Monday, January 7, 2019

Giving a Talk -- Some Practical Advice

I just attended the 2019 LSA meeting in NYC at the Sheraton Hotel. I attended every day, from Thursday January 3rd to Sunday January 6th, and saw many talks. Based on that experience, I have written up some notes on how to give a talk at the LSA.

The purpose of giving a talk is to convey your ideas to an audience. At the LSA, many of the talks are given by graduate students who are on the job market, and potential employers are in the audience. So it is important for those students to give a great talk. In this short essay, I discuss some issues to think about when preparing for your talk.

The single most frequent issue that I encountered with talks at the LSA is that the speaker tried to present too much information. For powerpoint presentations, there were way too many slides, with each slide containing too much information. For talks with handouts, the handouts were too long and poorly organized, containing too much information. And then of course, the speaker felt the need to get through the powerpoint presentation, or the handout, which meant that they usually sped up their normal rate of speaking.

Listening to a talk takes a huge among of mental focus. One needs to parse the examples, listen to the speaker, read the powerpoint presentation or handout, and follow the argument. These tasks are difficult enough in normal circumstances. But then if the speaker speeds up their presentation by 25 to 50%, and seems anxious, the task becomes even more difficult.

My suggestion is that if you give a talk at the LSA, you should focus on one or two main points, and discuss them clearly. What is the most important thing you have discovered? How can you convey what it is? Do not feel you need to convey every last thought you have ever had, or to convey every piece of data that you have ever come up with, or to give arguments against every last proposal ever made. Many of these thoughts and data points will be tangents to your main point. Some of the other points can be addressed in the question period, and you can direct people to your thesis or published work in the talk references if they want to know all the gory details.

You are trying to convey your ideas, so put some time into thinking about how you can make it easy for the audience members to understand your ideas. 

Here are some smaller technical issues:

1. Many people have a fundamental misunderstanding about powerpoint slides. Powerpoint slides should each contain very little information, e.g., one example (with several parts, e.g., 1a,b,c), or one generalization, or one principle, or one paragraph. If there is any more than that, the powerpoint slide becomes unreadable. You should definitely tinker with this, and look at what other people have done.

2. For either a powerpoint or a handout, make sure the font is big enough. For a handout, only use 12 point font. Don't try to cleverly insert more text into a smaller number of pages by switching to 10 point font. Some people cannot read that size of font at all. For a powerpoint, do not try to jam as much information into the slide as possible by decreasing font size. If the font is too small, powerpoint slides very quickly become completely illegible.

3. If you use a handout, make sure you have enough copies. Ask at the beginning of the talk: "Are there enough handouts? Does everybody have one?" Sometimes, all the handouts end up on some chair, and do not get handed out. Sometimes people will have to share. Do not assume that the handouts will magically make their way to the audience members.

4. If there is a mic, use it. You probably do not have a loud enough voice to fill the auditorium. Also, do not stray from the mic, or pace back and forth in concentration. Just speak into the mic. It is surprising how many people erroneously think that the mic is dispensable. Make sure the mic works before the talk.

5. Give a practice talk, and time it. If you get 20 minutes for your talk, then your practice talk should be 20 minutes. You can give a talk in front of a mirror, give the talk to your cat and dog, give a practice talk in your department. Do whatever it takes to  make sure you have a smooth delivery and that you have worked out the kinks in your presentation. Giving a practice talk will also help you overcome the jitters.

6. If you are the first speaker in a session, show up five or ten minutes early to make sure everything is working. You do not want to sacrifice 5 minutes of your time to setting up for the talk.

7. Your talk should have references. Do not think that just because you are giving a talk, you can omit them. People like to look at the reference list, and it assures them that you have done the proper background reading.

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