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I read many papers and try to present some of them at a reading group of some sort in my department (these are all quite informal). Both my most recent talks were what I consider quite bad, and I really want suggestions to get better.

I only choose to present papers that I understand reasonably well, but when I start talking about them, I often fumble, fluster, and feel the need to constantly look at my notes, even though I know the math (I am in Theoretical Computer Science). I often start saying a sentence, then pause and start afresh since I forget to add a "modifier" like, "given an epsilon > 0" or something like that.

I really don't know how to get better. Due to classes and research, I didn't get time to rehearse my talks before. I also recently gave a formal talk as part of my Qualifying Exam, which went very well (as the committee told me, but also, I felt it too!), but I'd rehearsed it six or seven times before the final talk.

I can't spend so much time for every talk. So I want to know if there are any suggestions to get better at talking. I know stage fright isn't an issue as I'm quite an outgoing person.

EDIT: These are all whiteboard talks.

  • can you give me an example of a paper in TCS? I am not sure of content and idea of research in this field. It is easier to explain on case study – SSimon Nov 18 '17 at 10:13
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    Simon Peyton Jones, whose research is partially in TCS, has some really good material on this question. – lighthouse keeper Nov 18 '17 at 10:27
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    I think you answered your question yourself - 6 to 7 trials does not seem excessive to me for an important talk, and you will get better over time - but it takes dozens of talks, not two or three, before you get good enough to wing a presentation in good quality. – xLeitix Nov 18 '17 at 11:31
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  • Practice makes perfect! – The Guy Nov 18 '17 at 18:34
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One important thing, for both casual talks and more formal talks, is your notes. Too many details and you can't use them without interrupting the flow of the talk, too little and you can get lost.

After some time, I converged to the following solution. I usually prepare one or two pages of main notes, not too densely written, with the main items I want to speak about and large signs for important things to mention at some point. Beyond two pages, I just end up caught in the moment and diverge from the planned path and improvise too much.

Usually there are some points where I could need a complicated formula, a precise statement, or a question might occur that needs one of these in order to be answered; then I simply make a mark (circled capital letters of color) where they might be needed, and write down the details along with the same mark on a second set of more detailed notes. Then I can refer to these when needed.

Another, general advice: be careful of what you do not like in other's talks, think about why, and be sure not to do that. The flaws of talks are often broadly shared, and this can only happen because we do not realize we do exactly what we blame others for.

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  • Thank you, Benoit. I really like the emphasis on having minimal notes with sketches of things to say. I now realize that the "too much detail" in notes is what always catches me by surprise; during the talk, when I look at the notes, I see a ton of stuff, and think, "oh no need to say all this stuff", and start "searching" for the outline/minimal stuff that would make sense to say. In the process, I lose connection with my audience, since my mind is on my notes. Very insightful answer, thank you very much! – user42273 Nov 18 '17 at 22:12
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The generic answer to this is probably "practice", but in the interest of giving you something more concrete to work with, I'll share what works for me personally:

When I make slides, I will usually formulate out what I say along with a given slide in my head or even under my breath. It helps me figure out when the slide isn't quite jogging my memory correctly, or when the organization doesn't follow my natural train of thought. I'll also usually notice if there's something I keep forgetting, and I can do something about it - practice that slide a bit more, add a reminder on it.

That way, I can easily get in 6-7 "rehearsals" of my slides just during the drafting process. Of course it's not as good as a real rehearsal, but if you don't have the time it's at least something. What it doesn't do as well is transitions between the slides, and I'll occasionally forget what order I have them in. I re-read my slides just before the presentation and also try to have my laptop screen show me a miniature of the next slide if possible to help with that.

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  • Thank you, nengel. This would definitely help get in "rehearsal time" under the belt. Unfortunately all my talks are whiteboard talks, so I'll probably have to adapt this to those in some effective way. – user42273 Nov 18 '17 at 5:39
  • When I use slides, I often print them out on paper and then add (in red ink for visibility) notes to remind myself of things that I want to say but don't think are important enough to be on the slide. – Andreas Blass Nov 18 '17 at 23:43
  • Interesting, in my not-theoretical-at-all end of CS, even the most casual "what have you been up to this week" meeting involves handing around the projector cable. I wasn't aware "whiteboard talks" was even a thing! – nengel Nov 19 '17 at 3:00
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Honestly there is no better means than to practice: but setting and audience matters as well, here are some pointers:

  • Location Counts: Practice at the venue if you can, or a similar location. Practicing at home is different than on-stage.
  • Know your audience: Practice with subject experts and laypeople. The information you give will need to be customized to the audience. If they are experts then you can skip 'basics', if they are not then you need to be aware that what's easy for you may not be easy for them.
  • Content: Slides are great for visuals, not really for text. When you present, you are telling a story. Having the audience read the story does not make for a compelling storytelling presentation.
  • There is no script: Trying to adhere to a script means that you will often hesitate and wonder if you are on-script or off-script. Instead, concentrate on talking points that you need to cover. Your expertise and experience on the research will fill in the actual wording for each bullet point.
  • Dress the Part: Your clothes will give you confidence. Although it may be psychological, the idea here is that formal wear will allow you to psyche yourself into thinking that you will do well.
  • Umms and Like: These verbal fillers detract from the message and are a sign of nervousness. The audience can't tell if you are nervous or not if you take your time and speak slowly.
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The other answers, in my opinion, give advice for how to get better at giving formal presentations, which is not really what your question is about.

To get better at giving more informal talks (or chats, as I like to refer to them as), I suggest to get more practice at doing that. Typically, the way we as academics do that is to teach -- you need to get more teaching experience.

So, if you really want to get better, ask to sign up as a TA for a course over the summer. I know, I know, you're busy ... I get it; however, through teaching I've found that it really does help to acquire the much needed practice for formulating the necessary material and approach for an informal chat to help the audience understand what you are on about.

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Here few main points from my Medium Post "A Hitchhiker’s Guide to giving a Mini-talk in Maths (or another technical subject)":

Give mini-talks

They are a great source of practice in a low pressure environment. There are fewer things to focus on. Less material to prepare. Fewer expectations. You learn quicker. Fewer things can go wrong.

Choose topic you find interesting and exciting

Exciting your audience is the easiest if you are excited yourself. Avoid any topic you don’t really care about or find boring. Pick something you know or like to learn more about. Try to read and learn as much as possible before your talk. That will give your more confidence, among other benefits, and confidence is always a good thing when giving a talk.

Focus on one single point and make it dead clear

This is perhaps the best advice I can give. No one expects to learn a complete new theory in your mini-talk. But people like to learn something new. And learning one thing well is better than 5 things “half” or vaguely.

Break down your talk into parts

For mini-talks, I suggest 3 parts:

  • Motivation: Start here and intrigue your audience.
  • Precise content: Come to your main point and make it precise.
  • Examples: Support your point with examples and non-examples.
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