give a talk...
My favorite tips on how to
give a talk are by Gordon Bower (click here to see the
original). Below are a set of tips compiled from Gordon, other excellent
talk-givers, and my personal experiences at conferences and on the job market.
First, the bad news: the
best thing for a talk is an interesting topic and some compelling data. The
good news is that improving every other aspect of your talk is really easy.
Here are some tried and true do's and don'ts.
1. Be prepared:
- Find out as much about your audience and your
room as possible. Who will be there? Only social psychologists? All kinds
of psychologists? Undergrads? Physicists? Art history professors?
- Dress sharp, but never wear anything
uncomfortable. I always wonder at people who try to give talks in
too-tight pants or ties, or improbable hair arrangements. You will give a
much better talk if you're comfortable. If your tie strangles you, forget
the tie. Give at least one practice talk wearing what you plan to wear for
the big event. Make sure you can raise your arm to point at things
(without splitting seams or revealing mid-riff).
- When traveling, always bring an extra copy of
your talk somehow (e.g., on a USB flash drive), and always put a copy of
your talk somewhere you can easily download it. If something goes wrong
with your computer or with the file on your computer, you'll still be
- Never check your talk at the airport. Keep it
with you. In fact, if you're on the job circuit, don't check anything.
You're in a stressful enough situation already - no need to make it worse.
- Bring a bottle of water with you. This can be
especially useful for Q&A sessions where you can take strategic sips
of water to give yourself extra time to think of an answer.
- Do not let anyone darken the room. The darker
it gets, the less alert people will be. If you must talk in a dark room,
bring a small flashlight so you can see your notes.
- You must practice giving your talk, several times.
First, do it alone. It's weird talking to an empty room, but you'll get
used to it. What this practice buys you is the transformation of your talk
from an abstract set of points into a verbalized story. It gives you the
chance to find and fix any verbal hiccups you may have in the talk, or any
places where you might be missing transitions or explanations.
- Get as wide a practice audience as you can. And
listen to the practice audience's advice! When listeners tell you that
something is confusing, they are always, by definition, correct.
- If you're preparing for a job talk, do two
practice runs for a selected audience of close student and faculty friends
and then do one more with a broader local audience before taking it on the
- You will probably need to practice the
beginnings and ends of your talk more than the middle (presenting data and
methods is generally the easier part).
3. Get Into It
- Everybody gets nervous before talks. Don't let
nervousness get in your way - take advantage of it instead. A slightly
nervous edge can add zing to a talk. Feeling nervous is very similar to
feeling excited, so tell yourself you're just excited and act that way.
- Exude self-confidence. Stand up straight,
smile. Be excited to be there. Be excited about your work.
- Right before your talk, chat with an audience
member or the organizer of the talk - this takes up the time you would
otherwise spend sitting alone and getting nervous.
- Don't give your talk sitting down. Unless
you're giving a very informal talk to only a few people, stand. If you've
got more than 10 people, they'll expect a performance.
- Talk to the audience, not the screen.
- Talk simply, like you're telling a story to a
friend. Don't orate -- it makes you seem really full of yourself.
- A talk is not a written paper. Talks have an
informal narrative style and are dramatic rather than detailed or
- The model for the short talk is the campfire
story -- teller of a mystery. Talk informally as though you were telling
your grandmother what you did and why. Complexity of expression is
uncorrelated with wisdom, intelligence, and originality; it's perfectly
correlated with audience puzzlement and boredom.
- Do not read your slides to the audience. The
slides should be mostly pictures, plus a very sparse outline of the talk
to help the audience follow what you're saying. Ultimately, reading a talk
is better than giving a terrible, incoherent talk --but only a little.
- Ask real and rhetorical questions to keep people
actively engaged. Get people to raise their hands to make predictions.
(who thinks it will work this way?)
- Don't be self-deprecating in job talks. It's
fine in lab talks and other lectures, but not job talks.
- Humor can be great, but there are several
cautions. (1) it has to be topical - don't put up Dilbert cartoons that
only sort of relate to your topic - that's lame. (2) it damn well better
be funny. If you're not a good joke teller, don't do it. A failed joke can
be really difficult to recover from.
4. Use Figures &
- Use lots of examples.
- Use lots of figures. A picture is worth way
more than a thousand words. Try to develop a talk that is entirely in
pictures. Then go back and add one or two words per slide.
