38

I am preparing to give a conference presentation from scratch.

What is an effective ratio of introduction / methods / results / conclusion slides?

How can I balance the details of research without loosing the audience on key points?

In my experience, 90% of conference talks are dull and there may be one or two at any given conference that are really inspiring. What makes a "great" talk?

  • 4
    The LaTeX Beamer User's Guide contains useful hints on short conference presentations. Those are applicable even if you use another tool to actually prepare the presentation. See tex.ac.uk/tex-archive/macros/latex/contrib/beamer/doc/… – gerrit Oct 4 '12 at 7:17
  • 2
    Don't have too many slides. It's my pet hate when speakers have 50 slides for a 15 minute talk. – csgillespie Oct 4 '12 at 8:09
  • A tangent to consider: Writing and Speaking. – user568 Oct 4 '12 at 12:51

11 Answers 11

21

(edited to extract the key points from the main reference)

Ian Parberry's guidelines were always essential for me. Firstly I will give a personal replies to your answers and subsequently I will extract the main points of the Ian's guidelines which are the basis for my answer.

Personal perspective

What is an effective ratio of introduction / methods / results / conclusion slides?

My own rule of thumb is to allocate 2-3 minutes per slide, which gives max. 6-8 slides including the envelope (the "title" and the "end+questions?" ones). That is, we have about 5 real content slides of which for introduction I allocate 1 for motivation&context, and 1 to problem definition.

The body gets whatever it needs, but shouldn't exceed 4 slides, with at least a single one dedicated to a sketch of a worked example. The audience doesn't need to know how exactly I am doing the magic, I must however make them trust me and see what I am doing as plausible.

The summary/conclusion/future work gets 1 slide.

How can I balance the details of research without loosing the audience on key points?

Stress the motivation, the relevance of the problem and only sketch your solution so that an example which you provide will be plausible enough.

Your talk is an advertisement for your paper. You are doing your best to assure that people learn something and you imprint some key points in their heads (the problem description and a sketch of the main idea solving it). You don't need to explain the details, just sketch the main principles. You want to compel the audience to either read your paper that day in the evening and base their own work on it (hence citations!), or ensure that sometime in the future when they will face a problem, they'll remember that there was this guy speaking about something along the same lines, so let's check it (hence possible citations!).

What makes a "great" talk?

For me, it's grounding in reality. Show me what impact your stuff has on me. Speak about an application I might care for, even if it will be only a hypothetical one. If the result cannot be framed as a machine, or software, such as a lot of (non-computational) game-theory, then speak about implications to the society. Strike whatever chord, which makes your results tangible. It all boils down to answering a single question for every single person in the audience: Why should I care?!

But even if you do the all the positive advice right, there's a more important point, namely what you shouldn't do. For example I tend to speak a lot (see my posts at this site :-) ). My main drill during preparation of a talk is to throw away everything non-essential. Moreover, I am often writing down notes about what not to say. Many otherwise great talks are ruined by the presenter speaking too much* and **showing off. I don't want to be impressed by your smartness, or charisma per se, I want you to simply educate me!


And finally the key points from the Ian Parberry's guidelines for giving a good talk, emphasis mine.

General advice

  1. Communicate the Key Ideas: select 1-2 main high-level ideas and present them in a crisp and crystal clear way.
  2. Don’t get Bogged Down in Details: do not even attempt to discuss the details, unless you you have brisk answers to possible questions you open that way.
  3. Structure Your Talk & Use a Top-down Approach: go the least-surprise path, i.e, the audience needs a story a wants to be able to follow it. The structure should stay crisp: 1) solid motivation/intro, 2) main points/body, 3) technicalities, if really necessary, 4) conclusion.
  4. Know Your Audience: allows you to skip some common-knowledge in the audience, as well as select what is important to them and what do they care for.

Structure of the talk

I added the emphasis to the points which I consider crucial.

The Introduction

  1. Define the Problem
  2. Motivate the Audience
  3. Introduce Terminology
  4. Discuss Earlier Work
  5. Emphasize the Contributions of your Paper
  6. Provide a Road-map

The Body

  1. Abstract the Major Results
  2. Explain the Significance of the Results
  3. Sketch a Proof of the Crucial Results

Technicalities

  1. Present a Key Lemma
  2. Present it Carefully

The Conclusion

  1. Hindsight is Clearer than Foresight
  2. Give Open Problems
  3. Indicate that your Talk is Over

34

How can I balance the details of research without losing the audience on key points?

