Thursday, June 7, 2018

Three important questions for talk preparation

I have lots of experience giving talks, on a wide range of topics, and to a diverse range of audiences. Some people say I give nice talks. However, preparing good talks remains a struggle and requires a lot of work, particularly for a new topic and/or a new audience. This week I am give two such talks and have been getting some feedback on drafts. Here are the three questions I have to keep coming back to.

Who is my audience?
What is their background, interests, and prejudices?
The talk MUST be tailored to my actual audience, not a different audience, including the audeince I might wish I had.

What is the context of my talk?
Why was I invited?
Who is speaking before me and after me?
When does my talk occur?
A colleague recently told me to cut a lot of material/information from a draft simply because my talk  will occur on friday before lunch. The audience will be quite tired after five days of intense meetings, discussions, and presentations.
This is quite different to giving the first presentation at a meeting, and which is meant to set the stage, direction, and context for a meeting.

What is the one point I want my audience to take away?
People may not remember or even understand a lot of the detail. What is the single outcome I really want: read my paper, get a job offer, realise theory X is wrong, realise technique Y can help measure Z,  believe A is an exciting new field, give money, stop believing B, be excited about what they are doing, want to collaborate with me on C, generate discussion about D ....?
Focussing on this outcome gives the freedom to cut a lot from the talk and to tailor it to this one single goal rather than a multitude of worthwhile but less important goals.

Not every talk is or should be a TED-style talk but I found very helpful, The Top 5 TED talks about how to give a great TED talk.


  1. Excellent points Ross. I would amplify your last point in the following way: once you have figured out what one point you want the audience to remember, tell the audience in plain language at the beginning of the talk. Instead of leading up to your point over 15 slides, start with a slide that puts the point in writing and then tell the audience "Today, I am going to show you that....."

    Some of the best communicators I know also extend this rule to every single slide: decide what the key point from the slide is and write it in text in a box at the bottom of the slide. This means no slides with just a figure and no text. If you have trouble deciding what the main point of a slide is, why are you showing it at all?

  2. This ted talk by Prof Bonnie Bassler is very good one. Princeton University.