Robert LiKamWa
Assistant Professor
Arizona State University

AME - Arts, Media and Engineering
ECEE - Electrical, Computer
     and Energy Engineering

likamwa (@) asu.edu

Tips for Talks

Over many years, I've learned many tips to deliver great talks, and I'm still learning more every day. I'd like to share some of what I've learned with you here. These tips are particularly geared for delivering research talks at technical conferences.

Storyline

Most of us structure our storyline as: [Motivation/Background, Key Contributions, Experimental Results, Conclusions]. It works well. But careful thought should go into designing the story.

  • Create a strong beginning: This is your talk's most important moment. You need to capture your audience's attention. Why is it valuable for the audience to listen to your talk?
  • Deliver only key ideas: You shouldn't go into too much detail or too little detail. Understand the audience's perspective and balance your talk's technical aspects to bring out only what they will find interesting and important.
  • Highlight important results: Do not show every graph and every result from your paper. Only show results to illustrate a point to the audience, and make that point very clear.
  • Create a strong finish: This is your talk's second-most important moment. You want to leave the audience with a really good impression of your work. So wrap up your key points and really impress them.
  • Design a steady flow: If possible, you should have a nice flow going from idea to idea. Design your storyline to minimize the context switches of the audience.
  • Reference your paper: You won't have time to insert every detail from your paper into the presentation. It's better to leave out details than to cram too much in and rush the time limit. The audience would rather hear a relaxed presentation with only the key ideas that they care about.

There's a common theme here: Know your audience. Understand what will make them interested in your project and what will make them understand and remember your key ideas. Engineer your story to fulfill and exceed your audience's expectations.

Slide Design

The driving philosophy for effective slide design is very simple: Keep it very simple. As a result, there are lots of "No"s involved here.

  • No long sentences: Keep it straight and to the point.
  • No overloaded slides: Use whitespace liberally. An audience will have a tough time navigating through crowded slides.
  • No complex figures: ... unless you really need them.
  • No stupid animations: Walking through a system design with animation is fine. So is revealing text through fade-ins to keep your audience on the same page. But don't have circling-ins or flying objects just for the sake of it. You risk annoying the audience. Exception: If it illustrates your point, then do it! (Side-note: Prezi really annoys me.)
  • NO THANK YOU SLIDE: Do NOT use a thank you slide at the end! It is a waste of real estate at a valuable moment! Instead, have salient points of your story persist on the screen. This allows the audience to remember the key points of your talk and allows them to mull over the ideas during the Q&A.

Delivery

Effective delivery requires a great deal of self-control, and the best way to learn these is to practice your talk extensively. It also gets easier after more talks. (I still have problems with these, but I'm hopefully getting better with every talk I give!)

  • Focus on the audience: As much as possible, keep your head elevated and focused on the crowd. Avoid looking at the screen. Use a clicker so you can depart from the podium and connect with your viewers.
  • Be concise: Don't meander with your statements. Avoid meaningless words. The more important the concept, the crisper your sentences should be. Concision drives the points home.
  • Be precise: Explain exactly what you mean. This seems to be at odds with keeping concise and keeping details minimized. However, it's very important not to leave your audience wondering about what the axes of your graph mean. Consider where your audience may get lost and make sure to hold their hands through those parts.
  • Relax your pace: Breathe. Let the ideas sink into the audience. If you go too fast, they won't have time to catch up. Remember, they're hearing these things for the first time.
  • Restrict your movements: Don't wave your arms too wildly or run around the stage too much. You want your audience to focus on your ideas, not your gestures.
  • Speak from the heart: Speak as though you're having a nice conversation with the audience, not as though you're dictating to a computer. Use all of the inflections of how you usually talk. But don't go overboard with emotion; that's a turnoff to audiences and sounds very fake.

Above all, practice, practice, practice!

Favorite Quotations

"Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm." - Winston Churchill

"Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly." - John F. Kennedy

"You gotta know when to hold 'em. Know when to fold 'em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run. You never count your money when you're sitting at the table. There'll be time enough for counting when the dealing's done." - Kenny Rogers

"I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there." - Richard Feynman

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself." - George Bernard Shaw

"Life's a dance you learn as you go. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. Don't worry 'bout what you don't know. Life's a dance you learn as you go." -John Michael Montgomery

"I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then." - Lewis Carroll

"He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important." - Richard Hamming