A Long Guide to Giving a Short Academic Talk

For the first year grad student, reading is life. Every professor is unaware, it seems, that you are taking other classes. In fact, I used to look forward to my statistics homework simply because it was a break from reading.

As I have progressed through my program, I find myself reading less and less. At this point, I’d actually like to do some reading—but between R&Rs, writing, and collecting data, reading is one thing that can always be safely put off until tomorrow.

I once asked a junior professor how—given the need to publish, teach, and meet with students—he had time to keep up with all of the new scholarship coming out each month. His response: he didn’t. He said he kept up with new work primarily by attending talks, workshops, and conferences.

I share this long-winded windup that has little do with talks for a reason—because this was the moment I realized that if you want others to read your work, you cannot simply publish it and assume others will find (and cite) it. You need to sell it.

In here book, Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, Nancy Duarte writes:

“All presentations have a component of persuasion to them. This notion may ruffle some feathers. But isn’t there usually a desired outcome from what’s classified as an informative presentation? Yes. You’re moving your audience from being uninformed to being informed. From being uninterested in your subject to being interested.”

While some academics (myself included) are introverts who would prefer to let their written work speak for itself, that is not the way of the world. Work rarely speaks for itself. If you want to be an educator, you must persuade people that what you have to say is interesting and worth further research. As a grad student, you have an additional task—to persuade the audience that you are intelligent, competent, and would make for a good future colleague.

In this article, I am going to focus on the short (15m) conference talk—theory and practice.

Communicating Ideas Rather than Research

Giving a talk is a lot like selling a car.

Consider the used car salesperson. When you say you are interested in “that one,” they do not read you the owner’s manual. They do not tell you what each light on the dashboard means. No. They let you kick the tires, they take you for a test drive, they let you ask questions. They want you to discover that the car is great, and you can figure out what all the dashboard lights mean on your own time—after you buy.

In the same way, a talk should not be an exhaustive (or condensed) reading of the paper. A talk should be an advertisement—for the paper and for you as a productive, competent scholar. Your goal is not to communicate all the nuances of the research, but rather, to sell them on the idea of the paper—it’s theoretical importance, its exciting research design, its novel data—such that they dig into those nuances on their own time. Take the audience for a test drive, don’t talk to them about the tire pressure.

“Every Talk is a Job Talk”

Or so they say.

While not literally true (it seems highly unlikely that anyone is making offers to third-year grad students on Saturday morning conference panels), giving a great talk will leave a good first impression. It’s impossible to know who will be in the audience—future hiring committee members, reviewers, or coauthors—and how those connections and impressions might be beneficial down the road. Given the potential upside, look for opportunities to present your work and take those opportunities (both internally and externally) seriously.1

The upshot is that before you give a presentation, you must have something to present. Don’t present a lackluster seminar paper just to get your name out there; that will probably backfire. Wait until you have a serious working paper that you intend to eventually submit for publication. But at the same time, don’t hide behind your computer for fear of criticism or tough questions. People will always ask questions and poke at your work, and if you wait too long, you won’t be able to make an impression until it’s too late. If you’re uncertain, talk to your advisor when conference applications go up.

Writing the Talk

For now, let’s assume you do have something to present and it’s been accepted to a conference.

Anatomy of a Short Talk

Short academic talks tend to follow a standard format:

  • Motivation of the general idea. This can take the form of an illustrative example from the real world or it can highlight a puzzle or gap in the existing scholarship.
  • Ask the research question and preview your answer.
  • A few brief references to the literature you’re speaking to.
  • Your theoretical innovation.
  • An overview of the data underlying the result.
  • Descriptive statistics (if relevant).
  • (Maybe the statistical approach or model, but only if it’s something impressive and/or non-standard. The less Greek the better.)
  • Statistical results IN FIGURE FORM! No regression tables please.
  • Conclusion that restates your main finding. Then, briefly reference your other results (which you have in your appendix slides and would be happy to discuss further in Q&A), and highlight the broader implications of your research.

Choose One Result

As it turns out, 15 minutes is not a lot of time. You cannot present your whole paper with all its nuance, results, and robustness checks. Instead, focus on your main result which should be 1) easily interpretable and 2) impressive (in that order).

On interpretability: you only have 15 minutes to motivate your work, explain the theory, and present the data and result. If the empirical result you’re trying to present is complicated and/or requires a lot of time to set up and explain, you’ll end up cutting down your introduction and theoretical motivation. As a result, people may not understand the relevance of this complicated thing you’re doing, and they will lose interest. Or they might be confused and zone out.

Remember—your talk (especially a short talk) is an advertisement for the paper. If you can sell your idea, then people will take the time to dig into the complicated result. But if you present a de-contextualized result without selling the broader theoretical motivation, it will quickly be forgotten and your paper will go un-read and un-cited.

On impressiveness: you’re trying to make an impression and signal your competence. If your paper has two equally interpretable results—one which involved a big data collection effort and some interesting modeling and the other involved OLS and existing survey data—present the former.2

Creating the Script and Slides

Once I’ve chosen my main result, putting the talk together—writing the script and creating the slides—is an iterative process.

