How to give a good research talk: comments by others

Since publishing this paper in SIGPLAN Notices a number of people have written to us with perceptive comments and good ideas.

Here is a collection of the more substantial suggestions we received, published in each case with the author's consent. These contributions are informal, vary in style, and are only very lightly edited.

We'd like to thank these contributors and encouage others to follow suit.

Simon Peyton Jones (Dec 2000)

About preparing slides on a computer. Since we wrote the original paper, several things have changed: Together these changes mean that I have recanted on our advice to hand-write slides. The disadvantages of using a computer have largely vanished, while the advantages (e.g. notably, being able to make changes easily, and being able to distribute slides electronically) remain.

I've evolved a few tricks to make it easier to prepare slides, which are on my Win32 cheat sheet.

Roland Backhouse

If you do find yourself listening to a poorly-given research talk don't waste your time doodling but try to get some benefit out of it. Observe the speaker carefully in order to analyse why it is a poor seminar so that you don't repeat the same mistakes.

Perhaps if the audience at conferences were more observant in this way then the standard of communication would increase dramatically, encouraging more to attend even if they are not among the speakers.

Gerald Lange

Did you take into account presentation packages like Powerpoint, Harvard Graphics, ...? O.K. there are problems with last minute slides, but colour output should be normal nowadays - at least in a computing centre. These tools are "easy to use", they help you to spend your time on the content, give structural (according to your rules and always in the same quality) and graphics aids like diagrams, arrows and more. They include features you wouldn't have imagined or wouldn't have used because perhaps you have no skills in drawing or just don't want to "spend your time fiddling with your pencil", sketching N times und duplicating M times because a new idea doesn't fit into the slide just manually designed, and and and ....

These tools also allow you easily to reuse and rearrange and modify your slides, to design a slide show with animation effects, various kinds of "interesting" revealing line by line (I hate this peice of paper, too because of this "you can't be trusted ..."!), and so on.

I like these tools (LATeX is IMHO the wrong one for this application) and I think people like it because they very often ask: "how did you do it".

One concluding remark: I think your paper is intended to give hints how to make "good presentations" but then it shouldn't be based on the "night before in the hotel" assumption --- perhaps a common, but not a desirable situation.

Graham Perkins

While you're about it, what about those juddery nervous people who insist on leaning against the OHP table or holding the slide or grasping the OHP itself? Wobble wobble wobble. You just get to read something interesting skating off the top left corner when they whip the whole lot off and wobble another slide into view. Works a treat when combined with jittery "cover-up" technique.

Watch out for those expensive seminars where organisers hire very expensive hotel with smart executive seminar suites where the ceiling is too low! Result? Screen is below the level of the front desk and nobody can read it. When I started in teaching, I was sent on a training course for new lecturers. The presenter of this course spent here entire time looking at her slides on the OHP. Needless to say, they were projected onto her body, not the screen. And why are there so many professionals who lack the simple spatial awareness and geometric skills to line up the slide with the lit-up area on the screen? I'm fed up trying to read bits of info. off the ceiling or wall while there are huge blank areas on the screen!

I think Microsoft have had a negative effect on research seminars --- I've been to several where the presentation was entirely designed using Powerpoint. It has lots of different colours and shapes and interesting backdrop effects for your slides, but does tend to lead to every presentation being composed up entirely from (pretty) bullet point displays.

Simon Peyton Jones

One thought that has occurred to me since writing the paper is this: never apologise. Speakers surprisingly often start by apologising for shortcomings they anticipate in their presentation (e.g. "I havn't had as much time to prepare this talk as I'd have liked"; or "I don't feel qualified to address this audience"). Starting in this way is very negative. Plunge in confidently instead.

This doesn't preclude being honest about the technical shortcomings of the work itself (which you should be); but mention them in their place rather than apologising for them in advance.

John Ramsdell

I would like to give you one piece of advice I have found often helps others: a slide cannot be read by the audience unless it can be laid on the floor and read with ease while standing tall. This rule is easy to remember and stays with people.

Henry Spencer

Run through your talk at least once in advance so you know how long it will take. It probably needs to be cut down. My talks usually need to be cut by at least a factor of two. Doing this in advance is far superior to improvising when you discover you only have five more minutes. Don't forget to leave time for questions at the end.

Doing a practice run in front of a mirror can be revealing. Mumbling, speaking to your notes, etc. can be fought effectively by speaking only when you have eye contact with a member of the audience. Not the same person all the time, though!

Say something interesting. If you're short of time, pick one subtopic and say something interesting about it, and forget the rest. Few things annoy an audience more than hearing "well, the rest of that's in the paper" every two minutes. Especially since it usually comes just as you were starting to talk about something in enough detail to actually be worth listening to. If there isn't time to cover everything well, don't try. (This is especially true if you find yourself unexpectedly short of time. Dashing through half a dozen topics in five minutes means you can't say anything interesting about any of them.)

Say something your competitors would find fascinating. If they wouldn't find your talk interesting, the rest of the audience probably won't either.

Remember that your audience can read. Rather than reciting the results in the paper, talk about how you got them, especially what problems you solved and what mistakes you made, or about the implications.

Plan your slides for visual content. Pictures should be worth a thousand words. If a slide doesn't make sense shown backwards, it has too many words and not enough picture -- take it out. The outline of your talk belongs in your notes, not on your slides.

Using visual media for things with visual content also does wonders for the poor people at the back of the audience who can't read your 3-point type anyway. If you must put words on your slides, 24-point type is about the minimum. For viewgraphs, stand up and drop them on the floor at your feet; if you can't read them that way, the print's too small.

Once when I found I had to cut a talk severely -- by about a factor of four -- I resorted to writing a full script, literally writing out every word I was going to say. This let me time things quite precisely, and helped a lot in figuring out exactly what would fit. When I gave the talk, I didn't follow the script word for word, but it was there to fall back on if I got stuck. Too much preparation is better than not enough.

Visit the washroom shortly before your talk.

Tom Verhoeff

There is one advice about slide making that I find missing. What I usually do when preparing slides is to take a sheet of A4 paper and divide it into 4, or even better 8, small pages (of the same ratio as a slide). I handwrite my slide texts in my usual (too small) `font'. That way you cannot put too much on a slide. When you prepare the text of a slide on a single A4 sheet you tend to write to small and you are led to believe that everything still fits. With the artificially reduced page size your usual handwriting is about the right size and you immediately feel that you cannot include so much on a single sheet. Besides, it saves paper. I learnt this technique from a colleague, but I have never seen it advertised.

Michael Wolfe

We had one student here who was almost catatonic in front of an audience, and he had to give a presentation for part of our PhD qualifying exam. His advisor had him write his entire presentation (word for word) on 3x5 cards, from which he read the talk. I also saw another author do this at a Sigplan PLDI conference a few years ago. While this loses points for missing audience eye contact, it is far superior to a poor talk, which would otherwise have been the result. So, a last resort for the very nervous is to write out the talk when they are alone and calm, and then to simply read it.

Jacques Cremer

Just one small point: on slide 31, you have the following advice: "Point at the screen, not at the overhead projector", which is of course fine. However, many people point at the (laptop) screen when projecting from their computer; could be worthwhile to tell them not to do it!.
Simon Peyton Jones, simonpj@dcs.gla.ac.uk