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Giving a Good Talk May 28, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in Conference, physics life.

I watched a practice talk for Top 2008 the other day. The person giving it did a great job. They were way more prepared than I usually am by time I usually give a talk. Unfortunately (or fortunately) there is a lot more to giving a good talk than just a good deck of slides. I think the number one thing for me is “tell a story.”

I started searching the web for other advice out there — there is a lot… Some of it I had never considered before.

  • FONT SIZE. Ok, this one I and I hope everyone else knows well. But feel the need to repeat it because I see so many people doing it. And I’m getting old – so this is becoming more and more important to me! 🙂 While small fonts show up very well on your screen, they are horrible in a talk – no one in the back of the room can read them!
  • Colors. Ok, this is another one. If you have a white background, don’t use yellow text. Similar advice for dark backgrounds. Contrast on your screen makes this sort of thing look great. Not true for projectors — they are horrible low-contrast things. If you even have to think “Hmmm, I wonder if that color will show up well?” then it probably won’t. Kill it. 🙂
  • Use Pictures, not not needlessly. There is plenty of stupid clip-art in the world. If used correctly, it can be funny. The problem is that it is rarely part of the story you are trying to tell – you just put it in to have some fun. Works once. Perhaps twice. On the other hand, don’t fill your slides with text! Dense text is really hard to read. Plots, diagrams – all of these help a lot. Yes, they take longer to put together than just writing some straight text. Tough. 🙂
  • Similar, except more sparing, advice about animation, with a caveat. We really don’t use it in particle physics talks. That is ok — it is very hard to use correctly. The same with pictures: if you are going to use it, then make sure it is telling a story. Perhaps my best use of animation is the decay of a bottom quark. First the hard scatter, then the B hadron, then the hadron’s decay tracks, and finally construction lines. This animation shows how the decay unravels – so it is part of the story. I would call that “good.” The other thing about animation: make sure you don’t have to wait for it. Now, that said, everyone in particle physics likes PDFs – which don’t do animation in the sophisticated way that the various presentation programs do. So, make sure when your animation is done that nothing important has been obscured (I’ve violated this so many times. :().
  • When you walk around, people will follow you. When you stand still, people will look at your slides. Obvious when you think about it, but I guess I never had. You could use this to your advantage, however. Got an important plot? Stand still as you laser it. Lots of text where you are basically saying what is already up there? Take that opportunity to turn and directly engage your audience and walk around.
  • Use a remote slide advancer if you can. Otherwise you are tied to the length of the cable that attaches the computer to the projector. Another bit of advice I saw out there — don’t use those advancers that have a combined laser pointer. You’ll advance your slides accidentally too many times. Ha! I’ve done that multiple times.
  • Sound like you care. I know you do. Usually we are talking about things that we’ve done — spent months and months or perhaps years perfecting. Or nursing to the point it is a published PRL. Hopefully that will come out in your talk!
  • Finally, the old perennial: don’t say “Ummm…” unless it is part of a joke!

I’m sure people have 1000’s of other bits of advice. Pile on!



1. Lee Potts - May 28, 2008

Hi Gordon,

I’d also like to suggest showing up early and make sure everything is working correctly. It’s hard to give a good presentation it started ten minutes late and you’re flustered from trying to get your laptop to work with the projector. It will also give you a chance to familiarize yourself with the stage, the podium, and the room in general. You’ll feel more comfortable if you have a chance to do this.


2. Christos - May 28, 2008

Death by powerpoint:

After I give a talk, I now have (other) physicists come and tell me “I understood your talk!”, like it is the first time it ever happened to them…

3. Kevin - May 28, 2008

I’d also like to suggest not using a white background ever. Besides lacking aesthetically, you also lose out in signal-to-noise. The signal from a couple of “off” pixels surrounded by all those “on” pixels is harder to discern than a couple “on” pixels in a background-free setting. On the other hand, a white background might be good if one is trying to make a point about how hard it is to isolate some new rare particle.

4. Mike Procario - May 28, 2008

I remember a CLEO collaboration meeting before the APS meeting when we had all of the graduate students give practice talks. This was before we had analysis groups, so this was the first talk before an audience bigger than 2 or 3 people for most of the students. It went on for two days and it was grueling. The last speaker was a postdoc. He had some experience speaking, and he had a very interesting result. It was delightful day to end a long two days.

5. Tom - May 29, 2008

Avoid the red/green mix in graphs. It’s not an uncommon color-blindness issue; you should point to the curves rather than just identify them by color.

6. skullsinthestars - May 30, 2008

I always tell my students to prepare for the transitions between slides: too many speakers leave an awkward pause during their transition, and often stare at the next slide like they’ve never seen it before. It’s better to have some “connecting words” to fill that awkward pause, and it also helps to tell the story better.

7. gordonwatts - June 27, 2008

The “white” background comment is new to me. I’ll have to try that out. I like white because it is “simple”… Are you suggesting black? That is like returning to having all our terminals be black with a bit of white lettering.

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