Tutorial 16: giving good talks, part 1: planning

September 25, 2011

Matt, Darren and I were all in Lyme Regis last week for SVPCA 2011, the Symposium of Vertebrate Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy — an excellent technical conference similar in some ways to SVP, but much nicer because it’s small enough that you can see all the talks and meet all the people.

This is the seafront, from the Cobb (harbour wall) at the west end of the beach, looking east.  The tiny white building that you can see at far right is the Marine Theatre, where the scientific sessions took place.  Many of the other buildings are pubs, where unscientific sessions took place.

It was an excellent conference, and you can read more about it in Darren’s accounts over on Tetrapod Zoology (part 1, part 2).  But in any conference where you watch and listen to more than fifty talks, you’re going to get a range of quality from the inspiring to the … not-quite-so-inspiring.  Having seen both good and bad (and some ugly), I found myself thinking about what makes a good talk.

The result is this: a series of four articles, which should appear over the next couple of weeks:

  1. Planning: finding a narrative
  2. The slides: presenting your information to be understood
  3. Rehearsal: honing the story and how it’s told
  4. Delivery: telling the story

And this is the first of those.

Planning a talk

Here is rule number one: make us care about your project.  We’re going to hear eighteen talks today, and we’re probably not even particularly interested in hybodont sharks or rare earth elements or whatever it is that you work on.  So make us interested.

Obviously some of this is about how your slides look, how well you prepare, and your delivery.  But it all starts here, with how you select your material.  And rule number two is that you need to tell us a story.

Does this mean that you have to dumb your work down?  No, not at all.  The conference audience is intelligent, and they are quite capable of following you if you say complicated things.  But they can’t do that if they’re asleep, which means that (especially in the session directly after lunch) you have to give them something to cling onto, a way to follow you through the maze of information that you’ve gathered through your work this year, and to reach the middle of that maze with a clear appreciation of the journey.  Stories are the way to do that.  They engage us, hold our attention.  It’s just the way people are wired.

If you’ve shown us the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #1 in the last slide but one, and the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #2 in the last slide; and if now you’re showing us the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #3, don’t be surprised if we lose interest when in the next slide you show us the graph of stable isotope ratios in mastodon tooth #4.  (Yes, I’ve really seen this done.  And there were a lot more than four of them.)

(Note: the Consecutive Mastoton Tooth Stable Isotope Ratio Graph talk was not given at the Lyme Regis SVPCA.  Just to be clear)

How do you find a compelling story that summarises the research you want the world to know about?  Well, start by accepting that it’s going to mean you won’t be able to talk about everything you’ve done this year.  Even if you could fit it all into the twenty-minute slot, it wouldn’t work as a talk.  It would be a mere aggregation of facts.  You, who are the specialist on your topic, have had whole a year to absorb all this information and make sense of it; but we, in the audience, have only twenty minutes.  So we need you to be our expert guide.

Once more, understand that this means you will have to omit much that is relevant.  That’s because your actual research is like a tree, branching out all over the place and giving rise to tiny baby new projects, some of which might develop for long enough to become independently viable.  But you can’t walk us across the tree of your research: there isn’t time, and we wouldn’t be able to digest it anyway.  Instead, you need to pick a single narrative, concentrate on that, and explain it to us as linearly as you can.

Here’s an analogy that might help.  When you’re trying to explain human evolution to someone, you know that evolution “doesn’t work in straight lines” and that it produces a tree rather than an ascent of man.  You are a sophisticated evolutionary biologist, and you know that diagrams like this one are misleading:


… except that they’re not.  I know that Gould loathed this picture, but it’s actually a perfectly good representation of the evolution of a single branch of the tree of life.  Yes, other branches forked off along the way.  But depending on what group we’re concentrating on, we can temporarily ignore those — just as I habitually ignore the negligble offshoots of the tetrapod tree that led to lissamphibians, mammals, turtles, lizards, crocs, ornithischians, theropods, diplodocoids and titanosaurs.  The truth is that every single organism on this planet descended in a direct line from the ancestral organism.

So: that maligned diagram has to be your model as you plan the content of your talk.  You have to ruthlessly prune — not only the branches of your research that didn’t go anywhere interesting; but also, and more painfully, the many branches that did go somewhere interesting, but not the place that your talk is focussed on.  Those branches may be interesting, they may be important; but they don’t contribute to your goal here, which is to make us understand the story of your project in twenty minutes.

