Presenting at technical conferences

Recently I attended a technical conference, and I was disappointed in the number of presentations that I found completely incomprehensible. I’m not referring to people who didn’t speak English as their first language. In fact, many times those people had BETTER presentations. I’m primarily referring to those presentations that devolved into endless equations and minute details that almost no one in the audience could understand.

Many presentations had really interesting titles and abstracts, but when I attended the presentation I was totally lost by the third slide. I believe these presenters were completely missing the point of the presentations. The point is not to impress everyone with millions of equations and details regarding your research, but rather to show what you did in general terms. In other words, your presentation should be an advertisement for your paper – not a compressed version of the paper itself. You should not try to explain every significant detail of your research.

At the first technical conference I attended, there were many presentations that were similar to those I describe above, but I assumed that was primarily due to my lack of experience with such conferences and in general. I did however see many presentations that showed me what a good technical presentation is all about. I tried to absorb those lessons and applied them as best I could, which I believe significantly enhanced my presentation. This resulted in a number of compliments from various people who attended my talk, which definitely did not happen with previous presentations.

The primary suggestions I have for creating strong technical presentations are as follows:

  • Have few to zero equations, even if that is 90+ percent of your work. No matter how technical, theory-based, and mathematical your research is, you should be able to translate it to clear language that anyone can understand and which tells them why what you’re doing MATTERS. If you can’t do this, then odds are that someone who could do this was responsible for obtaining the funding that is paying for your research. And if you want to be able to do this for yourself in the future, you must learn this skill.
  • Do not try to impress everyone with lots of technical details (and especially lots of equations). You are FAR more likely to impress your audience members if you make your presentation accessible to everyone and the main results of your research as clear as possible. Show what you did in general terms, not in super-specialized terms.
  • Speak as if you’re giving a class, and design your presentation accordingly. Because that is essentially what you are doing, with the research you did as the topic of the class. As part of this, you need to talk as if your audience members have been exposed to the concepts on a very general or low level, but are definitely not experts completely conversant about your research area. This might not be the case for everyone in the room, but odds are that it is true for MOST people in the room.
  • Get out from behind the podium and project your voice to the back of the room. There is nothing worse than someone who hides behind the podium and drones into a microphone in a soft voice. That equals nap time, especially right after lunch. At the same time, you shouldn’t be running/jumping all over the place as you present, as that can be distracting (though it’s still better than sitting behind the podium). The ideal in my mind is to stand away from the podium and have some motion with your arms and body as you present, but in general staying roughly in the same area and not jumping from one side of the screen to the other on every slide.
  • Vary the intonation in your voice and show your excitement and passion for your topic. If you go through your presentation as if this is the last thing in the world you want to do, it is DEFINITELY going to show. And that will make the presentation miserable, which will make you even less willing to present again in the future. It’s a vicious negative feedback loop. Break that loop by ACTING excited and interested, even if you’re not. Presenting can become fun. I know that may sound like crazy talk to you, and you may believe that such a goal is impossible for you, but if you keep getting better and keep up a positive attitude about it, you will find that your overall attitude about presenting will change.
  • Don’t stand awkwardly at the front of the room until it’s your time to speak. This is possibly one of the worst mistakes you can make, especially as a speaker without much experience. The longer you stand up there, the more nervous you’ll get, right up until it’s time to start presenting. This is a terrible way to start a presentation. A much better approach is to go around the room and talk to your friends, introduce yourself to new people, crack jokes, and in general try to enjoy yourself as much as possible. You may be thinking: “Is he crazy? I can’t do that right before I present! I have to be ready to present. If I’m going around talking to people, that’s gonna totally throw me off and I won’t be ready to talk when it’s time!” Well, my next question is: Have you ever tried this? If not, give it a whirl. What’s the worst that could happen? Your presentation starts slightly worse? Who cares? If your worst fear comes true, it’s no big deal. But that won’t happen anyways. In fact, I can almost guarantee that your presentation will start much better. You will find that if you take my advice here, not only will you be MUCH more relaxed when you start to speak, but you will be more relaxed and present better for the entire presentation. This is because if you start a presentation in a relaxed mindset, this solid start will lead to even more relaxation as you progress through the presentation.
  • Work to reduce or eliminate Um’s and Uh’s.
  • Create mystery at the beginning of your presentation. This is related to not only the structure of the presentation, but also to your delivery of the presentation. I first discussed this in my Audio books article. At the beginning of the presentation, show the audience the primary questions you tried to answer in your research. For example, “How can we better do X?” “How can we make X work?” “How do we decide what method to use among these alternatives to accomplish our goals?” Of course, include specifics relevant to your work as appropriate. These questions also reveal to your audience the motivation behind the research. Get your audience curious about these questions. The way to do this is to show them the gap in their knowledge, which will make them want to fill that gap. When you are going over your results, I recommend you first show previous results or the problem you are trying to solve, and then in the very next slide show the improved results or how you solved the problem. This accentuates the mystery-answer effect, which will keep your audience much more engaged.
  • Do not put entire paragraphs of text on your slides. The best approach is to have a list of bullets that will help remind you what to discuss as you go through the presentation, but won’t distract audience members as they watch. You do not want to force audience members to choose between listening to you and reading all of the sentences on your slide.
  • Similar to the previous bullet, do not put tons of information onto a single slide. Contrary to what most people believe, white space is your good friend, not your enemy. Unfortunately some people see a slide with white space and think “look at all that real estate! I can fill that with tons of text, pictures, etc.” This is completely ridiculous in my opinion. The point of presentations is not to fill every slide you have with as much content as possible. In fact, that may be the OPPOSITE of the point of presentations. The purpose is to be as clear and easy to understand as possible. Uncluttered slides allow the audience to easily focus on what they should be considering as you talk. And PowerPoint slides are FREE. There is no reason to compress your talk into as few slides as possible. I also recommend using PowerPoint animation to show one point at a time as you go through a slide. Just be careful with this animation if you are converting your PowerPoint presentation to a PDF, as that animation will likely not get captured in the PDF version.
  • Pictures are good. Feel free to blow up a picture to the entire size of the slide, especially if there is a lot of detail in the picture. But at the same time, don’t force yourself to use pictures if they aren’t relevant.
  • If you have data that you are not going to discuss on a slide, remove that data! There is no reason to have it on your slide, and it will only distract the audience. You have that data in your paper, so they can read your paper if they want that information.
  • Big, clear block diagrams can help to explain how different ideas/components are connected. Just don’t try to cram too much into the block diagram of course.

Many of these principles can be applied to all presentations, not just those at technical conferences. So I encourage you to implement these ideas in your next presentation no matter who you are or what you are presenting about. I think you will be very pleased with the results.

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