Giving My First of Many Talks


Last week I gave my very first talk on work I've been doing for my thesis. It was, as many of my experiences have been so far, a very eye opening and life changing experience. I'd like to dedicate this post to what I learned throughout this process.

I'll be elaborating on what I've learned:

First off, I think this information is beneficial for anyone giving a talk, whether it be in academia or industry. It's important to know how to give a proper talk. I've been told by many and have recently come to realize that talks are a big part of one's PhD in particular. This makes sense, because the research you are doing is groundbreaking and new. Additionally, you'll probably attend lots of conferences and universities where people will, obviously, want to hear about your work. It's not easy giving a talk, but I've been told by many that it will become exponentially easier to give them as time passes by and after you've talked about your work for years.

Designing a good talk was a lot like writing a good paper (refer to my post on writing papers), except a talk needs to keep the audience engaged the entire time. This is a very challenging task, especially if your talk doesn't allow you to be a little silly. Since my work focuses primarily on technologies for children, I realized that it was slightly easier for me to add a bit of humor and silliness while still being appropriate.

Tell a story.

The easiest way to organize your talk in an order which the audience will understand is to tell a story. Literally. You can start by presenting your audience with the motivation and/or problem that you faced and that inspired you to do what you're doing.

Continue on to talk about what previous related research has done and shown you. Did anything do anything similar?

Then begin to talk about your own design. This part can be shaped and molded to your specific project. How did you start? Did you brainstorm? Did you create prototypes? If so, how did you create them? What was the process? Especially be sure to include details that are interesting enough to spike the audience's interest.

If you tested the product, what were the results? What was interesting about the results?

Finally, what do you plan on doing in the future? How will you do things differently?

Your introduction determines audience engagement.

The way you open up a talk is so very important. Be sure it's really appealing, otherwise you start out weak and it will be very hard to get the audience's attention afterwards. Start strong to keep your audience's attention for as long as possible before you have to start fighting to get their attention back. This is a war! It's guaranteed that you won't always hold their attention, but start strong and you will be sure to win the first of many battles you'll have to conquer throughout the talk.

I began my talk with a short video clip that served both as a demo and an engaging opening. I tried to make this video slightly silly as well by adding dramatic music (refer to above video). The audience was laughing throughout the video and into the introduction of my talk. If this happens, you've definitely hooked the audience's attention.

Use your slides as an aid, not the main presentation. Simplicity is key.

I always hate reading large chunks of text on powerpoint slides while a lecturer is speaking. I find it extremely difficult to concentrate on what the person is saying while trying to simultaneously read. What was it about Steve Jobs and his engaging talks? He used his visuals as an aid, not as the main source of presentation. And so I advise everyone to use as little text as possible. I personally prefer no text at all, but of course sometimes it's necessary.

Instead, use pictures to support what you're saying. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Keep this in mind when giving a talk. If you're describing the results of a study, don't show your results in text. Instead, show graphs or pictures of what your results look like. You should actually be able to give a talk without slides, but here you're using slides to help keep your audience's attention. Use those slides wisely

Include scaffolding to help the audience remember where you are.

This helps the audience understand that we're now going to talk about how the shirt was built.
This helps the audience understand that we're now going to talk about how the shirt was built.

For long talks, it's usually best to include an overview slide to help the audience understand what you will be talking about in what order, and it can also serve as a guidance tool throughout your talk. Create timelines and include them on all your slides to help you audience understand where you are. As you're talking, refer back to the timeline you created. Scaffolding is very important here. Tell your audience what you're going to talk about. An hour is a long time for a talk, and some people might get lost on exactly what you're talking about. Help them understand what part of the story you're describing.

Additionally, scaffolding helps with keeping the audience engaged. A simple "let's talk about [bla]" will grab the audience's attention to what you're about to discuss.

Sprinkle appealing animations to keep the audience interested.

It is a fact that you will eventually, at some point(s), lose the audience's attention. The trick is to sprinkle interesting animations/pictures/videos throughout your talk instead of trying to keep the audience engaged the entire time (because that won't happen unless you're a master lecturer). And I don't mean simple, cliche animations like fading in or out. I mean full fledged animations that make it look like you created a professional video of things flying around. (I believe some of my animations are visible in the video above.)

It's your job to keep the audience engaged and avoid boring them to death. Use these to your advantage to spike your audience's attention after you talk about something boring, but necessary. Make sure all the good animations are not smushed together in several consecutive slides, but rather sprinkled throughout them.

Rehearse. A lot.

If you're not perfect like me, chances are that you will be nervous about giving a talk. I always begin to shake in front of an audience, whether or not I'm nervous. Actually, I wasn't nervous about my talk at all...until I walked onto the floor. I could hear my own voice shaking. At that moment I realized the importance of my 13 rehearsals with my cat and stuffed animals as my audience at home.

If I had not rehearsed my talk that many times, I would have frozen or presented the information I wanted to share in the wrong manner. I practically memorized what I wanted to say exactly the way I wanted to say it to the point where I found myself simply moving forward without even thinking while I was giving my talk. So it's important to rehearse not only to get a feel for what you want to say and what sounds good, but rather to help you in those moments of panic in front of the audience. Thinking of something to say on the spot is much harder to do than reciting something you've rehearsed many times before.

Fonts matter!

Do not, not, NOT use comic sans! Who even created such a horrid font?! Anyways, using an appropriate and appealing font goes a long way in creating aesthetically pleasing slides. I like to use Helvetica Neue Ultra Light. I'm not really sure why this looks so nice to me, I'd have to ask a typography expert, but it has definitely caught many eyes.

Get feedback. Iterate. Iterate. Iterate.

Let me tell you now, the first presentation you create will not be the finished product (again, unless you're a presenting genius). I went through 7 iterations of my powerpoint before I was satisfied that it was ready for viewing. I never though it would take that long, but oh was I wrong (heh, I rhymed). I worked on them over a span of 2 weeks. Granted, this was my first talk, and I wanted it to go right. But I will surely still do this with my future talks as well.

Feedback from peers is extremely important. Something you say might make sense in your head, but it might not make much sense in reality. Rehearse for several different people, both in and outside of your field, for the most amount of feedback. Be sure to iterate on your slides every time you get feedback. Similarly, create a new file for every new iteration (ie. My slides v1, My slides v2, etc) in case you want to go back to using something you trashed.