To start, I open three documents: the most up-to-date version of the paper, an empty slide template,3 and a blank text file where I’ll write the script.

To write the presentation, I bounce back and forth between the three documents. The working paper, specifically the intro, serves as the foundation. It contains all the key points—motivation, theoretical background, hypotheses, data, results, and implications—and provides a structure and template from which to build the presentation. Beginning with the motivational story, I translate the written text into slides, write what I intend to say over those slides in the script (which is more conversational than what I wrote in the paper), revise the slides to match what I’ve written in the script, revise the script to match the updated slides, etc, until I’ve worked through the whole anatomy and everything syncs.

Preparing for the Talk

Once you write the slides and script, it’s time to practice…a lot.

The goal of all this practice is to be able to deliver the talk in a casual, conversational style without the use of the script—by which I mean without reading or memorizing. Remember, the talk is a sales pitch, both of your research and yourself. If you come across as too robotic, people will not find the presentation exciting and they will lose interest…which is antithetical to the entire enterprise.

To achieve this level of preparation, I begin by advancing through each slide and reading the talk word for word out loud (to myself of course). This step isn’t actually practice. It’s more like quality assurance. The first few times you run through your presentation like this, you’ll notice a lot of annoying things. You left something out. You need to reorder two slides. You need to add some voice over because something is unclear. You need to remove this boring slide altogether. When you can read through your script and advance the slides without stopping to make changes, you’re ready to go on to the next step.

Now, you’re starting to get familiar with the talk. There are probably a few slides here and there that you can voice over without referring to your script. That’s great. Your goal is to gradually increase that number. Keep giving the talk (out loud, to yourself) and see how long you can go without looking at your script. Do this several times until you can give the presentation with only the most cursory glance at your script for a quick reminder.

At this point, ask your advisor and/or other graduate students for feedback. Not on the underlying research (which is already solid—otherwise you wouldn’t be giving the talk!), but on the clarity and impact of the talk itself. If they have comments (and surely they will), adjust the slides and script. Repeat the previous steps so you get back to a point where you can give the talk with only brief references to your script.

When you’re confident that you no longer need your script, it’s time for dress rehearsals. Practice giving your talk as if it were the actual presentation—thank the audience for coming, tell them you’re excited to share your research, if you’re going to read specific text off the slide (e.g., a quote) then read it, speak slowly. In each of these dress rehearsals, time your talk and make sure you’re finishing within the time limit. Going over is a surefire way to make a bad impression.

Now you’re ready to give the talk. If you still have a few days until the presentation, make sure your practice once or twice each day to keep it top-of-mind. Extra practice will both increase your confidence and keep the material and pacing fresh in your mind.

Giving the Talk

If you completed all the steps in the previous section, you are more prepared than most people ever will be. Nonetheless, public speaking can be anxiety-inducing. The two minutes before you start are probably going to be the worst of it. Once you actually start speaking and get into the flow you’ve practiced so many times, those butterflies will probably dissipate.

Suppose, though, that you do trip up mid-presentation or forget your line or skip over something you meant to say. I certainly have. That’s fine. Take a two second pause to collect your thoughts (it will feel interminable to you but the audience won’t even notice) and resume. Remember—the audience has no idea what you meant to say, so if you end up leaving something out, no one will ever know.

Remember to have fun. Bring some energy. Even if you’ve practiced this talk twenty times and thought about this research project for a year, it’s all brand new to the audience. You invested all this time and effort into the project because it was (and hopefully still is) exciting and interesting. Excitement is contagious. If you are eager to share your work, others will be eager to listen and learn.

Once you reach the thank you slide, do a little mental dance. You did it! Of course, now it’s on to the Q&A…but that’s for another post.

Most of us choose our research topics because we find them interesting, puzzling, exciting and engaging. Presenting your research in an opportunity to share that excitement with others, to convince them that they should be excited too. So take that opportunity seriously. Don’t throw your slides together while other speakers are presenting. Invest the same effort into your talk as you did into the paper. Maybe invest more! Think about how many people will read your paper, versus how many people will see the talk. And think about how many people will see your paper precisely because they saw your talk. Presenting is selling, and the more confidence you have in your pitch, the easier it is.

  1. Even if you’re presenting at an internal workshop, odds are you only interact with a few other members of the faculty regularly. An internal presentation is a chance to share what you’ve been working on and signal your potential as a young scholar. 

  2. There is another school of thought that says you should present the result you most want feedback on. My feelings on this are 1) as a graduate student, it is pretty easy to get feedback from your committee or other advanced graduate students and 2) the thing you most want feedback on is also the least polished piece of the paper. In a conference setting where you are trying to demonstrate competency and make an impression, you want to present the result you are most confident in, understand best, and can forecast the questions you’ll be asked. I think the present-what-you-need-feedback-on advice may be more applicable to those who have jobs and at least some reputation, rather than those looking for them. 

  3. I use a modified version of the Metropolis Theme in Beamer and have a code snippet in Sublime Text that writes the preamble and a few default slides with a keyword. Slide design is a topic for another post, but I find it helpful to use (or create) a default template for presentations so I don’t waste hours on formatting, fonts, and colors every time I write a talk.