T-2 days until defense

I remember my first conference presentation.  It was at ASSETS in Tempe, Az.  2007?  My voice was wavering because I was so nervous doing my first public talk in front of maybe a hundred people.  I have a low voice so the audience couldn’t tell (or they were really polite).  I don’t remember really being nervous before a talk since then.

But it’s two days before the thesis defense and I overworked, then underslept, and now have the jitters.  It’s a pretty interesting experience because it doesn’t really make sense to me.  While I’m at it, I should jot down some presentation notes that might be helpful.

First off, when you’re making the presentation it’s tough to know how many slides you want (until you gain experience).  A good rule of thumb is one minute per slide.  If you’re off by a bit, don’t fret about it in the early stage of refining.

I won’t give too many presentation-making tips (I’ll save them for later), but some basic advice is to avoid text-heavy slides.  If you try to communicate too much, then your audience ends up being confused and gains nothing.  It’s far better to err on the side of communicating too little – would you rather they learn less than desired, or learn nothing due to confusion?  Consider two aspects of your audience – who are you directly speaking to (like my committee)?  Who else will be around?  Try to tailor it to those with a reasonably low amount of background knowledge.  After all, even experts forget things now and then.  Also, I prefer to have bullets/columns/whatever build in while I’m talking.  It can be easy for people to get lost.

Given that you have a first draft of a presentation, boil it down to the essential points.  What do you really need to cover?  This can be difficult for some talks.

Give the presentation to yourself.  If you have an active imagination, you might be able to quietly sit at your desk and give the presentation in your head.  In general I find this very helpful, but it doesn’t catch as much as presenting.  The next step is to speak aloud, which is better at catching linguistic problems (how do I transition?  how can I word something?).  Finally, you should give a practice talk to 2-3 peers.

If you want good feedback, take the time to refine your talk before practicing for your peers.  You don’t want to waste their time and also you want to make sure the comments are useful.  Like reviewing papers, if they spend their time on trivial feedback (lack of organization, no motivation, etc), you’ve wasted your practice with them.

You can make the practice talk go more smoothly in many ways.  First, clarify whether it’s a timed or untimed.  If timed, take only clarification questions.  If untimed, the feedback will reflect your content more and the presentation less.  In general, I strongly suggest printing handouts (4-up/6-up) of your slides and include slide numbers.  This will greatly help them to jot down comments and makes it easier to be clear about the slide in question.  Bring a couple extra pens/pencils for them.

When taking the feedback, take the time to understand their point of view.  Maybe they have much worse eyesight than you.  Maybe they don’t have your background knowledge.  Make an effort to understand the root source of the problem (sometimes it’s missing background on the previous slide).

Jot down the comments as much as you can, and separately consider what you plan to do about it.  Some comments reflect just one person’s preference, while other comments are about a problem for a large group of people.  It’s your job to decide which is which and decide how to best spend your limited time.  One caveat is that you don’t want to hide your intentions or anything; be honest.  If you really like a slide the way it is, you can express that (but you need to have a good reason why the criticism isn’t reason enough to change it).

Be open to suggestions – involve your generous peers.  When faced with a difficult criticism, sometimes they have ideas and sometimes they’ll find that it’s a genuinely difficult problem.

When used properly, practice talk feedback is an incredibly valuable and precious resource.

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