Making oral presentations is an essential way to communicate your
work. This page gives some general tips on how to prepare and present
your talk. For specific suggestions on a number of different kinds of
presentations, see our pages on
Talks vs. papers
Overall, a talk should be organized like a paper, and it should answer
exactly the same questions (see writing research
papers for details). After all, you are presenting the same
material! However, the oral and visual medium requires that you present
it slighly differently.
In an oral presentation you can present only a fraction of the details
in a paper. On the other hand, you can make much better use of emphasis,
and communicate your excitement about the work. Why would anyone come to
your talk when they can go and read your paper? The answer is that you
will communicate much more "between the lines," i.e. express what is
really cool about the work, what is difficult, and offer speculations
about reasons and consequences of your findings that you are not quite
ready to put in writing.
Second, you cannot throw a lot of text at the audience; they are
listening to you, and don't have time to read. Whatever text you have on
your slides is there mostly to remind you of what you need to talk
about. Instead, you should prepare lots of visual material: diagrams,
figures, demos etc. Those are expensive on a paper, but they work great
in a talk. So, you should arrange your talk around visual material.
These points are expanded on below.
Rule number 1: Make sure to communicate your main points
You cannot present all the details in a short talk, and most people
will not be able to follow a very detailed talk well. Try to get a few
central ideas through as clearly as possible.
When preparing a talk, your job consists of three main parts:
People rarely skip steps 1 and 3 (although presenters are occasionally
known to have slept right through the talk they were supposed to be
giving!) Unfortunately, many people do skip step 2, and they end up with
not-so-great talks. Step 2 is actually the most important part: it
represents the primary service that you are providing to your audience.
Otherwise, for e.g. a cs394n topic talk you may as well just hand
out photocopies of every paper you came across.
- research your topic
- distill that information down to a few most important points
- present the highlights orally
Remember that if you try to say too much, you will end up not
communicating much at all. If you lose everyone by rushing
through a dizzying array of topics, by having slides crammed with
details than no one can take in, or by trying to get across every
subtle nuance of a complex idea, then your audience will get very
little out of the talk.
Rule number 2: Plan your talk around figures
For all but the most informal presentations, you will want to put
together a set of slides that illustrate your points. First, don't
start by putting everything remotely relevant into your slides; it
will be difficult to cut them down into something manageable later.
In almost every case, you will end up with a talk that you cannot
finish in a reasonable time, even though everything seems important
It is usually better to do the opposite, with a simple
This way, you do not waste time coming up with a lot of slides or text
that you will never be able to fit into the talk. Note that if you
structure the talk around the figures, you do not usually have to face
the tough question "How do I find a figure to illustrate this point?".
If you don't have a picture for it, the point had better be very
important to still bother to make a slide for it.
- Collect a set of figures that illustrate what you are
trying to say (a table of data, or an equation expressing
insight, can be considered a figure as well).
- Put each figure on its own slide with a short, meaningful title.
- Sort the figures into the approximate
order they would appear in
- Go over the slides from the beginning, imagining what you
want to say about each one. On each slide write down a few
short bullets with the major points that you want the audience
to understand about the figure.
- If you have more than about four points to make, consider
arranging them hierarchically so that you have max four
bullets at the highest level--or separating them into
groups. Also consider splitting the slide into two and
having a separate set of points in each.
- Flesh out the set of slides with a few new ones to
cover missing points and to make transitions between topics,
perhaps tracking down a figure or two to add to illustrate the
- Go over the talk again from the beginning until the point of
every slide is totally obvious, ideas flow smoothly as the
talk progresses, and the main ideas are clear throughout the
Rule 3: Use text sparingly
Each slide has a fundamental limit on the amount of information it
can contain. One figure per slide, with about 3-4 bullets below or to
the side of it, is
a good rule of thumb. For the rare slide with no figures, perhaps 4
bullets, each possibly with 2-3 subbullets. You should try to make sure
each bullet is at most one line long, and never write text that
requires reading an entire paragraph (ok, maybe if you are quoting
Notice that this is a very severe limitation! A typical 20-minute
conference talk has an upper limit of about 20 or so slides. Thus such a
talk would only be able to fit about 200 short lines of text at the
extreme, i.e. if it were crammed with text and had no figures at all.
That amount of text works out to only a couple of pages from a typical
book, so you just can't fit everything you want to talk about. (Not
to mention that a talk with even that much text would cause everyones'
eyes to glaze over instantly.)
To cut things down, you could start with skipping all the information
about methodology and implementation, leaving just the motivation,
major results, and clear conclusions. This will probably leave a few
gaping holes, i.e. methodology and implementation details that
absolutely must be mentioned for the talk to make sense. There might
also be a few details that are interesting in their own right, i.e. that
you really think the audience will be glad to know. If so, just add
those very few crucial topics back in. But for the most part, people
who need to understand the details will need to study your written work
anyway, and there's no need to confuse everyone else during the talk.
