.
- Make eye contact with the audience.
- Stand and face the audience.
- Don’t stand in front of the screen.
- Being animated is good, but do not pace.
- When giving a presentation, never point at your laptop screen, which the audience cannot see.
- If you find yourself suffering a nervous tic, such as saying “um” in the middle of every sentence, then practice more.
- If you get flustered, don’t panic. One approach is to stop and regroup; taking a drink of water is a good way to cover this.
- Just as you practice your talk, practice answering questions.
- When an audience member asks a question, it is a good idea to repeat the question, asking the questioner whether you have understood it, before answering the question.
- Be willing to answer a question with “no” or “I don’t know”. You will get into more trouble if you try to blather on or to make up an answer on the fly.
Professor Ernst has much more details about these points and more here.
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