Sunday, March 17, 2013

How to give a talk/presentation - Wisdom from Dr. Bender

(The content of this post is mostly stolen inspired by this post by my friend Deepak.)

This Spring, I took a course called CSE638 (Advanced Algorithms) under Professor Michael Bender. This was a mostly research oriented course, with a focus on doctoral students. An important part of doing Academic Research is talking/presenting your material in conferences and seminars. Professor Bender spent a couple of classes discussing this, and I thought I'll list down the stuff he mentioned - more of a note to myself.
  1. Make the talk prefix-competitive
    If somebody dozes off, the person should have got the best part of your presentation/content before he/she dozed off. Bring the best part of your talk to the front. Make it prefix-competitive.
  2. Stand in front of the screen, Smile :)
    Do not stand away from the screen, in some corner behind the podium. Stand in front of the screen. Let the Projector's display glow on your face. Stand confidently in front of the screen - okay now, don't block the screen, but stand to the edge of the screen, and Smile while you speak. Convey enthusiasm. "People like seeing faces". Facebook has become popular for a reason ;)
  3. Diagrams and Figures!
    Have plenty of diagrams and figures on each slide.
  4. Refer to every slide & everything on each slide
    Refer to each and every item on your slide. If there is a diagram, explain everything. If you're not going to explain something, refer to it and say that you're not going to explain it. Either way, please do refer to everything on your slides!
  5. Touch the screen, point to it
    Don't be afraid of the screen. Touch it. While explaining the diagrams and figures, stand over the screen and explain stuff by physically touching the screen with your fingers/hands. That very act conveys confidence.
  6. Results Up Front
    If your talk is about the results, let the results be as far upfront as possible. Build the context as soon as possible, and announce what you did.
  7. Explain the Title
    Spend time explaining the title. And the background. This might seem to conflict with point-4, but it's not. That's the trick.
  8. Give credit wherever possible, and do this in the beginning
    When giving credit to others, please try to do this when you start rather than when you end. People like hearing about other people. Did I mention something about facebook earlier?
  9. Explain why the problem is important
    This I feel is one of the biggest take-aways from the talk. Even if the audience doesn't understand the solution, they should understand why we need a solution in the first place.
  10. Make use of plots effectively
    Explain the axes, and know what to plot. Refer to this post by Gaurav to know more about what this means.
  11. Know your audience
    For example, presenting the workings of a toaster to a homemaker is different from presenting it to an electrical engineer. You'll need to motivate the problem differently in both cases. Same goes with presenting it to someone who has had a toast before v/s someone who hasn't. I find that Dr. Dan Gusfield does a brilliant job of motivating problems before presenting the solutions (related to point-7).
  12. There are a couple more about Jokes, Color Schemes, etc. which I can't recall.
There now, nobody can stop you from giving an awesome talk!

PS - If you're from Stony Brook, and find that I've missed something, feel free to write in the comments. Thanks!

Update: Found this article online.