Tips for creating compelling presentations (Part I: External advice)

I recently shared a collection of advice on how to approach creating conference talks with a friend. I thought I’d share them in case it is helpful to folks who come across this blog.

Listed here is some useful advice I’ve culled from various web sites over the years and my commentary on them.  If you are aware of useful advice not listed here, please list them in the comments.  In a forthcoming blog cost, I’ll post my personal thoughts on this topic

Tips for giving clear talks by Kavyon Fatahalian. These slide set describes a set of guidelines for creating slides and demonstrates their use.  It was created by a CS professor at Stanford as a way to codify ways to address common problems with students’ slides.  Though this is not a tip per se, I think the most important item Kavyon mentions is his philosophy on why one should give a talk (convey what you have discovered and get good feedback) and why one shouldn’t give a talk (to show off or because you feel you are obligated to do so).

How to give a bad talk. This talk describes how to give a good talk in the time-honored tradition of telling readers what not to do.  Much of the advice listed aligns with Kavyon’s advice.

 Chris Anderson’s analysis of what makes a good TED talk.  In this article, Chris—who is the curator for TED —shares his observations on what the best TED talks have in common.  The point that stood out for me most in this article is that Chris states the best talks always scripted and memorized so well that the audience cannot tell the talk is being delivered from memory.  Scripting improves clarity by ensuring that every word the speaker says precisely conveys the speaker’s intent.  Word-for-word memorization prevents the speaker from sounding robotic and from seeming disconnected from the audience.  

Unfortunately, word-for-word memorization is difficult to achieve unless the slides and script themselves are in great shape a few weeks before the conference.  In my experience, this almost never happens!  But, this is okay.  For conference talks, I believe the most important thing is to deliver an extremely clear talk so that the audience understands your work.  Not sending robotic and disconnected is an extremely valuable, but unnecessary bonus.  Therefore, my personal suggestion is not to shy away from reading from a script if you feel doing so is necessary to deliver a clear talk.  At a minimum, think about what you plan to say on each slide and write out our toughts as bullets in the presenter notes.

Note: I have seen students try to give “off-the-cuff” talks in hopes that forgoing a script/bullet points will result in a more engaging talk.  Do not try this.  Instead, craft your talk as precisely as you would write a paper.

Helpful hand gestures for giving good talks. By analyzing thousands of TED talks, the authors of this article found that talk popularity is correlated with the number of hand gestures made by speakers.  This is because gestures serve as visual cues that provide context and enhance clarity.  The article lists several gestures that can be used to highlight common statements made during talks.  My favourites are the gestures for showing an increase and for distinguishing two categories.  I suggest watching the embedded video as well.  I was truly astounded by how much Venessa’s hand gestures accentuate the points she is making.


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