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How to give a research talk
Jan 7, 2017
5 minutes read

Here is my checklist for giving a research talk.

The goal is to get the message across. The message is not information, but the interpretation of that information under certain context to specific audience. Great talks provoke the audience to take actions.

Message first

The first thing to do when preparing a talk is to decide the content of the talk. I find it helpful to answer the following questions.

  • What is the one main message of my talk in a single sentence?
  • What do I want to talk about?
  • Why is it important, interesting, relevant, worth the time to discuss?
  • What did I do?
  • How did I do it?
  • What did I get?
  • What does it mean?
  • Who will be my audience? How much background knowledge do I expect them to have?

Come up with an outline of your talk. Make the structure of your talk enhance the message.

As good research does, a good talk has a good story. Come up with a narrative of the talk.

Spend some time thinking about transitions between sections. Why does it make sense to move onto B after discussing A?

Spend extra time on motivations. Why should someone care at all? I find other people’s talk interesting when I understand why they did what they did.

Slides

Slides are great for effective visual redundancy. What the audience sees on the screen should unobtrusively complement what they hear.

Slides are not your talk. Do not give a talk of explaining your slides. In the worst case scenario that you cannot use slides, you should still be able to give your talk be it 50-minute lecture or 5-minute brief. This would also be my opposition to some people saying that your slides should be a standalone document that can be understood without the talk. It is definitely not the case!

Choose a color palette for your talk, and stick with it. Consistent use of color throughout the slides ties them together. It’s the same reason why we want to use a good color scheme on our text editors. Google color palettes or color schemes — there are many tools and palettes available on-line. One thing, though, is that no matter how good a color palette is, it can still be of some awful colors for presentations, so you want to be aware.

Colors are also good for dividing sections. Change of color can be an intuitive signal to your audience that you are moving on to a new topic.

If you want to emphasize something, increase the color contrast.

Likewise, choose a typography palette and stick with it.

Use images and diagrams instead of bullet list and tables.

No more than five items in a bulleted list. If more, group things together. No more than two lines of text per item. Visual communication is global. The goal is that the audience grasps what they see as they see it.

Maximize the signal-to-noise ratio:

  • Minimize the noise, and get your audience’s attention on the right thing. ex) transitions, crazy moving laser pointer, logos, slide numbers
  • Repeat. Redundancy enhances the signal. Expect losses from other factors that you cannot control. Slides are great for visual redundancy.
  • Bad slides are worse than no slides, because they are noise.
  • Do not use slides as your cheatsheet. Your slides are for your audience.
  • One message per slide. Start designing a slide by thinking, “what is my one message for this slide?”.
  • Title should be the message in a full sentence. Instead of putting the what in the title, the most prominent area of the slide, like Results or Model which often than not is obvious, put the message (the answer to “So what?”) in a full sentence.
  • Same goes for plots. Minimize the noise and remove anything that’s not necessary. Visually connect the plot to the message of the plot not in a separate bullet list.

Prepare for technical failures. You’ve seen them happen. Prepare a PDF version of your presentation. Make sure it is up-do-date with what you were editing. If your talk contains movies and animations, prepare them in separate files, and be ready to play outside of the presentation app in case it fails.

Give credit where credit is due. Acknowledge your collaborators. Add appropriate references for images and figures.

Tools for making slides

  • Keynote, Google Docs etc.:
    • easy to manipulate (WYSIWYG)
    • maximum freedom
    • requires fair amount of fine tuning even with “master” slides.
    • no support for LaTeX equations
    • presenter mode
  • Web-based tools:
    • you code your talk like LaTeX but they are prettier
    • comes with a learning curve
    • easy to add color-coded code snippets or LaTeX math using MathJax
    • javascript tricks
    • many mature enough to have presenter mode (reveal.js, remark.js)

Practice

On each slide, do I know what the next slide is? How do I want to transition from this one?

Do not go overtime. Have an abort strategy.

Be aware of verbal tics. You know they are annoying.

What questions can I anticipate? How do I want to respond to those questions? Prepare supporting slides if needed.

Deliver

Repeat and recap the question for the entire audience.

It’s fine to take the time to think about a question.

Answer to the point. Do not beat around the bush.

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