How to give a presentation

Academic conferences are a big deal in Computing (and in many other disciplines). It is critical that you give an excellent presentation to stand out.

Importantly: giving a presentation takes a LOT of time. It is an investment.

Here are some guidelines.

Guideline 1: Tell a story

5000 years of human history and 100,000 years of human development have programed our brains to listen to stories. Consider the best documentaries: they tell stories, usually about people.

You need to figure out your story, and then tell it.

Ask leading questions

Asking questions leads the audience to think about the answer and guess the answer in their head. This is a common journalism, documentary, and story-telling trick.

Guideline 2: Be Confident

So you’ll be giving a talk in front of 50 to 100 (maybe as many as 500 or more) of the brightest minds in the world. No pressure.

Know that people are there to listen to you. Otherwise, they’d be somewhere else. Be confident and assertive. Don’t be afraid to be wrong… but consider being right most of the time.

Guideline 3: Use PowerPoint Correctly

Powerpoint is a useful tool, but it is a tool: a visual aide. A device that can help you tell your story. Make people watch you, not the slides.

Images are powerful. Use them.

I use images as cues to remind me what to talk about, but there are typically very few words.

Try not to use equations unless it is critical to the telling of your story.

$$\textrm{# People who care} = \frac{1}{\textrm{# Equations}}$$


Appear and disappear animations online.

Guideline 4: Use the formula

Soon you’ll be a pro at giving amazing presentations and you can do whatever you want. But until then consider following the standard template. In computing the template looks like this.

  1. Introduction and Hook (20%)
  2. Background and Gap (10%)
  3. Technical Contribution(s) (10%) <- 90% of the effort, 10% of the talk
  4. Research Question(s) (10%)
  5. Methodology (20%)
  6. Discussion of the Data (15%)
  7. Analysis and Conclusions (5%)
  8. Implications and Future Work (10%)

Guideline 5: The Audience is here to listen to your story

A common mistake is that presenters talk about things the audience already knows. It’s really only necessary to discuss related literature to introduce your topic. So get to the point, identify the gap, and get on with the new stuff asap.

Guideline 6: Practice your talk

You need to practice your talk in full before you give it. Ideally, you should give the talk to yourself, then your pet, then your research lab.

It is impossible to practice too many times.

Guideline 7: Never go over time.

Never go over the time limit. Ever. For any reason.

Oftentimes there are multiple talks in a session. It is rude to encroach on the other persons time. If you are the last speaker, it is rude to keep the audience from coffee.

It is always best to go under time and leave extra room for Q/A.

If the person ahead of you went long. Well that sucks for you. Get the session back on track.

If you are in the middle of an explanation/slide and the time limit is up. Finish your word (not the sentence, not the slide) and stop talking.

Never ever go over the time. Ever. Ever.

Guideline 8: Question period is where magic happens.

Lots of questions means that the audience was paying attention. One goal of giving a talk is to inspire questions.

Bring a notebook and write down questions. Answer quickly and move on the the next question.

If an answer is too long to answer fully, give a quick answer and ask the questioner to meet you after the session.

Guideline 9: To End, say “thank you” and stop talking.

The beginning is most important, but the ending is also very important. A common mistake that I see is presenters who don’t know how to close the talk.

They may almost close the talk, and then they say ‘let me know if you have any questions’ or ‘oh and by the way…’. Don’t do that. Just say “thank you” and then stop talking.

Practice this.

The session chair will lead the Q/A session.