AAAI-19 Tutorial: Presenting a Paper

There are no slides. One of the points I will make in the tutorial is that slides are overused, and to illustrate, and to practice what I preach, I will essay the death-defying feat of presenting the entire tutorial without slides.

Included below are Guidelines that will be discussed in the tutorial. They are also available in a PDF. I do plan to make more details available on the Presentation Advice page of my website after the tutorial. However, I think it best in this case not to give too much of the performance before the show.

— Gene Freuder


Here are a few of the many resources on the web that provide advice relevant to delivering scientific talks, or communicating science more broadly:

A video on “How to give a great research talk” by Simon Peyton Jones of Microsoft Research, and some related material.

More generally, Patrick Winston of MIT on “How to Speak”.

More generally still, pointers to a variety of resources assembled by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Like anything else these days, “there are apps for that”. Some pointers can be found here and here.

My Guidelines

These guidelines provide advice on making an effective, enjoyable and memorable presentation of a scientific paper. It is a personal view and others might differ. In any case, there is, of course, no “one size fits all”. I would encourage everyone to seek alternative sources of advice, to get feedback on their own presentations, to record and review their own presentations, and to find a speaking style that works well for them and their audiences.  

  1. Convey enthusiasm for the material.

The talk is an advertisement for the paper. Enthusiasm for the material should shine through. It engages the audience with the work (and keeps them awake and away from their email). It is very difficult to be too enthusiastic.

  1. Make the presentation easy to follow.

Think of the talk as an advertisement for the paper. It is easy to speak too fast, to cram in too much material. It is easy to ignore the limits of human short term memory in introducing new terminology or notation. It is easy simply to overestimate the audience’s ability quickly to come to grips with material the speaker has been immersed in for months or years. Abstract the essence and identify the essential. It is very difficult to oversimplify.

  1. Employ helpful examples.

An initial example at the very beginning can start things off on the right foot. Examples should be as simple as possible; an example that seems simple to the speaker can easily be hard for the audience to follow. Running examples are especially useful. It is very difficult to devote too much time to examples.

  1. Use your voice and body language effectively.

The audience can be kept awake, and emphasis can be conveyed, by a voice that gets louder and softer, higher and lower, faster and slower, that pauses and repeats. Body language can convey emphasis and excitement. It is very difficult to be too animated.

  1. Employ visual and dynamic forms of communication.

Bullet point slides that just summarize what the speaker is saying just compete with the speaker for attention. Tiny text is unreadable. Diagrams, graphs, charts, pictures, cartoons, videos, demos, dynamic graphics, can inform and enliven the presentation. It is very difficult for the talk to have too much visual interest.

  1. Engage the audience.

A speaker can engage the audience with eye contact, with questions, with humor, with props, with rhetorical devices (like repeating “It is very difficult to…”). It is very difficult to make the talk too entertaining.

Presentation Feedback

Below is a form, a simple checklist based on the Guidelines above and a space for freeform comments, that you and others can use to evaluate your presentation. You may want to substitute a numerical score for the simple Yes/No evaluation. You may want to modify the form to obtain additional information or reflect other ideas about how to craft a presentation.

You can video yourself giving the presentation and evaluate your own presentation using this form. You can deliver your talk at your home institution or company before attending a conference, and use the form to solicit audience feedback.

Feedback Form

Do you feel that:

  1. The speaker conveyed enthusiasm for the material?  Y   N
  2. The presentation was easy enough to follow?  Y   N
  3. The presentation contained helpful examples?  Y   N
  4. The speaker’s voice and body language were used effectively?  Y   N
  5. The presentation employed visual and dynamic forms of communication?  Y   N
  6. The speaker engaged the audience well?  Y   N

Add any specific helpful comments: