Presentation Preparation

A big part of doing research is presenting it at a conference. Since many people start out shy of public presentations, this can be a substantial challenge. Here are a few notes which might be helpful when thinking about preparing a presentation on research.

  1. Motivate. Talks which don’t start by describing the problem to solve cause many people to zone out.
  2. Prioritize. It is typical that you have more things to say than time to say them, and many presenters fall into the failure mode of trying to say too much. This is an easy-to-understand failure mode as it’s very natural to want to include everything. A basic fact is: you can’t. Example of this are:
    1. Your slides are so densely full of equations and words that you can’t cover them.
    2. Your talk runs over and a moderator prioritizes for you by cutting you off.
    3. You motor-mouth through the presentation, and the information absorption rate of the audience prioritizes in some uncontrolled fashion.
    4. The rate of flow of concepts simply exceeds the information capacity of the audience. Even with nondense slides and an easy succinct delivery, this can often happen.

    One way to prioritize is figure out: “What would I present in 1 minute?” or “What would I present in 5 minutes?”, and then let this guide your overall presentation.

  3. Unassume. When you are working in an area, it’s typical to buildup an internal shorthand for concepts. This needs to be peeled away when preparing a presentation. Decide what the minimal set of concepts are, and then be sure to define them as they are introduced. For people familiar with the basic concepts, this gives them a way to reconcile choices of language, and others at least have a prayer of following.
  4. Practice Well. Some people try to get a talk right by practicing it relentlessly until it is memorized, and then deliver it as a memorized monologue. This is terrible, because people in the audience know it is a memorized monologue and zone out. A good talk is delivered like a conversation, where it happens to be your turn to speak for awhile, and practicing that is more difficult. Some practice by yourself can be helpful—but not too much. A much better method is to practice on your friends by delivering to them before delivering it to the wider world.

The points above avoid the common failure modes which seem to come up with first-time presenters. There is much more advice to give (and for me to learn) about giving better presentations.

7 Replies to “Presentation Preparation”

  1. Interesting post. As a PhD student, I’m still in the phase in which preparing presentations seems just to distract from the research activity. In particular, something that is challenging for me while preparing presentations and posters is how to balance “underlying ideas” presented in a fresh and neat although not too technical way, with the technicalities that the most of the people that is not deeply in my same field could not understand. On one side, I hate those posters or slides full of equations taken from the papers but without explanations because there is not space. It’s pointless if nobody is able to understand them. On the other side, I’m often afraid that my presentation may not look “professional” without a bounce of multiple-line equations 🙂

  2. Seth Godin suggests filling your slide with pictures and using a maximum of 6 words per slide. In research science this is nigh on impossible.

    However, I like your prioritizing point. If you don’t find the absolute bare essential and present in digestable analogies and parables, your years of work will go on just as ignored as before.

    My rule of thumb is: if my musician wife can follow along with about 50% of my presentation I’m good to go.

  3. Although I agree it’s important not to memorize the entire presentation, I’ve found that it is worthwhile to memorize the first five or six sentences. It gets me off to a smooth start while I calibrate myself to the environment and audience. After the first “paragraph”, I have a better sense of how engaged the audience is, my eyes have adjusted to the lighting, I’m more comfortable with my volume level… and then I can relax my panic-tight grip on the lectern. By the end of the second slide the rhythm has been established and I can concentrate on fitting the information in the slides to that rhythm.

    (For me, public speaking is like jumping into a cold lake: once I’m acclimated I enjoy it, but for the first 30 seconds all I can think is “yikes! yikes! yikes!”, and so the less I have to use my brain during those 30 seconds, the better.)

  4. Thanks! There are actually helpful. In this recent ICML, I was in several presentations without any motivation or correct problem definition.

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