Oral Presentation Advice

Mark D. Hill

Computer Sciences Department
University of Wisconsin-Madison

April 1992; Revised January 1997

Things to Think About

  1. Oral Communication is different from written communication

    Listeners have one chance to hear your talk and can't "re-read" when they get confused. In many situations, they have or will hear several talks on the same day. Being clear is particularly important if the audience can't ask questions during the talk. There are two well-know ways to communicate your points effectively. The first is to K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid). Focus on getting one to three key points across. Think about how much you remember from a talk last week. Second, repeat key insights: tell them what you're going to tell them (Forecast), tell them, and tell them what you told them (Summary).

  2. Think about your audience

    Most audiences should be addressed in layers: some are experts in your sub-area, some are experts in the general area, and others know little or nothing. Who is most important to you? Can you still leave others with something? For example, pitch the body to experts, but make the forecast and summary accessible to all.

  3. Think about your rhetorical goals

    For conference talks, for example, I recommend two rhetorical goals: leave your audience with a clear picture of the gist of your contribution, and make them want to read your paper. Your presentation should not replace your paper, but rather whet the audience appetite for it. Thus, it is commonly useful to allude to information in the paper that can't be covered adequately in the presentation. Below I consider goals for academic interview talks and class presentations.

  4. Practice in public

    It is hard distilling work down to 20 or 30 minutes.

  5. Prepare

    See David Patterson's How to Give a Bad Talk

A Generic Conference Talk Outline

This conference talk outline is a starting point, not a rigid template. Most good speakers average two minutes per slide (not counting title and outline slides), and thus use about a dozen slides for a twenty minute presentation.

Academic Interview Talks

The rhetorical goal for any interview talk is very different than a conference talk. The goal of a conference talk is to get people interested in your paper and your work. The goal of an interview talk is to get a job, for which interest in your work is one part.

There are two key audiences for an academic interview talk, and you have to reach both. One is the people in your sub-area, who you must impress with the depth of your contribution. The other is the rest of the department, who you must get to understand your problem, why it is important, and a hand-wave at what you did. Both audiences will evaluate how well you speak as an approximation of how well you can teach.

An algorithm:

Other Talks

Other talks should be prepared using the same principles of considering audience and rhetorical purpose. A presentation on a project in a graduate class, for example, seeks to reach the professor first and fellow students second. Its purpose is to get a good grade by impressing people that a quality project was done. Thus, methods should be described in must more detail than for a conference talk.


Thanks to Jim Goodman, Jim Larus, and David Patterson for their useful comments. The current on-line version of this document appears at URL "http://www.cs.wisc.edu/~markhill/conference-talk.html".

How to Give a Bad Talk

David A. Patterson

Computer Science Division
University of California-Berkeley

Circa 1983

Ten commandments (with annotations gleaned from Patterson's talk by Mark D. Hill):

  1. Thou shalt not be neat

    Why waste research time preparing slides? Ignore spelling, grammar and legibility. Who cares what 50 people think?

  2. Thou shalt not waste space

    Transparencies are expensive. If you can save five slides in each of four talks per year, you save $7.00/year!

  3. Thou shalt not covet brevity

    Do you want to continue the stereotype that engineers can't write? Always use complete sentences, never just key words. If possible, use whole paragraphs and read every word.

  4. Thou shalt cover thy naked slides

    You need the suspense! Overlays are too flashy.

  5. Thou shalt not write large

    Be humble -- use a small font. Important people sit in front. Who cares about the riff-raff?

  6. Thou shalt not use color

    Flagrant use of color indicates uncareful research. It's also unfair to emphasize some words over others.

  7. Thou shalt not illustrate

    Confucius says ``A picture = 10K words,'' but Dijkstra says ``Pictures are for weak minds.'' Who are you going to believe? Wisdom from the ages or the person who first counted goto's?

  8. Thou shalt not make eye contact

    You should avert eyes to show respect. Blocking screen can also add mystery.

  9. Thou shalt not skip slides in a long talk

    You prepared the slides; people came for your whole talk; so just talk faster. Skip your summary and conclusions if necessary.

  10. Thou shalt not practice

    Why waste research time practicing a talk? It could take several hours out of your two years of research. How can you appear spontaneous if you practice? If you do practice, argue with any suggestions you get and make sure your talk is longer than the time you have to present it.

Commandment X is most important. Even if you break the other nine, this one can save you.