Oral Presentation Advice
Mark D. Hill
Computer Sciences Department
University of Wisconsin-Madison
April 1992; Revised January 1997
Things to Think About
Oral Communication is different from written communication
Listeners have one chance to hear your talk and can't "re-read"
when they get confused. In many situations, they have or will hear several
talks on the same day. Being clear is particularly important if the audience
can't ask questions during the talk. There are two well-know ways to communicate
your points effectively. The first is to K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid).
Focus on getting one to three key points across. Think about how much you
remember from a talk last week. Second, repeat key insights: tell them
what you're going to tell them (Forecast), tell them, and tell them what
you told them (Summary).
Think about your audience
Most audiences should be addressed in layers: some are experts in
your sub-area, some are experts in the general area, and others know little
or nothing. Who is most important to you? Can you still leave others with
something? For example, pitch the body to experts, but make the forecast
and summary accessible to all.
Think about your rhetorical goals
For conference talks, for example, I recommend two rhetorical goals:
leave your audience with a clear picture of the gist of your contribution,
and make them want to read your paper. Your presentation should not replace
your paper, but rather whet the audience appetite for it. Thus, it is commonly
useful to allude to information in the paper that can't be covered adequately
in the presentation. Below I consider goals for academic
interview talks and class presentations.
Practice in public
It is hard distilling work down to 20 or 30 minutes.
See David Patterson's How to Give a Bad Talk
A Generic Conference Talk Outline
This conference talk outline is a starting point, not a rigid template.
Most good speakers average two minutes per slide (not counting title and
outline slides), and thus use about a dozen slides for a twenty minute
Title/author/affiliation (1 slide)
Forecast (1 slide)
Give gist of problem attacked and insight found (What is the one idea
you want people to leave with? This is the "abstract" of an oral presentation.)
Outline (1 slide)
Give talk structure. Some speakers prefer to put this at the bottom
of their title slide. (Audiences like predictability.)
Motivation and Problem Statement (1-2 slides)
(Why should anyone care? Most researchers overestimate how much the
audience knows about the problem they are attacking.)
Related Work (0-1 slides)
Cover superficially or omit; refer people to your paper.
Methods (1 slide)
Cover quickly in short talks; refer people to your paper.
Results (4-6 slides)
Present key results and key insights. This is main body of the talk.
Its internal structure varies greatly as a function of the researcher's
contribution. (Do not superficially cover all results; cover key result
well. Do not just present numbers; interpret them to give insights. Do
not put up large tables of numbers.)
Summary (1 slide)
Future Work (0-1 slides)
Optionally give problems this research opens up.
Backup Slides (0-3 slides)
Optionally have a few slides ready (not counted in your talk total)
to answer expected questions. (Likely question areas: ideas glossed over,
shortcomings of methods or results, and future work.)
Academic Interview Talks
The rhetorical goal for any interview talk is very different than a conference
talk. The goal of a conference talk is to get people interested in your
paper and your work. The goal of an interview talk is to get a job, for
which interest in your work is one part.
There are two key audiences for an academic interview talk, and you
have to reach both. One is the people in your sub-area, who you must impress
with the depth of your contribution. The other is the rest of the department,
who you must get to understand your problem, why it is important, and a
hand-wave at what you did. Both audiences will evaluate how well you speak
as an approximation of how well you can teach.
Take a 20-minute conference talk.
Expand the 5 minute introduction to 20 minutes to drive home the problem,
why it's important, and the gist of what you've done.
Do the rest of the conference talk, minus the summary and future work.
Add 10 minutes of deeper stuff from your thesis (to show your depth). It
is okay lose people outside of your sub-area (as long as you get them back
in the next bullet).
Do the summary and future work from the conference talk in a manner accessible
Add 10 ten minutes to survey all the other stuff you have done (to show
Save 5 minutes for questions (to show that you are organized).
Other talks should be prepared using the same principles of considering
audience and rhetorical purpose. A presentation on a project in a graduate
class, for example, seeks to reach the professor first and fellow students
second. Its purpose is to get a good grade by impressing people that a
quality project was done. Thus, methods should be described in must more
detail than for a conference talk.
Thanks to Jim Goodman, Jim Larus, and David Patterson for their useful
comments. The current on-line version of this document appears at URL "http://www.cs.wisc.edu/~markhill/conference-talk.html".
How to Give a Bad Talk
David A. Patterson
Computer Science Division
University of California-Berkeley
Ten commandments (with annotations gleaned from Patterson's talk by
Mark D. Hill):
Commandment X is most important. Even if you break the other nine, this
one can save you.
Thou shalt not be neat
Why waste research time preparing slides? Ignore spelling, grammar
and legibility. Who cares what 50 people think?
Thou shalt not waste space
Transparencies are expensive. If you can save five slides in each
of four talks per year, you save $7.00/year!
Thou shalt not covet brevity
Do you want to continue the stereotype that engineers can't write?
Always use complete sentences, never just key words. If possible, use whole
paragraphs and read every word.
Thou shalt cover thy naked slides
You need the suspense! Overlays are too flashy.
Thou shalt not write large
Be humble -- use a small font. Important people sit in front. Who
cares about the riff-raff?
Thou shalt not use color
Flagrant use of color indicates uncareful research. It's also unfair
to emphasize some words over others.
Thou shalt not illustrate
Confucius says ``A picture = 10K words,'' but Dijkstra says
``Pictures are for weak minds.'' Who are you going to believe? Wisdom
from the ages or the person who first counted goto's?
Thou shalt not make eye contact
You should avert eyes to show respect. Blocking screen can also
Thou shalt not skip slides in a long talk
You prepared the slides; people came for your whole talk; so just
talk faster. Skip your summary and conclusions if necessary.
Thou shalt not practice
Why waste research time practicing a talk? It could take several
hours out of your two years of research. How can you appear spontaneous
if you practice? If you do practice, argue with any suggestions you get
and make sure your talk is longer than the time you have to present it.
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