Listener-Centric Talks

While preparing for the upcoming INFORMS conference, it occurred to me just how difficult it is to give a good talk! Having command of one’s subject—even an interesting and important subject, if I do say so myself—is only the start. The greatest challenge is thinking like my audience: What do they know? What do they need to know next? What might be confusing? What might be distracting? How can I keep them engaged, when a heavy lunch lies low in their bellies?

Hey you, “Listen up!”

If only to document them for myself, here are some rules of presentation I try to follow. (Credit Edward Tufte, whose Visual Display of Quantitative Information and The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint have had an enormous influence on me.)

  1. Assume the audience knows nothing about the subject, especially at large conferences like INFORMS. It is a common error, in my experience, for speakers just to assume everyone knows “such and such.” The point of conference talks is to convert the masses, not to educate the initiated, who will read the paper anyway. The rule should be, “Make sure everyone leaves with something.”
  2. Clean, clutter-free slides, without any words if possible. Personally, I cannot read and listen at the same time, and I assume my hearers have the same cognitive defect. A text-heavy slide will simply be ignored, but even a wee bit of text takes the listener’s attention away from me, where it should be. Call me crazy, but I hate being ignored!
  3. Spend more time describing the problem than on how you solved it. This is completely contrary to our native instincts; after all, you spent three months working on that algorithm! Earth to Speaker: nobody cares. John Bartholdi once advised me to make sure the audience leaves believing, “He is working on an interesting problem, and he has interesting things to say about it.” In a 20 minute talk, it is perfectly acceptable to skip the analysis. Tell the audience what your analysis says about the problem. What have you learned?
  4. Enthusiasm, Enthusiasm, Enthusiasm! If the speaker isn’t jazzed about his stuff, why should the listener be? Enthusiasm is the key to turning good content into a great talk. At my first INFORMS conference many years ago, Eric Johnson gave a talk that had me hanging on every word, if only because he was having such a good time. It was a good lesson.

There is much more to say, of course, but I have to obey Rule #5: “Don’t put off your preparation until the last minute!”

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