- Use props. Talks are about show and tell and
keeping your audience amused, so you can inform them painlessly about what
you are doing. Whenever possible, bring and use props: videos, examples of
- Make sure all your demos work. Cue the videos
and check the projectors - make sure everything works. Practice turning
things on and off (so the audience doesn't have to watch the vacation
videos that you recorded that interesting vision demo over because now you
can't figure out how to make the VCR stop).
- Use color. Audiences these days expect color.
But don't go overboard. Making your talk visually attractive is one thing,
but don't turn your slides into a circus. Different projectors will make
your colors look different - the more colors you use, the better the chances
they'll look really gak.
- Don't switch color schemes from slide to slide.
If the "verb recall" column is yellow in slide 1, then it damn
well better be yellow in slide 2.
- In visuals, make it simple, clear and obvious.
Don't clutter slides with irrelevancies. No more than 7 words on a visual.
No more than 7 numbers on a visual (round them to one or two significant
- One word can abbreviate whole phrases. If you
have lots of results you must show, use many slides, not one cluttered
slide. Idealize graphs, no lightning-bolt data. Ask: are the exact values
all that terribly important for my point?
- In PowerPoint, NO fancy fade-ins. No slides
swooshing in from the left, no dissolves. Just don't.
5. Be VERY VERY Clear
- The three most important things in a talk are:
clarity, clarity, and clarity. Nothing matters if the audience doesn't
understand what you did and why.
- Explain the task in terms of what the subjects
were doing, not in terms of abstract theoretical manipulations.
- Be redundant. Say the same thing several times
in different ways. It's all new to your audience, so give them the best
chance of understanding you.
- If some manipulation is particularly hairy,
make a picture or diagram explaining it. Before you go on, it's ok to say
"Does anyone have a clarification question about how this worked
before I go on?"
- Present data kindly. If you must present lots
of data, present each piece separately on a different slide. PowerPoint
makes it really easy to do "multiple overlay" slides, so you can
build up information gradually. These can be very effective.
- Present the most important data first! (Present
manipulation checks first when it is necessary for your argument, but not
otherwise). What the audience wants to know is "Did your experiment
support your primary hypothesis?" so answer this question first.
- Speak slowly, loudly, and clearly. Make sure
the people in the back can hear you.
- Use large fonts. Anything smaller than 24 point
is too small. If you photocopy a paper from a book and project that, you
deserve severe punishment.
- Text is clearest when it's black on a white
background. Think maximum contrast!
6. Do a lot of pointing
- Point to the projection (on the big screen),
not the source (your computer screen). People can't see your computer
screen, so pointing things out on it is doing them no good. This is a
simple theory of mind task. The projection (on the big screen) is the
shared artifact - both you and your audience can see it, so that's where
you should be pointing.
- Some people like to use their mouse to point at
things. I say, go up to the screen and point at it with your hand. Not
only do you get more exercise waving your arms around, but it is also much
more effective at directing your audience's attention. You want the
audience to keep their attention on you. When you go up to the screen and
point, they're with you. When you use your computer mouse to point to a
part of the screen, they have to look past you toward the screen and you
lose their attention.
- Unless the screen is way too big and way too
far away, don't use a laser pointer. Your hand or a pen, or a stick work
really well. The humans in your audience are very practiced at following
points with arms and fingers. And you are very practiced at pointing with
your arms and fingers. Take advantage of this expertise. I always marvel
at people standing next to a screen that is barely even their height and
searching the whole room for a laser pointer. You came with a pointer
built in! Just use your finger!
- When the room you're talking in is too big to
point at things with your hand, use a laser pointer. Take your time
laser-pointing at things, so that people have time to find that little red
dot. People cannot find where a laser points very quickly. Try not to zip
it around and circle things. You'll make your audience dizzy. Often
speakers say "like this here" and noone gets to see where they
were pointing because the laser is already somewhere else.
- Laser pointers are useful, but have their
downfalls. If you're nervous, the pointer dramatically magnifies the
shaking of your hand. That leaves a bad impression. Very few speakers are
capable of speaking without playing with the thing that's in their hands.
It's distracting. It's best not to have things in your hands when giving a
- That said, it is important to point things out
to your audience to direct their attention. So if you have no other
choice, using a laser pointer is much better than not pointing at all.
- Put up a slide only a moment before you want to
refer to it. Give the audience time to read it or describe it to them.
Remove the slide when you want the audience to attend fully to you again.
