Giving talks: what to leave out

September 15, 2017

I deliberately left a lot of things out of the poster I presented at SVPCA: an abstract (who needs repetition?), institutional logos (who cares?), references (no-one’s going to follow them up that couldn’t find what they need in other ways), headings (all the text was in figure captions) and generally as much text as I could omit without compromising clarity.

In the same way, I found myself thinking a lot of the talks at his conference could have done with leaving some conventional things out — especially as talks now take place in 15-minute slots rather than 20 minutes.

Here are some things you don’t need to do:

  • Don’t start by saying the title. We can read it. Instead, while the title slide is up, tell us something about why we should care about your talk.
  • Don’t introduce yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the last year of your Ph.D, or starting a postdoc with such-and-such person. We care about your science, not your biography (at least during your talk).
  • Don’t reiterate your conclusions at the end. We just heard them: if we can’t remember what you told us less than 15 minutes ago, we have bigger problems.
  • Don’t say “thanks for listening”. We’re here to listen to you. It’s why we came to the conference. You’re doing us a favour, not the other way around. (Matt persuaded me that this one is wrong: see below.)
  • Don’t read the acknowledgements out loud. Nothing is more boring to listen to(*). Just leave the acknowledgements up on the screen as you finish, and we can read them if we’re interested.
  • Don’t say “I’ll be happy to take questions”. It’s the moderator’s job to invite questions — and indeed to judge whether there enough time.

Why omit these things? Most importantly, because they waste time, which you want to use to tell us your story. Your work is fascinating and we want to hear all about it. Do all you can to make space for it.

[See also: Tutorial 16: giving good talks (in four parts)]


(*) Except talks about mammal teeth, of course.


9 Responses to “Giving talks: what to leave out”

  1. […] my short post on what to leave out of a conference talk, here are few more positive thoughts on what to include, based on some of the SVPCA talks that […]

  2. Great post! Its very frustrating to hear good talks badly presented.

    In addition, a plea for less slides of small graphs which cant be seen past the front row. Just tell us what you’ve found out from them – concisely!

    Also, don’t start by telling us what order of things you’re going to tell us. I think we can presume you’ll start with methods and end with conclusions!

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Cindy! Excellent point on not explaining what the structure is going to be. This falls under the general principle of “omit the scaffolding”.

  4. Matt Wedel Says:

    I agree with most of this, but disagree pretty strongly with the bit about not saying “Thanks for listening.” For the following reasons:

    1. As it is, your post gives no guidance on how to the end the talk at all. According to these guidelines, you can’t end by thanking the people that made the work possible, you can’t end by thanking the audience, and you can’t tell people you’ll take questions. What do you do, just stop talking?

    2. Saying “Thanks for listening” takes all of 2 seconds. Even in a 15-minute talk, you’re not going to get any more science communicated in the space of 2 seconds by leaving that out, nor are you going to make any more meaningful space for questions.

    3. Most importantly, giving a talk is a human enterprise. It should feel like a natural one. And it’s perfectly natural to thank your audience when they’ve given you their time and attention. I do it all the time, not just with conference talks but with lectures to my students. If it takes no time, feels natural, and generates audience goodwill, why on earth would you not do it?

    I think this is some kind of emotionless programmer optimization taken to ridiculous levels.

    As long as I’m at it, if the path to your conclusions has been tortuous and you can elegantly sum up everything that has come before and show how it all ties together in the space of a sentence or two, I say go for it. I agree that a whole wall-of-text slide stating your conclusions is too much, let alone (shudder) two or three such slides. But if you can provide a concluding statement that acts as a funnel to bring your cloud of ideas to a natural – and hopefully forceful – conclusion, do it. Most of us can articulate even a fairly long sentence in the space of 10 seconds, and again, that’s not time that you’re going to miss out of the talk, even in a 15-minute talk slot.

    I think the ultimate concluding slide, to leave up during the questions or at least for a few seconds during the change-over, would be one that had a single, straightforward concluding statement up top, and acknowledgments down below, thereby accomplishing both goals without taking the conclusions off the screen in favor of the acknowledgments. And I still wouldn’t read that concluding statement verbatim. I’d restate it on the fly, in my own words, and maybe say one sentence about where it might lead next. Then thank the audience and turn to the moderator, implicitly yielding the floor to them to decide if there is time for questions or not.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yep, that is persuasive on “Thanks for listening”, You’re right that you do need some kind of “The talk is now over” signal, and that one is perfectly harmless.

    On “conclusions”: there is all the difference in the world between adding to your talk by stating a single coherent through-line that summarises the ideas, and merely repeating what’s already been said. I think it’s pretty obvious that here I am saying not to do the latter.

  6. Matt Wedel Says:

    Yep, that is a good distinction. In fact, “does this add to the talk/poster/paper?” is probably a good heuristic scythe to swing at any form of science communication, in the interest of keeping things focused and forceful.

  7. butlerrichardj Says:

    Interesting post Mike. However, I think for people at certain career stages, introducing themselves is important. Maybe you are finishing your MSci project and are looking for a PhD, or are finishing your PhD and are looking for a postdoc. By telling the audience a few words about yourself, you are helping to advertise yourself to those in the audience who might be looking to hire a PhD student or postdoc. That seems valuable to me.

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