Things you should (not) do in a talk – Part 4

hammershoiPreviously on Much Bigger Outside, we discussed how to manage timedefine the content, and prepare the slides for a talk. In this post, we will discuss how to present the talk.

4. Talking about presentation

Know yourself

It is show time! I know, you are nervous. But this is normal. Everyone is nervous just before the talk.

Yawn a few times before starting (naturally, be discreet). This will help you to relax and also improve your speech.

In spite of the stress (or specially because of it), you should make an effort to be self-conscious during your talk. Once a while, check whether your voice tone, rhythm, and intensity are appropriate. Check whether you are not bouncing fourth and back or showing other nervous tics; whether you are making eye contacts; whether you are not repeating some rhetorical expressions too often.

Stand facing the public in a place they can see you and your slides. Don’t keep crossed arms or rest against a wall.

Move to a different stand point in the room to break the monotony. You may approach and stand closer to the public to make a personal comment or answer a question, but avoid moving too much. It may be distracting.

Be confident and show confidence. You will always find people with predator instincts among the public. If they smell fear, they will treat you as a prey.

Know your slides

You should speak facing the public, but to do so, you need to know your slides well. You must know what is coming next without looking at it.

If you have to turn back to see what the next slide is showing, this disturbs the flow of your talk. (And never use the formula: “This slide is …”!)

Rehearse your talk. Bring the handouts with you for a few days before your talk and take a look at them at every opportunity. Think of linking sentences between them.

Addressing the public

For most of people, starting the talk is the most difficult part. After that peak of tension, things usually flow well. It is a good strategy to rehearse you opening lines multiple times (the shower in the morning is a good moment for that).

Speak out and, if you aren’t using a microphone, project your voice. You should feel it resonant in the room.

Look people in the eyes to establish empathy and show confidence.

If, however, there is an alpha monkey in the public, be careful: people tend to deliver the talk exclusively looking at this person. Don’t do that.

Talk as if you were having a normal conversation. I mean, use a natural rhythm, with pauses and intensity variations, just like you do when you talk in private. For instance, if you put a question (and it is good to introduce a topic by making questions), hold on for a couple of seconds before answering it. Let people consider your question for themselves.

Plan a few short (few seconds) pauses during your talk, maybe once every 7 or 10 minutes. People need to relax and process the information that you have been delivering. Pauses are welcome when you’re changing to a new section in your presentation. You don’t need to be silent in a pause. You may well make an informal comment or tell a personal story.

Answering questions

Wait for the person to finish the question. Don’t interrupt trying to guess what he or she is going to ask.

Often people will phrase their questions in their own language and jargons. Rephrase them in your own comfort zone:

— Do you see any electron-phonon coupling during the dynamics?
— I checked the nonadiabatic couplings and …

Keep the answers short. Don’t make a new talk out of an answer. Avoid adding elements that were not asked about.

If you don’t know the answer. Just say you don’t know and move on.

If you don’t understand the question, ask the person to rephrase it.

Using gadgets

Laser pointers: Unless your talk is about Brownian motion, just avoid them!

Most of people randomly fly the laser pointer through the slide (and sometimes the public), this is absolutely distracting. Even if you point at a single spot, it is impossible to keep it steady specially if you are nervous.

Another disadvantage is that the laser pointer requires that you turn your back to the public.

If you still want to use it, just point at a single element in the screen and turn it off again.

If your slides are well prepared, you don’t need a laser pointer anyway. Just make reference to elements on the slide:

  • You see in the green curve …
  • The third point is …
  • It flows from box A to box B …

Presenters (to control slides at distance): they are very helpful. They give you freedom to move and to stand wherever you think it is more appropriate.

But bring your own presenter. The many available models, although simple of using, are slightly different. You won’t want to worry yourself about where are the right buttons, when you already have more important things to worry about.

I once saw a colleague using his iPhone as a presenter. It looked like he was texting (maybe he was…) during his own talk. It was a bad idea.

Microphones: if available, just wear one. I often see an unjustifiable resistance to use them. Even if you think that have a powerful voice, odds are that the audience won’t get you well at the back rows.

Backups: test your presentation at the site beforehand. Specially check the projection of equations, non-standard fonts, and movies. Bring along USB backups. Have ready backups in alternative formats as well (for instance, PDF and PPT versions of your PPTX).

Boards: If there is a board available, always erase any previous content before starting your talk. If you decide to use it, remember to make your notes large enough to be seen by everyone.


Well, these are my last tips on what to do (and not to do) in a talk. I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts.


  • 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 how to present a talk? Share with us.
  • The painting at the top is the Hemmershoi’s “Interior with young woman from behind“, 1904.


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