Saturday, February 7, 2015

How to present your work

Presentation is a very important skill. Determining how to present and communicate your results in an effective manner is  as important as doing the research and getting those results. From the same material you can get a killer job talk or a bummed dissertation talk. Presentation skills can make the difference.

Presentation is not a soft skill despite the common misconception among many technical people. It takes a lot of brains, analyzing, and synthesizing to produce a good presentation. You have to understand and internalize your content very well in order to present it clearly in the most engaging and compelling way. So if you fail to present your work clearly, that reflects poorly on you and your work. The audience will think "the work doesn't look significant or promising", or even worse "the presenter doesn't truly understand/internalize his work".

The most essential requirement for a successful presentation is practice. I observe that our graduate students are not good at presenting because they don't get enough practice and rehearsals. As with any skill, you will learn about presenting best by doing it. So don't waste any opportunity to talk about your work. Talk about your work to your relatives, who won't understand. (This is very useful, because you get to think of how to explain your contributions in the context of the real world out there.) Tell it to your friends not in the same field. Tell it to your lab mates. Give talks in the department seminars. You need to learn how to get feedback and gauge your presentation. Eventually, you will get to present your work in conferences.

The "Talk like TED" book 

I recently picked up this book from a library. (Yes, a physical library.) The book was a very easy, lightweight reading. The book's outline consists of the 9 tips it offers for giving successful TED-like talks. It argued that good talks need to be emotional, novel, and memorable, and categorized the 9 tips under those 3 headings.
Emotional:
+ unleash your passion
+ tell a story
+ have a conversation
Novel:
+ teach something new
+ deliver WOW moments
+ use humor
Memorable:
+ keep it short
+ paint a mental picture
+ be authentic

This may be my own failing, but I didn't learn/benefit much from the book. (Shall I say, the book was not very emotional, novel, or memorable?) If you had done some reading about public speaking before, this book does not offer much new insights or content. This book could have been condensed to a long blog post.  For example, read this article by Chris Anderson instead.

Maybe the most interesting take away from the book is how much practice the presenters put into the talk. I knew TED speakers rehearsed a lot, but I was still surprised to learn how much. Six months before the talk, the presentation draft is there. Then it is all practice rehealsals and tweaking to refine and fine-tune. One month before the talk, the final form of the presentation is ready.

Keep your eyes on the message 
I think the best presentation advice I received was from another TED, Ted Herman. After hearing me speak as a graduate student on one of my work, he told me: "Focus on the message. Give your presentation with the sole goal to teach, and not to impress."

If you worry about impressing the audience in a presentation, then your ego gets in the way, you get self-conscious. You start questioning "Did I say that right? Was I too slow? Am I perceived as confident enough? etc." This will get you nervous and self-doubting. If you focus on the message, you will get your point across, even if it takes flapping your arms wildly. And if your content is good, it will impress people after all. As Anderson says "Presentations rise or fall on the quality of the idea, the narrative, and the passion of the speaker. It’s about substance, not speaking style or multimedia pyrotechnics."

Focusing on the message is hard to do using Powerpoint/Keynote. Powerpoint makes it easy to lose the focus on the message. By writing slide after slide and getting things stylistically right (which Powerpoint facilitates immensely), you get the false-sense of security that you are communicating the content. To avoid this and to force yourself to focus on the message/content, you should prepare the story and outline of the talk first in your mind, before sitting down to prepare the slides. How would you give this talk if you were forced not to use any slides. Thinking this way and purposefully omitting the slides as crutches will help you learn, discover, and hone your message. (More on this below, where I talk about framing the talk.)

To reiterate what I said in the beginning of the post, presentation is not a soft skill and requires a lot of brains. In order to produce a clear and condensed message, you need to learn how to abstract the most important lessons from all the work you did. This requires you to first process and internalize your work really well. You should omit a lot of incidental details, and provide a condensed message in a conference presentation or job talk. These talks are there to whet people's appetites and get them to read your papers. This does not mean that these talks should omit technical content. On the contrary they should include technical content that communicates the essence of your technical contribution in a clear and accessible manner.

Frame your talk well

And from my PhD advisor, Anish Arora, I learned how to frame a talk well. Framing means finding the right place to begin and developing the right story and context to pitch the ideas.

When we meet to discuss how to present our work, Anish would declare "let's try to understand what we did in this work". Wow! He was totally comfortable accepting that we could understand our work better, and the context at which we started and performed the work is not necessarily the best context with which we present the work. From Anish, I learned that it is OK to search for a new perspective and a better context to frame and present the work.

In fact, your best presentations are which you also learn and get a new appreciation of your work. If you get that new understanding of your work, that is a good indication that you did enough to frame your work, and you achieved a good understanding and focusing of your message.

Related links

How to package your ideas using the Winston star

Presentation skills is somewhat related to writing skills. So most of the advice here also applies to writing. Similarly some of the advise on writing also applies to preparing a presentation.
How to write your research paper
How I write

What is the biggest rock?
You can get the style right, and give a content-free and superficially interesting talk. But as Lincoln said: "You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."

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