Prof. Xiaokui recommended us a great speech about how to give a great research talk by Simon Peyton Jones from Microsoft weeks ago. I didn’t find it until clearing my E-mail box yesterday. Recursively speaking, this speech itself is a great talk with lots of practical suggestions as well. Thanks for your sharing, Prof. Simon and Prof. Xiaokui.

By exploring on the web page of this speech, I find that it comes from the Microsoft Research Cambridge Lab PhD Summer School in 2016 and 2017, and there are many other valuable courses, including one course on how to write a great research paper.

This post is to note down suggestions and good practices for a great research talk. There will be another post focusing on the one for writing a great research paper.

Here are related resources for your convenience:

Name Video Slides Paper
How to Give a Great Research Talk YouTube PDF PDF
How to Write a Great Research Paper YouTube PDF -

How to Give a Great Research Talk

  1. Why you should listen to this talk? (Research is communication)
    1. Think: how often have you said “I’m really glad I went to that talk”.
    2. Some simple, actionable ideas that can make your talks much better.
    3. You will have more fun.
    4. A research talk gives you access to the world’s most priceless commodity: the time and attention of other people. Don’t waste it!
  2. Purpose - The purpose of your talk IS NOT:
    1. To impress your audience with your brainpower.
    2. To tell them everything you know about your topic.
    3. To present all the technical details.
  3. Purpose - The purpose of your talk IS:
    1. To give your audience an intuitive feel for your idea.
    2. To make them foam at the mouth with eagerness to read your paper.
    3. To engage, excite, provoke them.
    4. To make them glad they came.
  4. Audience - The audience you would LIKE:
    1. Have read all your earlier papers
    2. Thoroughly understand all the relevant theory of cartesian closed endomorphic bifunctors
    3. Are all agog to hear about the latest developments in your work
    4. Are fresh, alert, and ready for action
  5. Audience - The audience you GET:
    1. Have never heard of you.
    2. Have heard of bifunctors, but wish they hadn’t.
    3. Have just had lunch and are ready for a doze.
  6. Audience - Your mission is to WAKE THEM UP and make them glad they did.
  7. What to put in: Motivition (20%) + Your key idea (80%) + nothing else
  8. Motivition - You have two minutes to engage your audience before they start to doze. They are thinking:
    1. Why should I tune into this talk?
    2. What is the problem?
    3. Why is it an interesting problem?
    4. Does this talk describe a worthwhile advance?
  9. Your key idea - If the audience remembers only one thing from your talk, what should it be?
    1. You must identify a key idea. “What I did this summer” is no good.
    2. Be specific. Don’t leave your audience to figure it out for themselves.
    3. Be absolutely specific. Say “If you remember nothing else, remember this”.
    4. Organise your talk around this specific goal. Ruthlessly prune material that is irrelevant to this goal.
  10. Narrow, deep beats wide, shallow:
    1. Avoid shallow overviews at all costs.
    2. Cut to the chase: the technical “meat”
    3. It’s ok to cover only part of your paper.
  11. Examples are your main weapon. When time is short, omit the general case, not the example.
    1. To motivate the work.
    2. To convey the basic intuition.
    3. To illustrate the idea in action.
    4. To show extreme cases.
    5. To highlight shortcomings.
  12. What to leave out - No outline:
    1. “Outline of my talk”: conveys near zero information at the start of your talk.
    2. Worse, since your audience only gives you 2 minutes before dozing, you’ve just lost them.
    3. But maybe put up an outline for orientation after your motivation and signposts at pause points during the talk.
  13. What to leave out - No related work:
    1. But you absolutely must know the related work; respond readily to questions.
    2. But you can acknowledge co-authors (title slide), and pre-cursors (as you go along).
    3. But you can praise the opposition: X’s very interesting work does Y; I have extended it to do Z.
  14. What to leave out - Omit technical details:
    1. Even though every line is drenched in your blood and sweat, dense clouds of notation will send your audience to sleep.
    2. Present specific aspects only; refer to the paper for the details.
    3. By all means have backup slides to use in response to questions.
  15. Presenting your talk - ENTHUSIASM!
    1. If you do not seem excited by your idea, why should the audience be?
    2. Enthusiasm makes people dramatically more receptive.
    3. It gets you loosened up, breathing, moving around.
  16. Presenting your talk - Write your slides the night before:
    1. Your talk absolutely must be fresh in your mind.
    2. Ideas will occur to you during the conference, as you obsess on your talk during other people’s presentations.
  17. Do not apologise:
    1. I didn’t have time to prepare this talk properly.
    2. My computer broke down, so I don’t have the results I expected.
    3. I don’t have time to tell you about this.
    4. I don’t feel qualified to address this audience.
  18. What to do about the jelly effect:
    1. Deep breathing during previous talk.
    2. Script your first few sentences precisely (=> no brain required).
    3. Move around a lot, use large gestures, wave your arms, stand on chairs.
    4. Go to the loo first.
  19. Being seen:
    1. Face the audience, not the screen.
    2. Know your material.
    3. Put your laptop in front of you, screen towards you.
    4. Don’t point much, but when you do, point at the screen, not at your laptop.
  20. Being heard:
    1. Speak to someone at the back of the room, even if you have a microphone on.
    2. Make eye contact; identify a nodder, and speak to him or her (better still, more than one).
    3. Watch audience for questions…
  21. Questions:
    1. Questions are not a problem. Questions are a golden golden golden opportunity to connect with your audience.
    2. Specifically encourage questions during your talk: pause briefly now and then, ask for questions.
    3. Be prepared to truncate your talk if you run out of time. Better to connect, and not to present all your material.
  22. Being a good audience member:
    1. Eye contact with speaker.
    2. Nod frequently.
    3. Ask questions.
  23. Presenting your slides:
    1. Use a wireless presenter gizmo.
    2. Test that your laptop works with the projector, in advance.
    3. Laptops break: leave a backup copy on the web; bring a backup copy on a disk or USB key.
    4. Don’t reveal your points one by one or using animation effects.
  24. Finishing:
    1. Audiences get restive and essentially stop listening when your time is up. Continuing is very counter productive.
    2. Simply truncate and conclude.
    3. Do not say “would you like me to go on?” (it’s hard to say “no thanks”.)
  25. What your talk is for: Your paper is the beef; your talk is the beef advertisement. Don’t cnofuse the two.
  26. Write a paper, and give a talk, about any idea, no matter how weedy and insignificant it may seem to you. Good papers and talks are a fundamental part of research excellence.
  27. Research is communication. Your paper and talks:
    1. Crystalise your ideas.
    2. Communicate them to others.
    3. Get feedback.
    4. Build relationships.
    5. (And garner research brownie points)

My Thoughts

This talk actually gives a long list of useful suggestions. The best way to apply what you agree is not to learn by rote, but to read this list when you are going to prepare for a research talk, especially when you are preparing the slides.

The most important things I learn from this talk are:

  1. 20% motivation + 80% key idea.
  2. Examples.
  3. Being seen and heard.
  4. Enthusiasm.