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I have read a lot of tips on how to give a good conference talk: know your audience, give context, don't talk too fast, give your talk a clear structure or story, minimize text on slides, etc.

However, more often than not, presentations I've been to break most of these tips (quickly flipping through walls of text and equations while droning on in monotone), and I find it very difficult to concentrate on the talks.

Any tips on how to pay better attention and be able to learn something from these types of presentations?

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    Don't. Take a break, have a coffee, and wait for the proceedings to be issued. – user207421 Nov 16 '16 at 22:54
  • Even though it is good of you to want to pay better attention, it's worth explicitly pointing out that if a presenter ignores good practice and thereby gives a poor presentation, then it's definitely their failing, not yours. – Greg Martin Nov 16 '16 at 23:24
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    Related – Fatalize Nov 17 '16 at 9:10
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    Talks like that are a great opportunity to let your mind wander about unrelated problems that you've always wanted to think about but never found the time. – Thomas Nov 17 '16 at 18:24
  • If you are interested in the topic but don't like the talk, just read the paper. If you read the paper beforehand you might be able to follow the talk or ask questions at the end. If you aren't interested in the talk, there's nothing to worry about. If it is a boundary-case you can ingest dopaminergic substances such as caffeine to concentrate, or search for another talk. – Jacob Murray Wakem Nov 18 '16 at 15:25
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For me the best approach depends on whether you can actively pay attention to the speaker’s voice or not. There are two very different methods to get the most out of those two scenarios:

Problems with the speaker

This is the case where the speaker is monotone, has nothing interesting to say, or at the very worst, just has absolutely no clue about public speaking (fills sentences with awkward "um"s, stutters, or loses focus and goes off on tangents).

In this case, it's probably best to get as much as you can from the presentation. Focus specifically on that and tone out the speaker, which if monotone shouldn't be all that difficult.

While doing this, take notes and work out some of the problems or exercises, if any, for yourself. Make up an exercise if none are given, or otherwise start trying to make sense of the material and put it to use in any way you can. This way you will have something to do and stay engaged, while still learning the material.

And there's always caffeine.

Problems with the presentation/content

Maybe you have a great speaker, but nothing being spoken goes with the slides, or (my personal pet peeve) the font on the slides is too tiny or poorly formatted to get anything from anyway. In this case, just ignore the slides altogether as they will only serve as a distraction.

Focus on the speaker, take good notes on what is being said, and really think about the concepts in your mind. Mull them over and write down questions you might have, even if it's not an open format where you can ask them during the lecture. This way your mind stays engaged. Take on thought experiments with the material – if this happened, what would the result be? Or: if I used this idea here, how might it help? Find ways to immediately apply what you are learning, and if that's not possible (if it's more theory-based stuff) just follow along the best you can.

If chewing gum helps you to think, do that. Grab an energy drink or whatever helps you stay focused. I find it's a lot harder to pay attention when the speaker is boring than when the presentation is boring.

Problems with both

In your worst case scenario, the speaker is lackluster and the content is dull and dry, with a presentation that is difficult to follow. You can try the following tips:

  • Use an actual pen and paper for notes. The act of writing can help you remember things better.

  • Try to remember earlier parts of the presentation, especially any bits that you found interesting or wanted to go back to later. The act of remembering solidifies concepts in your mind. If you go a week without using a password, that's when you forget it. The same applies to anything you learn.

  • If it's a Q&A format, ask questions. Don't make up nonsense if you can't think of any, but it will help you concentrate just by trying to come up with some.

  • Act as if you are the official meeting notes taker. Record any dialog that goes on if questions are asked. This can help you organize your notes, and will also serve to jog your memory when going over it later.

  • Put away your phone or anything that might provide a distraction. Turn your laptop or other device on airplane mode to keep it from buzzing or blinking unexpectedly.

  • Close your eyes. This is a known technique for helping your other senses get more information. Sure you might be lulled to sleep, but depending on the situation, it might help you concentrate on the speaker better. Listen to the speaker's exact tone and phrasing.

  • Breathe deeply, through your nose. If you are feeling sleepy, this can help you stay awake. Make sure when you breathe, your stomach expands and not your chest. When you take good, deep breaths through your nose from your diaphragm, you get much better breaths and feed your brain with oxygen.

  • Other answers mentioned taking a break. Go grab a bottle of water or energy drink, or take a short walk. Read some of your notes aloud while on your break.

  • I think this is the most detailed answer. – user657 Nov 21 '16 at 1:26
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You can probably look at following possible ways to concentrate and keep yourself motivated:

  1. Ask questions: Let see you see a text/equation where you may not be interested in getting a top class answer. Just ask it. For example, you may ask what is the use of that parameter in this context? Does it have an effect on the underlying problem? -- You may also get an awesome answer.
  2. Write ideas in a paper: When someone of other field is giving a talk, although you find something uninteresting, you may sometimes relate your research problem with the presenting one. Keep notes, try to formulate new ideas. And, possibly at last, during break you can open scope of collaboration with the presenter.
  3. Take a short break: Although people around you may not feel so formal about it, but still you can go for a small break or a walk. Then come back for the presentation.

