How to give a killer talk

Giving a talk at AAS next week? Want to blow away the audience with your eloquent oratory? This post is for you!

Just ahead of the big meeting, everyone should check out an article in the Harvard Business Review by Chris Anderson, curator for TED: How to Give a Killer Presentation (Registration is free to read the full article). Set aside some time to study it in detail, but if you’re madly slapping together your slides right now (and procrastinating by reading AstroBetter) and in a bit of a rush, here are some highlights to keep in mind before stepping up to the podium in D.C.:

  • Frame your story. People love a good narrative and a story is a great way to keep your audience engaged and increase the chance they’ll learn something. Remember your audience’s background and quickly convince them why they should listen to what your about to say. Get them excited early! And don’t try to cram too much in. Most of you will only have five minutes—use them wisely! If you try and construct your talk as a quickie detective story with a couple of key takeaway points, you have the foundation of a memorable presentation.
  • Plan your delivery. Reading your presentation is generally a bad idea; it comes across as forced. With a five minute talk, it may be worth a little effort to memorize what you want to say and practice, practice, practice! This will help keep you under time and let you feel a little more at ease during the presentation. And think about tone: just be conversational, be yourself. Don’t force it and try to sound authoritative.
  • Develop stage presence. Be aware of your appearance, your mannerisms, your movement. Keep your lower body mostly motionless, use your hands for emphasis. Make eye contact with your audience, don’t turn your back to us and stare at your slides. Once again, practice can help: the better you know your speech, the less likely those nervous habits will make an appearance. Consider practicing in front of a mirror or in front of a small group of friends willing to evaluate your posture and tone. Most important, keep breathing!
  • Plan the multimedia. Don’t read from the slides. Instead, for each slide, pick a single, powerful image that illustrates your main point (you are just sticking to one point per slide, right?) Your talk will be so much more effective. A video can be powerful and say so much more than words, just keep it short. And don’t be afraid of silence! Let the audience soak in your stunning visuals.
Here’s the top 10 things NOT to do—things we’ve all seen in way too many talks—straight from the TED organizers:
1. Take a really long time to explain what your talk is about.
2. Speak slowly and dramatically. Why talk when you can orate?
3. Make sure you subtly let everyone know how important you are.
4. Refer to your book repeatedly. Even better, quote yourself from it.
5. Cram your slides with numerous text bullet points and multiple fonts.
6. Use lots of unexplained technical jargon to make yourself sound smart.
7. Speak at great length about the history of your organization and its glorious achievements.
8. Don’t bother rehearsing to check how long your talk is running.
9. Sound as if you’re reciting your talk from memory.
10. Never, ever make eye contact with anyone in the audience.

You can read the full article here. I challenge everyone to take at least one of these points and think about how to incorporate it in to your talk. And best of luck to all this year’s AAS presenters!



1 comment… add one
  • David W. Hogg Jan 3, 2014 @ 16:40

    I think it is key to have very few “take-home” messages. In a short talk, the plan should be to get the (interested) audience members to remember one key result and be able to associate that result with your name. It is great if you can encapsulate that result into a single, self-evident figure with Your Name on it (not the useless words “this work”).

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