Tuesday, November 01, 2005



I recently attended a symposium about advances in astrophysics. What people wanted to say in their talks was very interesting. For the most part, how they said it was terrible.

Here are some simple pointers on preparing and presenting a talk on a highly technical subject in which you, the speaker, yourself may have made important contributions.

1 - Assume that your audience will consist of people whose background in the subject will range from knowing more than you do (and can find the errors in your talk), to people who understand almost nothing about your topic, going in.

2 - Your objective is to communicate valuable information to each person in the audience.

3 - Your plan should be to start your talk by explaining the background for your work in words that anyone can understand, and explain the main point of your work in words that anyone can understand.

4 - The middle of your talk should be a clear exposition of the methods you and other people have used to get the new results. It can be directed at experts, but should be completely understandable to, say, a graduate student working in that problem.

5 - There will never be time in your talk to explain the detailed derivation of the most complex results. Explain principles, not details. Do not show slides of calculations, where it is impossible to read the slide or glean any meaning from it in the time it is visible. (That does not help explain the details.)

6 - Use self-explanitory pictures to illustrate and accompany parts of your talk if that is appropriate. If a picture is not self-explanatory, explain it.

7 - Graphs and table should be used when they contribute information. Use only graphs and tables that are simple enough to be understood quickly by the audience. Explain what they mean, what the units are, what the results mean. Explain what is being shown. Leave it on the screen long enough for the audience to read it, think about it, and understand it.

8 - The end of the talk should explain, again, in words that everyone in the audience can understand, what the new result is, how it changes the situation that existed before, and the critical insight or contriribution that led to the new result.

9 - Humor is always good. Be friendly. Be clear. Be loud enough to be heard. Talk to the audience. Do not talk down to the audience. Do not try to use jargon and acronyms, or leave out steps because you think it is insulting to the experts to be clear. Clear is good -- even for experts.

10 - Before the talk is presented, practice it. If you are not a native speaker of the language of the talk, practice the talk with coaching from someone who is a native speaker. If there are any complicated things you do -- like switching from one program to another during the talk -- practice that, and set it up on the computer to be as simple as possible.

11 - Arrive early at the place where you are giving the talk. Check any audio/visual equipment you will be using -- make sure your computer connects to the screen, and that it can be connected quickly.

12 - Have a backup plan for anything that you need. Your briefcase, with your speech and your slides, can get lost or get stolen. Computers can get lost or break; audio visual equipment can malfunction. Have a second copy where possible. Be prepared to go ahead without anything but yourself.

13 - Be ready to have fun, to answer questions, and to interact with the audience after your talk.

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