Remember the following talks:

  1. Many authors think that the presentation in the conference is just a formality. Anyway, the paper is going to be published in the conf. proceedings (I am talking here about Comp. Sc.)
  2. Talks in conferences should not be storytelling conferences. Because you are there to share ideas and findings with other experts. Sometimes, it is okay. However, some serious people just ignore these small things and just get moving with the flow like teaching in classroom.
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    On point 1: In less formal settings, if you know the audience better than the speaker, you can often drive the presenter in a more relevant direction by asking a few good questions. It's a bit passive aggressive (you have to break the flow of their presentation and get them turned on to the aspect you're interested in), but by the end, the audience will be more engaged, and the speaker will feel they've made a valuable contribution. It's a win-win. – LShaver Nov 16 '16 at 21:39
  • @LShaver yes. That is quite right. – Coder Nov 16 '16 at 21:40
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    "presentation in the conference is just a formality". Yes, I get that impression in these situations, and reading the paper after the conference is much easier to understand in that format. During the conference itself, I am trying to come up with a mental algorithm I can follow to process the verbal and slide information in order to gleam something useful during the 15 minutes. Maybe one step, as you suggested, is to think of small questions. It is usually the rule to keep questions until the end. – user657 Nov 16 '16 at 21:45
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    I consider myself a "serious person" and a good speaker, and I consciously decide to tell stories in my talks rather than spew a stream of details. The point of giving a talk is for the audience to get something out of it. Telling a story (with an appropriate level of detail) lets them do that; putting up an impenetrable wall of details does not. If they want the details, that's what the paper is for. (And if our vision of "teaching in classroom" is that it's supposed to resemble poor talks, then we should rethink that too.) – Greg Martin Nov 16 '16 at 23:21
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When I attend talks where the quality of the presentation is poor, I like to use it as an opportunity to learn about what not to do in a presentation.

I have an ongoing list of "things not to do in a presentation", with examples from talks I've attended. I just take out the list and add to it whenever I attend one of these presentations. I find it helpful for improving the quality of my own presentations - more helpful than just reading tips others have written about presenting, because when I refer to my list I am reminded of exactly why and how a presentation is made worse by [insert bad thing here], from personal experience.

Usually as a result of taking notes on the presentation technique, I end up also paying attention to the content of the presentation, which is a nice side benefit.

P.S. I also have a list of "effective presentation techniques" and I add to it whenever I attend a talk where the quality of presentation is very good.

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    Quite nice suggestions. I love it. I just used to observe these things. But, never thought of recording them somewhere. – Coder Nov 16 '16 at 21:48
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    "I end up also paying attention to the content of the presentation, which is a nice side benefit". That is an interesting psychological trick. I think it is worth trying. – user657 Nov 16 '16 at 21:55
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    I'm tempted to ask you to post these lists -- especially the "things not to do in a presentation." I'm sure some of them are quite inventive :-) – tonysdg Nov 16 '16 at 23:16
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    I like to use it as an opportunity to learn about what not to do in a presentation, i.e. you play seminar bingo? phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=847 – Federico Nov 17 '16 at 9:45
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    When I'm bored and I don't find the content terribly interesting either, I tend to try to guess what tools they used to make their plots. In my experience, people who underprepare their presentation often deviate very little from the default visualisation settings of their tool of choice. – gerrit Nov 19 '16 at 14:39
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Just a couple of tips that have been useful to me:

  • Take notes, even if you aren't going to keep them. Taking notes helps me to keep concentrated. In fact, if the presentation is boring or I'm very tired, taking notes helps to keep me awake.
  • If the speaker is failing at communicating his knowledge but his knowledge is actually interesting to you, then you can try to ask questions to get as much as possible of that knowledge. Doing it in a way that also benefits the audience - as Coder's answer says - is great, but often difficult.
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You can:

  • Take notes, related to the talk or not;
  • Translate what the speaker is talking to a foreign language. This is a very good exercise and helps your concentration;
  • Pay attention on the delivery, not on the content of the speaker. How is the posture, rhythm and the voice of the speaker? If they are also poor, at least you can learn about what not to do for public speaking.
  • Chew some gum, for staying awake.
  • First I've heard of chewing gum to stay awake. That might just result in drooling while you sleep! – Wildcard Nov 19 '16 at 3:33
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My daughter was in the army for a while; when class got too long or too boring, it was permitted/expected/encouraged that you stood up, walked around, did knee bends; anything that would keep you from dozing off. You were there to learn; and you did what it takes to do that.

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    This would definitely strike people as very odd, unless you explicitly make a culture of it (and for the presenter it can be very distracting seeing people doing knee bends around the room). – Davidmh Nov 18 '16 at 16:17
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    I find it hard to believe that students at e.g. West Point are encouraged to "walk around" when class gets "too long or too boring." It would be interesting to see some independent confirmation of this. – Pete L. Clark Nov 18 '16 at 18:10
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    @Pete I have no idea about students specifically, but this wad also what we were suggested to do when I was in the army (in Denmark, back when they still drafted people for basic training). – Tobias Kildetoft Nov 18 '16 at 18:35
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Your question really resonates with me.

I have a terrible time at conferences. Maybe I'm highly distractible, but id rather recall that scientists are experts at science, not communication. Echoing colleagues above, learn what not to do.

Aside from that, when a talk is unintelligible or boring to tears, keep in mind that it's their fault, not yours. There are many TED talks on trivial topics that hit home due to eloquent presentation, and vice versa.

When you find yourself disengaging, make it an effort to jot down one important fact. At least you'll have that.

If it seems relevant to you but you are just 'done' (last day of conference? Late dinner with colleagues?) write down their info and request their talk after the fact. You can review on your own time.

It's not just you. We're all battling an assault on the senses. Some people just don't want to admit it.

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