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Ten suggestions on how to give good talks June 9, 2008

Posted by Raul in random thoughts.

Despite what people may think (because of my age), I have given close to a couple hundred talks, many of them in different languages. I started in the world of academia at a very, very young age and had to present my work in many fora. Lately, I have been attending several academic conferences, and a few “un-conferences” (that’s the term used by geeks – see for example Rebecca’s write-up about Vancouver TransitCamp). Many of my geek events are centered around a main speaker.

By virtue of giving talks myself and seeing lots and lots of speakers, I have learned a few tips. The following are, by no means, an exhaustive list, but are just suggestions to help people who have to speak in public (whether you are a geek or not). Some of these lessons, I learned myself and some, I learned from other people and have distilled them for you here.

1. Realize that being nervous is perfectly alright.
I have given lots of talks, including a PhD defense, and EVERY SINGLE TIME I have been nervous. Recognize it, embrace it, and admit it to yourself. Then move on and start thinking about the actual topic you want to address.

2. Understand your audience.
If you are talking to developers, make the talk geeky. If you are talking to bloggers, talk it to the level to which they can relate. If you are speaking to environmental specialists, make sure that you touch on the issues that are relevant. Don’t “talk up” – if necessary, “talk down”.

Slowly doesn’t mean that you need to slur your words, but you have to help your audience. Sometimes your audience’s ability to listen to your talk is hindered by the room’s poor acoustics. Make sure that the participants can listen to what you are saying clearly. Enunciate properly and make emphasis on your vowels and other sounds.

4. Provide an intro, a main body, and summarize in a conclusion.
Some people call this the law of “say what you are going to say, then say it, then say what you just said”, or the law of threes. Make sure that the participants have really grasped your message by summarizing it at the end.

5. Engage the audience
There is nothing more boring than listen to a 45 minute speech without any sort of interaction with the public. Talk to the audience, engage with them.

6. Use visuals.
Whether you use Power Point, a piece of paper, or other kinds of visuals, make sure that your audience can see something other than yourself. I really like a lot of presenters who don’t make presentations with Power Point, and use alternative methods.

7. Don’t read – speak!
I am too used to the talks given by specialists in the humanities, who actually READ from a paper. I guess that comes from the time when papers were read. I actually heard people saying “I’m reading a paper on so and so” – and they DID! EEEWWW.

8. Err on the short side.
I hate talks that drag on, and on, and on. I just attended an academic panel recently where the speaker had 15 minutes and he went on for 30. I was actually praying that the talk would end, by the time he was done, I had left the room. If you need to fill the time, you can always talk to the audience.

9. Provide link love.
This doesn’t mean that you need to link to other bloggers – I mean, link your talk to your fellow speakers if you are in a panel, or provide MANY examples of what you are presenting that are NOT yours. I know that I am guilty of self-citations in many of my own papers, but I also cite LOTS of other academics.

10. If at all possible, provide handouts.
I know that I attend lots of geeky conferences, and that I am all for saving trees, but sometimes, you DO need a physical, printed piece of paper. It’s funny – at EVERY geek event I attend, people ask me for my CARD. I am like “hey, can’t you just go to my blog site?” – but it’s true, people still DO read printed pieces of paper. And handouts really help a reader follow your train of thought.

Of course, I am more than happy to integrate any suggestions. These are the things that I’ve learned through the years of giving talks.



1. inaequitas - June 9, 2008

On the topic of visuals/not reading, I would always add a note, if needed, to NOT have presentations that you read out or that simply mirror the words that are coming out of your mouth too closely. I have seen sufficiently many PR/marketing/sales/end-of-quarter presentations to know that numbers, charts, blocks of text and a complete disregard of design principles (that speak at large on contrast, typeface considerations, layout etc) to know how ineffective, boring and lame the presentation ends up being. The lack of visuals may just as well be more to your benefit in certain situations.

Great presentations? Goes without saying, but Steve Jobs has probably gotten the art all figured out for his keynotes. Laurence Lessig, as well, has a most effective presentation style.

I would say, for the visuals, either narrate the slides or have them as your backdrop. Ignore them or make yourself ignored (but not what you are saying, of course). Do not force the audience to follow both because they will not follow either.

2. teflonjedi - June 10, 2008

For item #5, I would suggest that sometimes planting questions in your talk is a great way to get the audience to engage.

In my Master’s thesis, I sprinkled 5 slight errors in the document. Thus, when the thesis defence came along, I was prepared for the questions already. It actually worked pretty well, and also helped me deal with my nervousness. The audience (my defence committee) engaged along a path of my choosing. (I did correct all 5 slight errors afterwords….plus fixing the spelling on the name of the scholarship I was on, which was just embarrassing…

3. Raul - June 10, 2008

@ inaequitas – true, slides should be the backdrop

@ teflonjedi – wow, that’s an interesting strategy!

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