Tips and Tricks for Giving Talks
``Present to inform, not to impress; if you inform, you will impress.''
--- Fred Brooks
I don't attempt to be comprehensive here, but I do give a few tips and
tricks to supplement material pointed to from my page for students.
Tips for preparing your talk
The most useful trick I've developed on my own is to use three-by-five
index cards to prepare my talks.
Generally, what I can write comfortably on an index card fits
comfortably on a slide (although in both cases I can pack too much).
I perceive that the big advantages are these:
- It is very easy to scribble a few bullets on a 3x5 card.
- I can easily get a picture of the entire talk.
- I can easily shuffle cards around to think about presenting things
in different orders.
- I can get enough of a talk to give a first practice run for
Then I only make `real' slides for the cards I will actually use.
- For a very short talk (up to ten minutes) or an informal talk, I
may use no slides at all---only the index cards.
Say early, on the first slide if possible, what is the problem you are
trying to solve.
Don't waste time on an outline at the beginning of your talk.
They already know it (thanks David Wakeling):
It may be appropriate to give a short outline after your introduction
and motivation, to tell your audience what tiny fraction of your
subject they can expect to hear about in the rest of your talk.
- Describe the Problem
- Outline the solution
- Implementation details
- Benchmark figures
- Ponder the results
USE LARGE FONTS.
Your slides should be easily readable even in a large room.
If you can try them out in the room you will use, good.
Otherwise, make sure a printout on US Letter paper can easily be read
from six feet away.
USE BOLD, SANS-SERIF FONTS.
Most fonts are designed for readability at 10-point size.
When blown up to large size and viewed in a large room, these fonts
are just too thin.
Bold, sans-serif fonts are much more readable on slides.
You want your audience's attention on you, not on your slides.
Every time you put up a new slide, you lose them while they scan the
scrub as much ink as possible off your slides.
- No backgrounds, no borders.
- Eliminate as many words as possible.
Using complete sentences on a slide is a rookie mistake.
Use `telegraphic English'.
For example, instead of
To develop an algebra with good mathematical properties, we went
through repeated iterations of our design
Good mathematical properties---iterated design
- If you use bulleted or numbered lists, try hard to fit every
bullet point or list item on a single line.
This way, your audience sees it as a single thought.
- Make it a game. Take one or two passes through your slides not
looking for content or structure, but seeing only how much ink you
can remove without losing your meaning entirely.
Use landscape mode.
It reduces your temptation to cram too much onto the slide, and it
makes it easier to make points on one line.
I get substantial leverage from using the same tool to prepare
both talks and papers.
For me, that tool is latex, because I am usually presenting either
mathematics or a literate program, and latex is the tool of choice in
The latex package in ~nr/lib/latex/nrslides.sty will help you
follow some of these guidelines.
Another trick I use for just about every talk is that I give my first
practice talk in an empty room.
This trick enables me to smooth out my delivery, revise my slides, and
so on, without wasting anyone else's time.
Once you are relatively happy, try to give a practice talk for
Use your practice listeners carefully---each one can hear your talk
for the first time at most once.
If you're giving an important talk (your first conference talk, your
job talk), you should probably plan on giving practice talks to
several different buddies.
Then you can take your talk to your research group and your advisor
for final polishing.
One of the most important things you can do is be sure you finish
on time and say what you wanted to say.
To run out of time without having presented your best results is the
most embarrassing of rookie mistakes.
I see it happen occasionally at 25-minute conference talks, and
sometimes also at students' qualifying exams.
Here are some things you can do to avoid this mistake.
The beauty of a 25-minute talk is that you can practice it repeatedly.
If you are giving a high-stakes talk, it is worth it.
Tips for presenting your talk
- Don't stand between your audience and the screen. (It's amazing
how many people do this.)
- Point to the screen, not to the projector.
- Avoid the striptease.
- Have water.
- No matter what happens, finish on time.
Back to Norman Ramsey's page for students or Norman Ramsey's home page.