Specific preparation tips
Use contrasting colors
It is a good idea to use color on the slides, but make sure that the
colors are distinct and have a high contrast with the background. For
instance, never present a yellow line or yellow text against a white
background -- it will be invisible when projected. Similarly, don't
expect people to be able to tell the difference between dark purple
and dark blue; everything opaque will look about the same unless it is
Make sure plots are visible
Be sure to use thick lines whenever possible. Most plotting programs
default to single-pixel lines, which are easily visible when sitting
directly in front of a computer monitor. However, thin lines do not
work well in a presentation, because they are difficult to see
from a distance. Be particularly careful when plotting multiple
curves using different colors of thin lines -- even if the lines are
visible, their colors may not be distinguishable from each other
unless the lines are thick. (Single-pixel lines are not usually even
a good idea for publications, since they tend to disappear when papers
are photocopied, reduced for publication, etc.)
Also see Ray Mooney's section on presenting experimental results in
his job talk advice. For instance, once
people can see it they still need to be told what they are looking at,
i.e. what each axis is and what the plot represents.
Most slides are in a wide landscape format. Be sure not to succumb to the
tendency to use overly-long lines of text. Using the full page width
is appropriate primarily for wide or side-by-side figures rather than
for long sentences. Often it is a good idea to fill the left of the
page with a figure, then put text bullets on the right. That way the
page won't be cut off by peoples' heads, yet the bullets will be short
and easy to grasp.
You should always consider showing a demo in your talk. However,
make sure it is well integrated into the talk. That doesn't mean that
it has to play inside the slides; switching to a different medium may
even make it look more significant. However, you need to rehearse it
well, and know exactly what you say and when, and know how long it
will take. It should be understandable and illustrate the point well;
it is less important to demonstrate cool graphics, your programming
prowess, and technical details. The audience will remember a good demo
for a long time. It is also a good way to attract them to our web
pages for more demos and papers. See e.g. nn group demos, enn
tutorial demos, and evolution.ml demos1 and demos2 for a few
It's a good idea to list your collaborators on your title page, so
that you don't have to try to remember to mention them at various
places during the talk.
Instead of reading your title and authors aloud (which the
moderator probably just did anyway), say something interesting about
what this work is all about, or why you are doing it, or perhaps how your
collaboration came about.
Most of the time, an outline is a waste of time, and puts people right
to sleep. However, presenting an outline slide makes sense if your talk
has an unusual structure, for example, if you combine two different
topics, or several viewpoints that may be hard to follow in a linear
talk. Also in a dissertation defense or a jobtalk you often have much
more potential topics than you have time for. In that case you can
include all of them in an outline, and explain that you will have time
to focus only on a subset of them. If you do have an outline, do
not just read it aloud; explain why you have the nonstandard
structure, give content that's not on the slide, communicate the big
If you presented work that was a collaboration with a lot of people,
you may want to include a slide in the end (after conclusions) that
identifies each of them, includes face images, and a short label
indicating their contributions.
Make sure people know that you are now finished with the talk, and
invite questions. However, back up from the collaborators to the
conclusion slide, so that will be the slide on screen when you start
to answer questions. It is a good idea to put a web link to your work
on that conclusion slide, so that people have time to take a note of
it if they want.
Giving the talk
- Use the slides as a reminder of what you have to say; never read
directly from the slide.
- If you have an in-person audience and the physical setup allows
it, use a slide changer and a laser pointer on the
projection screen. That way you can step away from behind your laptop
and make a better connection with your audience, and share the same
focus with them on the projection screen.
- However, if all or part of your audience is online, you need to
know where you can stand so that they will see you, and use the pointer
on the computer so that everyone will see it.
- If you run out of time and have to skip slides, really skip them
and simply pretend that they are not even there. Do not flip
them on for 1/2 a second and say that you won't have time to talk
- Be sure to speak clearly and loudly enough for those in the back to
hear. Try to make eye contact with the audience, if only so that you
will see how they are responding to the talk. You will soon start
sensing when you have your audience with you, and when you lose
them. Pay attention to such feedback.
- Emphasize each big point: make it forcefully, look at the
audience, and stop for a while. Let it sink in before
continuing. Don't be afraid to utilize one second of silence---it is a
great way to emphasize a point. This way even those that are dozing
off might notice and remember what you said :-).
- Before the talk, make sure that your A/V system works: The slides
and demos show up on the project, your slide changer, laser pointer,
and the microphone works. At conferences, usually you'll have a
chance to do such checks before the session starts (even if you are
not the first speaker).
- If you tend to get nervous when speaking in public, it often helps
if you chat informally with some members of the audience just before
the talk, so that the talk itself is just a continuation of the
conversation. This helps to build a sense of camaraderie with the
audience, and more importantly won't leave you time to let anxiety
build up before the crucial moment.
- If appropriate, you should schedule a practice talk beforehand in
an NN-meeting. Our feedback should help you clarify your slides and
approach, and the whole process will hopefully make the actual talk
seem less formidable.
(From Lisa Kaczmarczyk:) The following book does an excellent job of
covering everything from Preparation (including audience analysis and
overcoming fear of speaking), Organization (including preparing the all
important opening and closing words of your talk), development
(including increasing your credibility), to presentation (including vocal
and physical issues as well as handling audience questions). The book is
easy to read, practical and loaded with pointers---it works well even at
the last minute on trains and airplanes :-). It can sometimes be found in
the COOP because they use it in some graduate school courses.
Title: The Speaker's Handbook
Author: Jo Sprague, Douglas Stuart, and David Bodary
Publisher: Cengage Learning
Date: 2019 (12th Ed)
Last modified: Sun Sep 25 11:37:32 PDT 2022