Things you should (not) do in a talk – Part 2

anatomy-lessonIn this series of posts, I’m giving some tips on how to prepare and deliver a good talk. (Or at least how to avoid silly mistakes.) In the previous post, I discussed time. Now, let’s talk about content.  

2. Talking about content

Before defining the content of your talk, you should know three things:

  • How much time you have.

  • Who’s the public.
  • What’s your core message.

First point is obvious: the way you’re going to build your message is deeply dependent on the available time.

Then, you should get some idea of whom you will be speaking to. This is crucial. A talk in a conference is different from a talk in a job interview, which is different from a talk before a funding committee. If necessary, contact the organizers to ask about it. Ask colleagues who have been in similar events before.

Finally, define your message. What do you want to deliver? What do you want people take home? Do you want to make a show-room of your work? Do you want to be granted a contract? Do you want to show that you are competent in that field?

Now that you know the answers… plan the talk.

(For me, planning the talk and planning the visual aid—the slides—are intermixed. But I will split these two things here. I’ll address the slides in the next post.)

Think of your talk as a TV show (a good one, naturally). People attending it will have different interests, attention levels, and backgrounds; and you still have to deliver your message to all of them. Just like TV. A good strategy for such situation is to plan your talk as a story. A story that you should tell within a certain amount of time.

(I recently attended a talk by a young postdoc. It was about catalysis, a topic that makes me spirit away after the second slide. But not in her case: she nicely intermixed her research with the story of her PhD studies, telling how she struggled to identify each step in the reaction. No excess of information, just the basics. I enjoyed the talk and even learned something about the trade.)

The story of your talk must have an introduction.

Tell the motivation, what you achieved, and how you have done it. Tell these things in a very clear way. Most of time, people won’t be specialists. It’s even possible that many won’t understand anything after the introduction.

The introduction is also the time to define common grounds and jargon. My field of research, for instance, is molecular photochemistry. When I speak to physicists, I always introduce some basic but usually unknown concepts for them. If I speak to a general-chemistry audience, I can skip some definitions, but I may show a Jablonski diagram to refresh their memories. Even for a specialized audience, a quick stop by the basics may help. If our jargons don’t match, I may completely fail in delivering my message.

Be clear throughout your presentation, but add some hard meat in the middle. If everything is too easy, people may not take you seriously…

Don’t try to tell everything that you did. People don’t care about such level of details. (Think of yourself in the audience.) Focus on the main points and cut the fat. Save details for the questions.

Don’t try to show all the projects you have been working on.This is the most common mistake I see in terms of content. People get greedy or insecure and try to show too many different projects.

(Once, a visitor delivered a talk to our department. He spoke for 40 min, it was a nice talk. We were ready to applaud him, when he announced: “now, my second topic is …” and spoke for half an hour more. Everybody was annoyed, no one paid attention, and his talk became a running joke.)

And speaking of jokes, should you tell them? Yes, sure. But not turn your talk into stand-up comedy. (Long ago, before opening for questions, a chairman thanked me for “my entertaining talk”. I understood then that I had crossed the line…)

Jokes are good to relax and get the public involved. But if you go for them, rehearse a lot before. Improvised jokes don’t work well. And (serious) use some basic stand-up techniques: if you tell a joke, allow some time for people to digest and laugh. Don’t rush into the next slide. Same for cartoons: I lost count of how many times I saw people showing a likely-funny newspaper cartoon, but—shyly—they moved forward before I could read it.

Then, it comes to the conclusions. Like in the introduction, put some effort to be clear and to reinforce your core message.

(People will have peaks of attention at the introduction and conclusions, use them in your favor.)

In the last post I showed the handouts of one of my last presentations to discuss time. Here they are again, but now with the short outline of the story I wanted to tell.

The talk was split into seven semi-independent blocks (I want people to catch up with me even if they sleep for a couple of minutes). But there’s a single thread connecting all of them, from the introduction through the conclusion.

talk_story No, I didn’t tell them about my work on ring puckering of stacked bases, or ionization potentials along reaction paths, or any other of my dozen projects. Why should I? I didn’t want to be the next running joke.


  • If you enjoyed this post, follow the blog by signing up in the sidebar. Leave your comments or like below. You can also follow me on Twitter.
  • Do you have other tips about the content of a talk? Share with us.
  • The painting at the top is the Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp“, 1632.

Categories: Productivity, Work Organization

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2 replies


  1. Things you should (not) do in a talk – Part 3 | Much Bigger Outside
  2. Things you should (not) do in a talk – Part 4 | Much Bigger Outside

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