It can be hard to figure out what is core to the story and what is a side-branch.  I know that I’ve been seduced into including fascinating-but-distracting side-branches into my own talks often enough.  But I do know of one good strategy for figuring out what your narrative through-line is.

Take an intelligent friend to a pub.  Have a beer, and buy one for your friend.  Heck, buy him two.  Now try to explain your project to him.

In the pub, you won’t have the crutch of slides to fall back on, so you will have to think about the story itself.

In the pub, your friend will interrupt with questions that help you clarify your own thinking, rather than leaving an audience mystified.

In the pub, you’ll be told immediately if you wander off into Irrelevant Land, rather than ploughing blindly on, getting further and further away from the point, as an audience too polite to interrupt quietly disengages.

Whether you mean to or not, you and your friend will be workshopping the core of your talk, figuring out what the narrative core is, slicing away the fat, slicing away as well the irrelevant meat, and gradually homing in on a structure that begins at the beginning, tells a single coherent story from beginning to end, and then stops.

And then you’re ready to start thinking about the slides.  Or maybe better leave it till the morning.

Jeff Liston at Lyme Regis. SVPCA for scale.

Next time: the slides.

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10 Responses to “Tutorial 16: giving good talks, part 1: planning”


  1. Along these lines, I recommend having a “sound bite” for your talk, i.e. a 1 sentence (and no longer!) basic (jargon-free) summary of what your talk is about, that you can whip out when you may only have a brief moment to explain your presentation (often true if you are speaking to overly busy professionals, bartenders etc). It should be designed to not only give the message but also spin it in a way that makes the listener want to know more; i.e. exciting. Show some enthusiasm. If you bore your listener in 1 sentence, you’re hosed.

    Another good thing to plan is a “hook” to lead people into your talk– the first sentence you’ll say when you get to the podium. Don’t read your first slide “Hi, I’m Greedo Snaggletooth and I’ll be presenting on “A PCA Analysis of Fossilized Tachyon Particles on a Parsec Scale.” Booooorrring. Have a clever, thought-provoking or amusing lead-in. I like to pose a question to get the audience interested- e.g. “Have you ever wondered, what are the diagenetic effects on tachyon properties? Would we even know a fossil tachyon particle if we found it? Well I my analysis aimed to shed some light on this, and the results turned out to be rather surprising as you’ll see…”

    Similarly, the final or penultimate slide should be planned to come full circle to this, or else end on a high note- leave the reader satisfied that they’ve had a full course meal in those 12-20 precious minutes, and with fond memories of your palaeotachyons.

  2. Michael Richmond Says:

    It is sometimes not a bad idea to give away the “big ending” of your presentation in the first sentence or two. I have attended many talks which, for one reason or another, took longer to give than the time available, and so the speakers never got to their goal. Better to give it away early than never say it at all.

    This also allows people who need to use the bathroom or want to see another talk at the same time to go off and do that other business.


  3. [...] best slides won’t rescue your talk from mediocrity, so before you fire up PowerPoint, go and read part 1 of this tutorial, on finding the narrative.  Seriously.  The slides are how you convey your message, and they’re important.  But not [...]


  4. [...] primeiro o autor está discutindo como preparar uma apresentação que prenda a platéia. Eu vi um sem [...]


  5. [...] part of a month ago, we posted the first two articles in a series of four on giving good talks: part 1 on planning, and part 2 on preparing the actual slides.  Then we got distracted and posted a whole sequence of [...]


  6. [...] conferences.  If you’ve followed the previous installments, you should have figured out a clear, compelling story that you want to tell from your research; you should have clear slides with striking, relevant [...]


  7. “…it’s actually a perfectly good representation of the evolution of a single branch of the tree of life.”

    It isn’t. Our ancestors never knuckle walked. And if the first figure is supposed to be close to our last common ancestor with chimps, then that should be bipedal. We’ve known all this for sure since Oct. 2nd 2009. Some of us strongly suspected it for years before then. Why have none of your readers pointed this out? Estimated date for SVP/SVPOW/SVPCA to catch up…?


  8. [...] But as I’ve said repeatedly here and elsewhere, all good writing is story-telling. Scientific ideas, like all others, need to be presented as stories in order to sink into our brains. So what’s happened here is that, so far as I’m concerned, the reviewer has praised our [...]


  9. [...] have such short necks. For the talk, I radically restructured the material into a form that had a stronger narrative – a process that involved a lot of back and forth with Matt, dry-running the talk, and [...]


  10. [...] was back at the Lyme Regis SVPCA in 2011 that I was first lucky enough to run into the material that has now become available as [...]


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