How To Give a Talk

If you have ever had to stand up and present ideas or data in front of an audience, then this blog is for you. 

In my opinion, the vast majority of science talks are terrible. I don’t mean that the science is bad or that the speakers are not trying to present their work clearly. I mean that information is often presented in a muddled fashion, with visual distractions that prevent the audience from understanding the point and—all too often—the talks are simply boring. They are, therefore, a poor mechanism for communicating information to the audience. The result is that during most scientific meetings, I observe that the majority of the audience has tuned out of many talks. They are checking their e-mail, surfing the web, or just staring blankly at the slides, not really absorbing the information. Often, these audience members blame themselves. They think they are not smart enough or sufficiently advanced in the field to understand the complex material presented in the talk. This represents a huge missed opportunity to communicate the excitement of science to a broad audience.

Over the past twenty years of giving scientific presentations I have learned, developed and simply stumbled upon a number of very simple principles that anybody can use to present a good talk. These principles did not come naturally to me. I was not born with a gift for giving a good talk. I worked hard at it over many years and now I find that audiences are usually deeply engaged with my talks. Some of the principles I employ are adopted from the brilliant insights of Edward Tufte, others from the approaches espoused by Alan Alda, and some I have developed myself. In this blog, I will share these principles with you. 

Let's start, though, with an overview of the fundamental problems with most science talks.

First, most speakers manage to drain their talks of all of their enthusiasm for their work.

Second, most speakers rely on jargon and fail to communicate in plain language.

Third, most speakers employ their audio-visual aides in ways that detract from their message and make it hard for observers to understand the essential points.

These are the most obvious problems with the vast majority of talks. There is another category of talk that I call the “take-no-prisoners” talk, where an obviously successful scientist presents everything they have done or everything they are doing in whatever time slot is available. Often, slides flash across the screen at—literally—an incomprehensible rate. Do these speakers really think they are teaching us anything? Are they trying to impress with volume (rather than quality)? Are they insecure that we won’t think they are productive? I have no understanding of the psychology that underlies this talk format, but in its own way, it is as useless as the boring talk.

So, you may ask, now that I have trashed most science talks, what makes a good talk?

First, it should  be engaging. Just as engaging as a fascinating discussion with a good friend. How do you make it fascinating? Well, here’s the big secret. Just treat the talk like you are having a fascinating discussion with a good friend! In essence, that is all there is to giving a good talk. In practice, there are many tricks you can use to reach this goal. With some fanfare, I will call these tricks "principles."

In this blog, over the coming months (and perhaps years) I will describe in some detail the mechanisms I use to, essentially, transform a talk into a conversation. 

Here's the plan. Periodically I will state one of my principles in this blog and provide an argument for why it seems to work and how you can implement it in your talks. Most of the principles I plan to discuss are intuitive, at least in retrospect, like: Speak Plainly and Slowly , and Be Yourself. Some of the unintuitive principles include: Don't Confuse a Talk with a Paper and Don't Tell the Audience Everything and Stop When You Are Done, Preferably Sooner. I very much doubt I will end up presenting the principles in a coherent order. I am writing this blog in what remains of my “free” time, so I will not expend extra effort at the moment to organize the content. 

Eventually, all of my principles will be enumerated on this blog, everyone will learn them, nobody will give a bad talk, and we will all live in peace and harmony. Well, at least I will have a much more pleasant time attending scientific conferences.

So, let's begin. We start with my most important principle: Don't Put Words On Slides