Giving a Talk:

The Basics

Define your message.

If you have nothing to say, you cannot give an effective talk. Assuming that you do have something to say, it is important to identify at the outset just what it is that you are trying to communicate. Write down a short list of important points that you want to make (no more than 3 or 4). These points are often called the ``take-away message,'' that is, the message that the audience should be receiving if your presentation is to be effective. Your entire presentation should focus on presenting the take-away message in a clear and convincing way. Guard against making your take-away message overly complex, as this will only overwhelm the audience.

Know your audience.

To be effective, your talk must be delivered at a level that is appropriate for your audience. You must analyze the background and expectations of the audience to deliver the take-away message in the most effective manner. This may mean modifying the take-away message, if the concepts involved are beyond the level of your audience.
     Knowing your audience, you can begin to decide how much background material is needed to deliver your take-away message effectively. Your audience will influence your choice of vocabulary (technical jargon) and may even influence how you dress!

Prepare well.

The best way to give the impression that you know what you are talking about, is really to know what you are talking about. This means that you should understand your subject well, and be able to answer related questions. On the other hand, it is impossible for any one speaker to be able to answer all questions that might be asked. There is no shame in answering ``I don't know'' to a question that is asked---in fact, this answer is preferable to an incorrect or misleading reply, or a ``stab in the dark.''
     Of course you must know when and where your presentation is to be held, and, if necessary, what specialized audio-visual equipment (slide projectors, videocassette recorders, etc.) is available. You can usually count on the availability of the ubiquitous (overhead) viewgraph projector. Discover that your pens are dried out before your presentation! Technical presentations invariably rely on some sort of visual aid, usually slides or viewgraphs. (Whatever they are, they will be called slides in these notes.) More will be said about preparing these later.
     You should find out how long you are required to speak, and aim to have your presentation fit within the allotted time. One good way to judge the presentation time is to rehearse your presentation ahead of time. Another method is to count slides; if you know your average rate of going through the slides, this can work quite well. The author uses the ``one simple slide per minute'' rule of thumb; most people use fewer. Experiment to determine your own rate. If, for some reason, you find yourself running out of time, don't be afraid to skip slides.
     It is a good idea to keep your slides well organized in a folder, binder, or notebook during your presentation. This allows for easy retrieval during the question period, when, almost inevitably, somebody will ask you to put up a slide from your presentation.
     You may want to prepare three or so back up slides for anticipated questions. Such slides could present interesting details that are peripheral to the main chain of reasoning, for example. It is also handy to have a couple of blank slides around, so that you have something to write on when have to explain something not covered in your other slides.
     You might want to practice your presentation at least once before a friendly (or simulated unfriendly) audience a couple of days before your presentation. Talking to a mirror can also help, but even better is a tape recorder, since you can play it back and hear yourself as others will hear you.

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Frank R. Kschischang, September 4, 1995,