Saturday, August 12, 2017

On presenting well

I had written about "how to present your work" earlier. If you haven't read that, that is a good place to start.

I started thinking about this topic recently as my two PhD students Ailidani Ailijiang and Aleksey Charapko had to make their first presentations in ICDCS 2017. I worked with them to prepare their presentations. I listened to 3 drafts of their presentations and helped them revise the presentations. Since the topic of presenting your work was rekindled, I thought I should do another post on this.

Most talks suck

I told my students that most of the conference presentations are dreadful. The good news is that the bar is not high. If you prepare sufficiently and practice, you will be already ahead of the curve.

But why do most talks suck? It is mainly because the presenters got it wrong about the purpose of the talk and try to cover everything in their paper. As a result their slides are not well thought, and the presentation follows the paper outline and tries to cover the paper. The presenters then go through these slides quickly, as if covering more ground means the audience will learn more. And the audience get dazed by powerpoint bullets.

This is a rookie mistake. My students also made that mistake in the first draft of their talks. I told them that if they just fixed this problem, they will be almost there. Below I will give you a step by step walkthrough of how to fix this problem.

Know the game

Covering all things in the paper is a losing battle. The audience has seen a dozen presentations that day, things are getting blurry for them, and their brain is getting mushy. Nowadays you are also competing with Twitter and Facebook for the attention of your audience. (This is one of my biggest pet peeves. What is the deal with people who fly over half the world to get to a conference but then keep checking Twitter and Facebook on their laptops? Seriously?)

Moreover, 20 minutes is a shorter time than you think. You don't stand a chance explaining all your results and the subtleties in your work in 20 minutes. Your best chance is to engage them long enough to communicate the heart of your paper.

So the goal of the presentation is to communicate the essence of your paper, instead of covering all the things in your paper. Instead of presenting too many slides in a poor way, it is best to present fewer slides in a memorable way and get people understand those. If you manage to do this, the audience can read your paper for an in-depth description of your work.

One of the best ways to communicate the idea of a paper is to tell it as a story. A story engages the audience better, and will make the lessons stick longer.

Find your story

This is the most challenging part of your preparation. You need to frame your talk well. You should find the right place to begin, and develop the right story and context to communicate your work. This requires good hard thinking and several iterations.

I helped my students frame their talks. We found stories for their presentations, and restructured their first draft to follow this storyline rather than the paper outline. Then we did a couple more drafts where we revised and refined the flow. Maybe I should do a future post to give a concrete example on finding a story on a presentation. For now, I will just point to this tangentially related post.

The most important thing for framing is to motivate the problem well. Giving concrete examples, albeit simplified, helps for this. 100% of audience should understand the problem, and at least 50% of audience should understand the solution you offer. (This is not to mean you will make the later part of the presentation hard to understand. You will be considered successful if 50% of audience understands despite your best efforts to simplify your explanation.)

When you are trying to communicate your work in simple terms, using analogies help.

Cull your slides

Recall that the purpose of the presentation is to communicate the essence of the result and get people interested to dig in more. How do you do it? You iterate over your slides and remove the slides that don't cut right into the matter. You should have as few slides as you can cut down to. When was the last presentation where you wished you had more slides to present?

I always wished I had less slides to present. For a 20 minute presentation I sometimes get lazy and go with 20 slides. Big mistake! With so many slides, I can't pace myself well and start rushing to finish on time. But if I do my preparation well, I go with 10 slides (with ~3 sentences on each) for a 20 minute presentation. When I had less things to say (because I took the time and prioritized what I want to say), I would be able to communicate those things better and actually manage to teach them to the audience. Yes, although I know the basics about presentations, I botch some presentations up because I am lazy and don't prepare sufficiently.

What is that? Are you telling me it is impossible to present your paper in 10 slides? If you are at least a half-competent researcher/writer, you will know that you can and you should explain things at multiple granularities! You can and should have a 1 sentence summary, 5 sentence summary, and 5 paragraph summary of your work. In your presentation, you should refer to your 1 sentence summary multiple times. The audience should really understand that 1 sentence summary.

Calm your nerves

If you are well prepared with your slides, and practice your talk out loud at least a couple times, that should help calm your nerves, because you know you are prepared and up to the task.

But I won't lie, it is unnerving to be in the spotlight, and have too many eyeballs on you. (Some people argue this fear of public speaking has evolutionary roots. When the early human was standing in the savannah, and felt eyeballs on him, that was bad news: predators are eyeing him and he should be on the run. I don't know how credible this is. Evolutionary psychology has been used for arguing all sorts of things.)

Here are some things that can help calm your nerves.

If you focus on the message you will not focus on your self and ego. The message is the important thing for the audience, so nobody cares if you occasionally stutter and mess up. You are doing a service to the audience by delivering a message. There is no point in agonizing over whether you had a flawless delivery, and whether you looked good while presenting. If you deliver your message, then your content will speak for itself.

Another thing that can help is to reframe the situation. Your heart is beating hard not because you are scared, but because you are excited that you got the opportunity to talk about your work. And it is perfectly fine being excited about your talk. If you reframe it this way, this can even give you an energy boost for your talk.

You also need some alone time, a couple hours before you give the talk. Visualizing the talk will help a lot. Visualize yourself standing there, arguing the important points of the paper, slowly and confidently. Simulate your talk giving experience in your brain.

And don't worry if you get nervous and botch up some presentations. I did my fair share of botching up presentations, and found that people don't notice since most conference presentations are bad anyways. Chalk those as experience points. It will get better with time and you will slowly build immunity to stage fright. When I first started presenting, I was very nervous about standing in front of large crowds. It felt terrifying. But now it is just Tuesday afternoon, teaching Distributed Systems class. So start getting yourself exposed to crowds to build immunity.

A job well done

If you do all that hard work in advance, you will get to enjoy yourself at the presentation. You will speak slowly and confidently. You will make eye contact with the audience, and get visual confirmation that people are following you, which will also energize you. You will get questions after the talk, and that is always a good sign people were engaged.

Both my students nailed their talks. Congratulations to them for a job well done. They got several good questions after the talk, and well earned applauses at the end. I know they will do better in other talks in the future, if they don't forget the lessons from this first presentation: find a good story, explain the heart of your work in as little number of slides as possible.

Related Posts

Nobody wants to read your shit
How I write
How to write your research paper
How to present your work
Book review: "Good prose" and "How to write a lot"
Writing advice

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