How to speak (by Patrick Winston)


On New Year's morning, I watched the above lecture by Patrick Winston, the late MIT professor, on "How To Speak". (Patrick Winston passed away in July 2019. May he rest in peace.)  I had previously covered the Winston star idea by him; this talk provides a more general and comprehensive treatment on how to speak and present.

Patrick's talk contained several new gems for me. And I thought I already know a lot about presenting.

Start with an empowerment promise. Nobody cares about your talk, they care about what useful things they can learn from your talk. So make this about the audience, look at this from their perspective, and start by telling them what useful thing they will get out of this talk.

Differentiate between presentations that aim to expose (a job talk or a conference talk) versus that aim to inform (a lecture).

For an exposition talk, you need to get across your message in the first five minutes. You should explain the problem you solve and why that is an important problem, and then you should explain why your approach is new and effective. Then you give a preview of your contributions.

Be minimalistic in your slides. Cut almost all words on the slides, and use a small number of slides. Using a lot of text on slides mean that people will be distracted when trying to read them and won't be able to follow what you say. (Humans have a single language processing center.) This suggests that it may be useful to prepare to versions of your slides, one for live presentation and another for serving as handouts to post at the conference website or on your homepage.

Avoid laser pointers. Laser pointers are too distracting as you need to face the curtain to point to things. Instead use arrows on slides, and explain/highlight them in your talk. I recently bought a LogiTech Spotlight pointer, which solves the awkward pointing problem with laser pointers. It is accelerator based and it highlights on the laptop screen in software, so you don't have to turn your back to the audience to point to the screen.

As for presentations that aim to inform, Patrick argues that using chalk and blackboard is more appropriate. I agree that the blackboard is very useful when explaining a protocol. But the slides are still more convenient for the rest of the time. Again the rules about well prepared slides apply. It is also important to keep the pace slow, and keep things interactive with several strategic questions embedded in the slides.

Try to minimize distraction in the audience. Patrick argues that laptops be disallowed in lectures. Again, since humans have one language processing center, they will miss the presentation if they read emails or social media posts on their laptops. Obviously requesting the laptops to be closed is not practical for conference talks. (I use my laptop to take notes which helps me to follow the talks better.) In fact conference talks has the most disadvantageous setup. The audience is tired from previous talks in the conference, they have laptops in front of them, and the room is not well-lit. The only defense for conference talks is to make the content and presentation very interesting.

Try to use props. A prop is an actual object that you can touch and show, and it makes your presentation much more interesting because it creates a visceral reaction in the audience. I will try to work on this item. This may require some creativity for people working on distributed systems and cloud computing, but is not totally inconceivable.

End with the contributions slide. Remind the audience what you argued, how you argued it, and why it matters. Patrick insists that you do not finish your talk with saying thank you, as that is a weak move :-)

Patrick's talk was more about the mechanics of giving a talk. I had previously written a couple posts about presenting your work, which focused more on how to frame your presentation and how to tell a story. They are a nice complement to Patrick's presentation.

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