This keeps the attention of your audience exactly where you want it. In
powerpoint, you can either insert blank slides (if you just want to talk
for a while without a slide) or use the black-out or white-out functions
(press 'b' to make the screen go black, or 'w' to make the screen go white
during your slide presentation).
7. You probably shouldn't
be using overheads any more, but if you are:
- If you're using an overhead projector, also,
point at the projection on the screen, not at your transparency. Most
people pointing at the overhead projector will end up getting their
shoulder in the way and blocking the projection. Very annoying. Pointing
at the overhead projector will often jiggle the slide. Also annoying. In
general, don't touch the slides after you've put them up. Step away from
- Do not adjust the slide unless it's falling
off. It makes you look really nervous. Get away from the projector and
point at the screen. You won't be blocking the view of your audience and
you won't look as nervous.
- Be sure the projection is on the screen.
Whenever you put a new slide on, take a look back to see that it's
displayed properly on the screen.
- Do not cover up parts of the slide. The
"overhead striptease" act can be very distracting. If you'd like
to keep something in suspense or build up information gradually on a slide,
use an overlay transparency.
8. Start well
- In a job talk, start by saying something like
"I'm honored to be here today. Thank you very much for inviting me.
I'm very excited to have this opportunity to tell you about my
- Prepare your first two sentences like they were
a Madison-Avenue advertisement for you and your talk. Grab the audience in
these first sentences.
- Example weak start: ``The research I will tell
you about stems from earlier work by Johnson published in Cognitive
Psychology which led to a lot of follow ups; and I want to thank my
collaborators, Jim and Dorothy Smith''.
- A better start: ``How do we understand
language'? How can I figure out the meaning of what you say? Some people
believe we have a mental dictionary with fixed entries and we assemble the
meanings out of this fixed dictionary. Another theory is that we only have
flexible procedures which decompose compound phonetic strings into basic
morphemes from which we compute a meaning for the utterance . . .''
- I usually have the first few sentences of my
talk written out in front of me just to get me started on the right foot.
Same with the concluding two sentences. Depending on the length of the
talk, I often also have a few key connectors written out so that I remember
to tie different parts of the talk together clearly and without rambling.
Note: writing out these key phrases doesn't mean you should then read them
to the audience. You should speak them like you would say anything else.
The written phrases are there to remind me not to ramble, and instead to
state the point clearly and succinctly at these crucial points in the talk
(beginnings, ends, and connectors).
- Get interest and attention first, with a
rhetorical question, anecdote, or startling statement or paradox. Assume
your audience is an Introductory Psych class of undergraduates.
- Before you can say what you did, you must say
why you did it. What's the big picture?
- In longer talks, tell the audience your plan.
You should also come back to it to let them know where they are in the
talk as you go along. This can really help people put it all together.
- In your plan, focus on the questions you're
trying to answer. This will get your audience interested and will also
help them understand what you're doing.
- example useless plan:
- previous studies
- experiment 1
- experiment 2
- experiment 3
- further questions
- much better plan:
- The history of cats and dogs
- Do dogs really chase cats?
- Why do dogs chase cats?
- How do cats feel about this?
- Will cats and dogs ever get along?
- Implications for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
- This way you can come back throughout your talk
and answer the questions one by one.
9. Say only the right
things, and not any of the other things
- You must be very selective of what you can say
in a short time. Most short speeches can barely carry one main idea plus
its support. Resist the temptation to tell everything you know or every
thought you had about it: only the most interesting and important thing
can be said.
- Ask yourself "What is the take-home point
here?" Say the take-home message early and often.
- A narrative style is preferable in talks.
Research is done to tell a story, going from problem, goal, plan through
actions (observations) to outcomes, resolution, and a moral (conclusion).
Avoid a written journal-style organization.
- Describing your experiments. You are not
duty-bound to describe every condition of your experiment, not every
result, not every analysis. In particular, suppress complications and
unresolved loose-ends or incomprehensible pieces of results -- don't lay
your confusions on the poor listener. Your goal is to tell a simple
coherent story, to interest and to entertain, not to tell the complete
unvarnished messy truth. Your first rule is: tell a simple mystery story
that has a neat wrap-up and don't confuse or bore your audience. Not
telling the whole truth is not the same as telling a falsehood. Speeches
are for conviction, written papers for corrections!
- Describing your data. In narrative talks,
descriptive and inferential statistics should be suppressed. Speak
"eyeball-effects" rather than F-values. Say "These words
were remembered very much better than those", NOT "The mean
recall for the two categories was 8.76 and 4.37, and difference gave an F
of 13.8 which with 1 and 14 degrees of freedom was statistically
significant at the .01 level." A better attitude towards description
is "Holy baloney, look at that!"