From my perspective, the key to giving a 15 minute talk is to omit all of the details. Many audience members don't care, the few who do can read your paper, and in any case it's impossible to convey any serious details clearly and correctly in such a short time. If you try, then much of the audience will stop paying attention; you'll end up wasting their time and missing a great opportunity to present your work. Instead, your goal should be to ensure that everyone leaves with some understanding of what you've done, and that some of them are inspired to learn more.

This means you should focus on the big picture. What did you do, how and why did you do it, and what have we learned from it? In mathematics, I'd focus on context, motivation, definitions, theorem statements, examples, and intuition. It's OK to give a brief proof outline or sketch, but nothing detailed or complicated. If you can't summarize it in a few sentences, it's too complicated.

There are various ways short talks can go wrong. For example, some of them try to compress 30 minutes of content into 15 minutes by talking fast and barely explaining anything, while others simply omit the background and context needed to understand the presentation. However, there's a common difficulty behind many bad talks: they focus on the speaker's desires and goals rather than the audience's. Ultimately, you need to design your presentation to fit the background and interests of the audience and the time available, rather than what you wish you could tell them.

  • 2
    Great advice on focusing on the big picture. For such short talks, especially on conferences, I'd focus more on the results than the methods. It's a great opportunity also to practice your elevator presentation -- describing shortly what you are working on to (almost) complete neophytes on a social gathering without being boring. – mindcorrosive Oct 4 '12 at 7:26
  • 13
    On omitting detail: The point of a short research talk is to convince the audience to read your paper, not to make reading your paper unnecessary. – JeffE Oct 4 '12 at 14:02
  • +1 @JeffE . A 15 min. presentation is a kind of advertisement for your publication. – Noble P. Abraham Oct 5 '12 at 16:13
20

While 15 minutes is on the longer side for what I'm about to suggest, I think it's still useful.

In a 15 minute presentation you don't have time to think of things to say on the fly. It's important that you have a story nailed down fairly tight. While you don't need a full script for what you're going to say, you should have a fairly detailed plan of what you're going to say (even upto key sentences and transitions).

As others have pointed out, you'll have to eliminate most details. THIS IS OK ! The audience will only (at best) get a high level idea of what your work is about and only the briefest glimmer of a technique or tool. So in order to decide what to say, you should ask yourself the following:

Why should I (the listener) care about your work ?

Answering this question will help you decide what to keep and what to throw.

As for your last question, a great talk is a strange mix of details, high level concepts, and inspiration. If it were easy to describe it, all talks would be great :). But if you shoot for a talk that people will remember, that is both more attainable, and easier to construct.

14

Consider the point of the talk; you want to convey to the audience what it is you did and what your results were. Similar to a paper, you'll want just enough background to bring those who aren't familiar with your subfield up to speed, and barely any conclusions as the audience will draw their own conclusions.

With that in mind, you'll want something similar to the following:

  • 1-2 min — background
  • 5-6 min — methods
  • 3-4 min — results
  • 1 min — conclusions, thanks, etc

Note that you'll probably want to leave some time for questions, so you should err on the side of shorter rather than longer.

From my experiences, you will want to really prepare for this. As discussed in more detail in this answer, this is really the main forum for you to sell your work. You'll want to make sure you put forward your best possible face. All the usual points related to public speaking apply here as well: talk slower (yes, slower... slower than that, even), be concise, be clear, make good use of slides, etc.

  • Note the usual disclaimer that this may vary from field to field. – eykanal Oct 4 '12 at 0:39
8

I think the other answers state it quite clearly: eliminate most details! Some key points I've found across different sources and observed at talks I've enjoyed:

  • You don't want to explain your paper, you want the audience to want to read your paper.

  • You need to be comfortable with your talk. I've attended great short highly technical talks, and great short high-level talks. What made the talks great was not the technical content, but the capability of the speaker to convey his/her enthusiasm for the content.

  • I particularly like AnonynousMathematician's "[bad talks] focus on the speaker's desires and goals rather than the audience's". At a conference, the audience is not here to judge you, or to evaluate your work, but to attend an hopefully interesting talk. The point is not to show how good you are.

  • It might depend on the technical field, but a good way to interest an audience is to present them with a problem, usually illustrated with a simple example, and then to give the guidelines of how you solved that problem.

Finally, read many advices you can find on this topic. For instance, I'd suggest you the page of Simon Peyton-Jones, recently pointed out by walkmanyi.

6

I think in any conference presentation (whether it is 10 minutes or 60 minutes), there are only two parts that are absolutely necessary:

  • What is the problem that you studied. Explain it as carefully as possible, in the simplest possible form; make it as easy to understand as possible. Do not assume that some parts of the setting are obvious to the audience; make everything explicit.

  • What is the new result that you obtained. Again, explain it as carefully as possible, in the simplest possible form. Proceed slowly; even if you could state the result in 5 seconds, spend much more time on it. Make sure the audience has enough time to digest what was your new main contribution.

