How to give a good talk

Uri Alon


A talk prepared with a single premise and delivered while looking into the audience eyes is instructive and enjoyable.

Anyone can give a good talk; Everyone can improve their talks. Here is how, based on knowledge from theatre (Aristotles to modern improv), and on public speaking theory.

The three principles of a good talk:

Preparation: Title each slide with a full sentence: the premise of the slide.

Presentation: Look into the audience eyes at all times, not at your own slides.

Questions: Listen to the question, repeat it, and say yes to its content.


Preparation:

  1. Define the MAIN IDEA of the entire talk. Describe the main idea, the PREMISE, to yourself in only a single sentence with a subject, object and verb.
    For example, a premise can be: Cells change their shape by regulating the actin cytoskeleton. The following is not a premise: Cell shape and the cytoskeleton. Why? It is not a full sentence. My premise for this essay is written above.
    The talk should contain only material that is relevant to the premise. Leave out 'cool, interesting stuff' if unrelated to premise.

  2. TITILE EACH SLIDE WITH ITS PREMISE. In each slide, the title must be a full sentence, with a subject, object and verb, that describes the main idea of the slide. It is the PREMISE of the slide, and will help the audience get the idea at a glance. Avoid questions like “What is the velocity?” or fragments like “An assay of velocity.” Instead, use a full sentence like “Velocity increases with time”- the idea you want to get across.
    As you prepare, finding the premise of your talk and of each slide is not easy, and should be considered part of the research: it can focus you on what is important and essential, and help you to see if any part of the argument is missing.

  3. The slides should be simple (eg: title+picture)– contain only what is essential for premise.

  4. Break slides down: several simple slides are better than one complicated slide. If the slide has two premises- break it down into slides.

  5. Experimental data should usually be used lightly and in accordance with the premise– otherwise the premise of the talk becomes 'I will impress you that I did a lot of work'.

  6. Learn BY HEART the 2-3 first sentences

  7. Chew the text of the lecture: practice it until you know it in your mouth.

  8. Finish ahead of time! Plan the talk for 2/3 of the time that you've been given. (for a 60 minutes talk, plan 40 minutes, about 20-30 slides for 40 minutes).

  9. Remember how much the audience doesn't know – and how pleasant it is to hear about known and clear issues.

Presentation:

  1. Look into the audience eyes- no need to look at the slides, and even not to point at them. You know what's written in your own slides! Don't bury yourself in your own slides… be connected to the audience at all times.

  2. Look at one person in the eyes per idea. The audience empathizes and identifies with the lecturer. If the lecturer is disconnected from the audience and enclosed in his/her own slides, the audience will also be disconnected… if the lecturer is enthusiastic and looking into the audience eyes, the audience will act similarly.
    Check if the audience is with you and act accordingly. If you sense a dip in attention, change voice, movement, pause and say something that you feel right now (its hot, I smell the coffee outside…)

  3. Build drama over the talk. The premise should originate from a sense of wonder of a phenomenon. You build the tension during the lecture- foreshadowing the discovery. Then there is a second wonder- Ahh, that is what the answer looks like (Aritotle's two wonders).

  4. As you speak, note that you raise questions in the audiences mind, and then answer them in good timing, so it feels like a conversation.

  5. Don't say: do you understand? Rather say: did I explain myself? The responsibility for clarity is yours. Avoid automatic words like 'OK' after every slide. Film yourself talking and you will learn your own unique pet ticks, superfluous gestures and words.

How to answer Questions:

Questions are your golden opportunity to get feedback. For many, it is a stressful time, and we wish it was over as quickly as possible. The following technique will help you relax, understand the questions, and answer in a meaningful way.

  1. Look into the questioners eyes as they are asking.
  2. Repeat the question in their own words – so everyone can hear it, and so you can have time to understand it.
  3. Check the eyes to see if this is what was actually meant, if not ask for more context.
  4. Accept that the question is worth while. Say YES to the idea. Listen to each question; we often tend to start answering immediately after the first two words of the question, as if we already anticipate the question.
  5. Its good to say – "I don't know"; "I didn't think about this before"; "let's talk about it after the lecture"; "It's a very important point to think about"; "That is very important criticism".
  6. Aggressive questions: Separate between the dramatic action- the music of the question, and the text- the content of the question. An aggressively asked question can trigger defensiveness, which can cause you to lose an important comment/input. If one separates the aggression from the content, one can answer properly and at the same time leave the dignity of the asker intact.
  7. The way that you answer the first question will set the frame for the next ones- so take time with the first question.


If you use these principles, it is likely that both you and the audience will enjoy the talk and learn from it.

Yours,

Uri. (urialon at weizmann.ac.il)