Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Conference presentations

I have sat through a large number of conference presentations, and a significant proportion of those were pretty bad. Another proportion of these were mediocre at best, and only a few were pretty good. From what I have observed, and from talking with other conference attendees, I have formulated the following general rules for giving presentations. While none of these rules are inviolable, please do at least give them some thought the next time you give a conference presentation.

General Rules

There are two general rules – most of the specific rules come from these two.

1. Don’t waste time, either yours or the audience’s.

2. Don’t insult the intelligence of your audience.

Specific Rules

1. If you have just been introduced with your name and the title of your presentation, don’t repeat this information.

2. If you are presenting to a specialised audience, leave out the background material. For example, if you are presenting to a conference on evolutionary computation, spending even one or two slides explaining what evolutionary computation is violates both general rules.

3. If you have long sentences on your slides, don’t read them aloud. This violates both general rules.

4. Outline slides are not necessary. They waste time and assume that the audience isn’t smart enough to notice what you are currently talking about.

5. Don’t place equations on your slides unless they are absolutely, positively and irrefutably necessary. If the math is complex enough that it needs to be explained, then it is unlikely that the audience will be able to parse it fast enough to be useful to the presentation. If it is simple, then it can be left out.

6. Know the length of your presentation. A good rule of thumb is an absolute maximum of one slide per minute of presentation, including title, summary and conclusions. Thus, for a fifteen minute presentation, fifteen slides is a good count, ten is better, less than ten is best.

7. Keep to the point of the presentation. If your talk is on bioinformatics, I don’t want to hear about your university’s teaching computer lab.

8. Proof-read your presentation. Use a spell checker. Have someone else check your presentation. If English is not your first language, have it proof-read by someone who is a native speaker.

9. Know your presentation material. If you have to stop talking to work out what something on a slide actually means, you are wasting everyone’s time.

10. If you are presenting a group of numbers, use a plot of the values, rather than a table, especially if the intention is to compare and contrast the groups.

11. Move about. Moving energetically is even better. A presenter with physical vigour commands more attention from, and inspires more energy in, an audience than one who stands still, or worse, sits while speaking. That said, moving around like your feet are on fire is distracting. Use your best judgement.

12. Make eye contact with your audience. You should try to make eye-contact with each member of the audience at least once during your presentation. They are here to listen to you speak, so you should acknowledge their existence by actually looking at them.

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