- The first thing to do when you put up a graph
is to explain what the axes are and what the colors mean. "On the
vertical axis I've plotted reaction time, and here we have females on the
left, and males on the right. The yellow bars represent how quickly people
solved spatial problems, and the red bars how quickly they solved verbal
problems." Only now are you ready to say what you found.
- Bring up alternative explanations or potential
problems when you think people in your audience will think of them. Don't
wait till the end of the talk. If you wait till the end, you'll have
people in the audience who've been sitting and stewing on this criticism
ever since they thought of it, and they probably haven't heard a word
you've said afterward. You don't need to address the criticism right then.
You just need to acknowledge it, and say that you would be glad to discuss
later how to address it or how to reconcile the two viewpoints. It puts
your audience at ease, and they will be more accepting of what you say
knowing that you're being thoughtful and forthcoming with them.
- If you want to say something controversial or
speculative, mark it as such. The audience will be much more accepting if
they know that you know that what you're saying is speculative. It makes
you look careful and thoughtful, but at the same time interesting.
- Especially if your research topic is new or
controversial, structure your talk in terms of questions, and avoid making
claims. For example, "Are concepts perceptually grounded? We did some
experiments to try to answer this question." is much better than
"Our claim is that all concepts are perceptually grounded. We did
some experiments to try to prove this." The content is similar, but
will produce very different reactions from the audience. People are very
interested in questions, and they are very interested in disproving
claims. When you ask questions, the audience will think with you. When you
make unsupported claims, the audience will be thinking against you.
- Summarize in three steps: First summarize your
findings. Second, show the meaning of your findings for the "Big
Picture". Finally, point out what other provocative questions your
- Do not go over your given time. Even if you
start late, it's a courtesy to the audience to end as close to on time as
possible. Talking overtime can easily lose you all the points you've
previously gained. If you have more material that you desperately want to
cover, make it easy for the audience to ask you a question about it
afterward. You can say, "we did another experiment to address this last
question, but since I am running short on time, I am hoping someone will
just ask me a question about this during the question session." With
that kind of invitation, someone usually will.
10. Take questions and
learn from them
- Don't worry about "tough" questions:
they almost never come. You know more about the research than anybody, so
you have a great advantage. Don't be intimidated by "big shots"
in the audience (if there are any): most are struggling to comprehend, and
ask only simple questions.
- If a question comes you don't know about, it's
okay to say "I don't know". Or to say "That's a tough one I
haven't thought about -- or I'll need more time to think about that"
-- or "Fine idea -- would be worth trying in an experiment". You
don't have to have instant answers for everything. If you don't understand
a questioner, ask him to rephrase it so you can understand. If he asks
three questions, answer any one of them and move on.
- Plant at least one pithy question with a friend
so he/she can direct it to you in case no one else pops up with a quick
question. Often the audience needs time to think of some question to ask
about -- so give the audience a long time to come up with a question.
- Learn how to say "shush": If you feel
that questions are leading you off your track, inform your questioners of
this fact, and tell them you will return to the issue later on.
- This is your talk. Don't let someone else take
control of it by forcing you to deviate from your organizational plan. If
someone requires clarification, then answer them briefly and continue. If
someone wants to argue philosophy (e.g., "But don't you think that
psychology errs when it thinks of people as real?") don't take the
bait. A good standby is something like "That's an interesting
question and I've given it some thought. In fact, I'll be addressing that
issue in a few minutes, but if I don't answer that particular question,
please ask it again at the end of my talk. "
- Don't agree to criticisms you don't understand.
- Don't get defensive.
- Be interested in the questions. You are not
defending a fortress, you are talking openly about scientific ideas with
interested colleagues. If someone does try to attack you, turn them to
your side by saying something like "That's exactly the kind of thing
I think we need to spend more time thinking about. So, let's think
together about what kind of evidence we would find convincing." Then
they're thinking with you, not against you.
- Prepare slides that address common questions.
This is where practice comes in handy. If you get some question more than
once, prepare a slide to address it. Your audience will be very impressed
with your foresight.
more pages on how to give a talk:
Gordon Bower's tips - the best!
Some great tips on giving a talk
more thoughts on giving a talk
more on giving a talk
for surviving the job search
tips for giving a great lecture