Monday, August 18, 2008

CCCG: How to Give a Talk the Right Way

Day two of the Canadian Conference on Computational Geometry featured a few treasures. There were a couple of talks that, in my opinion, showcased how to give a good presentation.

A quick side note before I begin. Imagine my surprise when Martin Demaine, Erik's dad, told me at the conference banquet that he had read my previous day's blog post that included a mention of him. When asked where he'd found it, he said "the Internet" quite matter-of-factly. Of course ;). I suppose he had a blog watch on his or Erik's name? In any case, he told me he thought I wrote well, which was probably more flattering than he knew. If you're reading this now, Martin... hi! You guys are great!

Ok, back to the presentations. I first have to give a hat tip to my own academic supervisor, Jit Bose. He started his talk with a story. In this story, Jit explained how he didn't really want to give the talk (these things are stressful!), but hadn't heard from his other co-authors, so did what any mature adult would do: go on vacation for three weeks and ignore email. Alas, when Jit returned, the other author who would be at the conference was surprised to learn that Jit, like himself, thought the other would be giving the talk. So Jit told us he'd come up with a compromise. He'd do the odd slides and Stefan (the present co-author) would do the even slides. Stefan pops up in the audience, pretending to be completely surprised (and very convincingly, too!). He finally gives in and helps out with the talk. The slides were formal looking at first, but as they advance, funny scriblings and beer-related changes are made to the formal problem definitions. These guys pulled off the humour thing perfectly and did a good job of switching speakers to keep things interesting.

The other tag-team that worked out remarkably well consisted of Erik Demaine (yup, him again!) and his girlfriend Vi Hart, who is apparently not a computer scientist, but a math hobbyist (how cool is that?). I think Erik did most of the talking, but Vi was able to interject throughout the talk, at times often enough to read every second item from a list. By the fact that my favorite talks had two speakers, you should be able to surmise that I strongly believe in this technique for presenting (assuming speakers have prepared enough to pull it off properly). Another trick to learn from Erik and Vi is the generous use of photos and minimal amount of text on their slides. Nobody wants to read on the screen exactly what somebody is saying (I could do that from home!). In the same vein, nobody wants to read a lot of text that's different from what a speaker is saying because, in the end, it's impossible to pay attention to either. Finally, the dynamic duo were able to make use of something that's not always easy to incorporate: props. Their talk was on balloon twisting, so, of course, they brought balloons to twist!

These two talks skillfully incorporated several seldom-used but highly effective presentation techniques to make their talks the most memorable. Of course, none of these will help you if you happen to speak unclearly or unenthusiastically in front of audiences. But once you've overcome the basics of public speaking, consider trying to incorporate these ideas into your next presentation! Your audience will thank you.

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