EE384Y: Final Presentation



Being a professional engineer or researcher means you often have to present your work to your colleagues. Giving an effective technical presentation requires a lot of preparation and practice. For example, in preparation for a 15 minute conference talk, it's quite common for a researcher to spend several days preparing, and give several practice talks along the way. Here are some guidelines to follow while preparing your presentation.

  1. In the beginning, forget the slides.

    The most common mistake in giving a talk is to focus too much attention on the preparation of your slides. Remember that the talk is what comes out of the speaker's mouth, not the slides. Resist the temptation to spend all your preparation time working on pretty powerpoint slides. Instead, prepare the outline and script of your talk first, and only then think about how slides might help to illustrate some of the key points you are trying to make. A good rule of thumb is to spend 75% of the preparation time on your outline and script, and 25% of the time preparing slides. Remember that the world's best orators give great talks without slides!

  2. Write a 1-paragraph abstract that summarises your talk.

    Before you start preparing the outline and details, write down a brief abstract. It's worth spending some time on it. (For what it's worth, even though I've given hundreds of talks and lectures, I still do this before every talk and lecture I prepare).

    Try to write, in the most concise and clear way, a brief summary of the talk. What problem are you solving, and why is it interesting? What is the context in which you are doing the work? What is the essence of your work, and your results? What is the "ah hah!" factor --- what do you want your audience to take away from the talk? If you can't write a 1-paragraph summary, it tells you that you don't have a clear idea of what the talk is about. Once you have a good paragraph written, you can be sure that the talk will be a lot easier to prepare.

  3. Prepare a bulleted outline of the whole talk.

    Prepare an outline - perhaps in the form of 30-40 bullets - that shows the flow of the whole talk. This will help identify missing or redundant sections; and will help balance the amount of information you include in each part of the talk. It is often tempting to spend too much on one, unimportant detail, leaving too little time for the important stuff.

  4. Script the whole talk, and learn it.

    Yes - I mean it. Write down, word for word, your whole talk. You'd be amazed at how many people do this -- even skilled speakers who give talks often. If the President can give speeches from a teleprompter, it tells you something about what makes a good talk. In many fields of the humanities, researchers read all their talks from a script.

    The trick is to script the whole talk, read it aloud many times and then learn it. Then the day before your talk, throw away your script. You'll remember the key sentences and points, and by not reading it you'll make it sound more natural.
    Having a script will make your talk get off on the right foot, and help overcome nervousness. Perhaps most importantly, a script will help you avoid missing out some important points, and will help you make best use of the small amount of time you have.

  5. Pick/design some slides to illustrate key ideas.

    Think about what slides you need to illustrate your script. Your slides do not have to paint a complete picture on their own. It is a common misconception that the slides should be readable and meaningful without the speaker. This is baloney. If this were true, we wouldn't need the speaker! Think of them as illustrative tools, to help explain key ideas. It is not a good idea to use them to jog your memory; that is what your own notes are for.

  6. Practice the talk with the script several times.

  7. Throw away the script.

    Once you have practiced the scripted talk a few times, throw your script away. You will remember the key phrases; and in the moment, you will link it together more naturally than you would by reading it.

  8. Give the presentation.

    If all this seems like a lot of work, it is. Giving a good talk involves many hours of preparation.