If these parts necessarily take 15 minutes, it is OK. I do not think anything else is absolutely necessary.

Of course there are lots of things that would be nice to have, time permitting: background, motivation, related work, a very rough overview of some methods that you used to obtain the results, conclusions, etc. But none of these parts are as important as explaining what was the research question and what was the new result.


By the way, if it appears that this approach results in a boring talk, most likely your own idea of what is your research question is wrong. Think big, go one level up.

Example: You have studied thingy X (something technical and complicated) and your work shows that X has property Y (something easy to understand), and this is cool, as it is the first example of a thingy with property Y.

Bad:

  • Problem: We study the properties of thingy X. (But explaining X takes forever. It is complicated, technical and boring. And why would you want to study it anyway.)

  • Result: We show X has property Y. (But now you would still have to explain what is Y. You are already running out of time, and you have already lost your audience.)

  • You feel like you would have wanted to talk about motivation, related work, and methods, but you are already overtime, and nobody is following anymore.

Good:

  • Problem: Is there a thingy with property Y? (Now this was much easier to explain. You have got plenty of time to also mention that this is a famous open question posed by Professor Bigname in 1950s.)

  • Result: Yes, we give the first example of such a thingy! (That was easy. And now to make sure that everyone gets the big news, you can spends some time explaining that in prior work others have come close, but nobody has been quite there.)

  • And now you still have lots of time left, so you can tell something about the particular thingy X that you put together. All of this is extra. You can be sketchy, just give some highlights of the main ideas. Everyone in the audience already knows where you are aiming at and what is the big picture; they can fill in the details or look it up in your paper if it matters.

3

A nice discussion on this can be found here: http://presentations.catalysis.nl/presentations/presentation.php.

If your talk is in mathematics, you might also want to look at https://mathoverflow.net/questions/29866/presenting-a-paper-dos-and-donts.

Some other tips I've heard:

  • Use one slide per minute. For a 15-minute talk, use only 15 slides.
  • The first part of your talk should be understandable by any adult (if your target audience consists of adults). The next part should be understandable by your peers (same field as yours, e.g., mathematics, but not necessarily the same subfield, e.g., number theory). The next part should be understandable by your peers working in the same subfield. The last part should be understandable by you. (Although some believe this last part is too much).
3

Some things to think about (from the point of view of a mathematician, but I hope some of this might be relevant in other fields too): Does your main result have a special case or two that would be easier for your audience to understand than the general result (without being trivial)? If so, you might just present that (or those) special case(s), and add at the end one sentence to the effect that your full result is more general.

Does your result require terminology that people might not know? If so, does it really require that terminology, or could you perhaps get by without it? If you really need the terminology, budget enough time to explain it and, if possible, relate it to something your audience already knows.

The background information (previous results, open questions) that motivate your work is likely to be too much to present in full in the limited time available. Select just enough of that information to be understandable and to provide some (not necessarily all) motivation for your work. Having presented some motivation, you can add one sentence saying that there is additional motivation, which you don't have time to explain in the talk.

In two places, I've suggested adding a single sentence saying "there's more"; you should indicate your willingness (or even eagerness) to discuss the "more" later with anyone who is interested.

2

There are many good answers. I especially like the second half of the answer from @walkmanyi, especially as concerns the structure of a short talk. I disagree with most the time amounts given. I have found great success with:

  • 7 minutes of background
  • 5 minutes combined methods, results, conclusions
  • 3 minutes of questions

If a separate time is given to questions, then 9 to 6 in favor of background.

2

My goal when giving a talk is to convey information in a way none have presented or expressed before. The constraints being:

  • easy to understand for complete novices
  • interesting for experts

My mindset is also to aim for 10-12 minutes when allocated 15 minutes. It is always better to finish early than it is to go over your time. It ALWAYS leaves a bad taste in my mouth when a speaker exceeds their allotted time. It's disrespectful and inconsiderate of other people's time.

I also subscribe to the 1 slide per 1 minute MAX philosophy. In terms of time per section (borrowing from @eykanal's reply), but whichever section has your contribution then the time spent there should be doubled (e.g., I assume in the Methods section):

  • 2 min Background
  • 4 min Methods
  • 2 min Evaluation
  • 2 min Results
  • 2 min Conclusions
  • 1 min Future Work
1

An interesting comment about presentations can be found here. The author is professor of Computer Science, thus some things may not apply in all cases. Moreover, I think that the advice is very extreme, which actually makes it interesting.

In the case of the area of management, this resource may be helpful. These notes were the result of a session at one of the Academy of Management meetings.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.