Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Grad students: Learn how to give a talk

I've been to roughly a hundred academic conferences and listened to thousands of talks, mostly by grad students. Over the years, the quality of the speaking and presentations has not gotten any better -- if anything, it's gotten worse. A typical grad student talk is so horribly bad, and it's surprising how little effort is put into working on presentation and speaking skills, especially given how important this skill is for academics.

Grad students need to learn how to give good, clear, compelling presentations. Especially those who think they want to be professors one day.

It is difficult to overstate how important presentation skills are for academics. This is about much more than "being a good teacher" (which is a nice trait to have, but not actually that important for an academic's career in the long run). There is a huge division between the professors who are influential leaders, and those who are also-rans. In almost all cases that I can think of, the professors who are very successful are also good speakers, and good communicators overall. They can give good, clear, funny talks. They can engage in meaningful conversations at a technical level and at a personal level. They have a strong command of English and can use the language effectively to communicate complex ideas. So I claim that there is a strong correlation between good communication skills and overall research impact.

In some sense, a professor's job is to communicate the research ideas being done in their group. Although grad students often give the conference talks, professors give countless other talks at other universities, companies, workshops, and elsewhere. The professors write the grant proposals, and often the papers (or good chunks of them) as well. Once you're a professor, it matters a lot less how good of a hacker you are -- your job is to be the PR rep.

So it's surprising that grad students generally receive no formal training in presentation skills. A typical grad student might get three or four opportunities to give conference talks during their Ph.D., but this is hardly enough practice to hone their skills. Acting as a TA or giving "practice talks" isn't much help either. I honestly don't know how to fix this problem, short of running a course specifically on giving good presentations, which sounds like a drag -- but might be necessary.

The language barrier is a big part of the problem. Students who do not have English as their first language are almost invariably worse at giving talks than those who are native speakers, and students from Asia tend to be worse than those from Europe. (In academic Computer Science, English is the only language that matters.) But it's more than just command of the language -- it's about being expressive, funny, charismatic. The grad student who stands frozen in place and reads off their slides might speak English perfectly well, but that doesn't make them a good speaker.

It's also true that grad students are often "sized up" at conferences based on their speaking skills. If you can give a good talk at a conference, you'll get the attention of the professors who will be looking at your faculty job application later. Likewise, if your talk sucks, it's going to leave a bad impression (or, at best, you'll be forgettable).

So, please, grad students: If you're serious about pursuing an academic career, hone your presentation skills. This stuff matters more than you know.


  1. Matt --

    Totally agree! Just wanted point out that, as you know, we care about these things at Harvard, and other aspects of professional development:

    1. I can backup Mitzenmacher's statements here. While I was a student at Harvard, I was amazed by the amount of scrutiny that each of my conference talks endured before I headed off to do the live version. Numerous professors, not just my advisor, provided extremely detailed feedback on every single slide, my wording, my jokes, etc. It was treated as a community effort, and everyone seemed genuinely happy to help.

  2. There are really two problems I see with grad student talks:

    1) The grad students are uncomfortable speaking (inaudible, bad english, etc)

    2) The talk is poorly designed: the slides are uninformative and unexciting, there isn't sufficient motivation presented, there are too many hard-to-understand details that no one cares about, etc.

    It's hard to solve #1 other than through a ton of practice. The blame for #2, however, falls heavily on the advisor, especially for younger students. It's easy enough to say to a student "you need to learn to give better talks" but there needs to be a lot more guidance there. Back when I was a grad student, I remember professors who didn't even look at the grad student's slides a single time before the conference. Other professors would sit down with students and go over each slide and give good feedback and help make the talk better.

    Also, a lot of professors give bad talks, so it shouldn't be a surprise when their grad students do as well!

  3. As a PhD student in computer science, I think the best way of improving students' presentation skills is by integrating it into courseware. Here at Hopkins we have a projects-based course in computer integrated surgery. While the primary goal is to get hands on experience in the area, there is a heavy focus on communication. We each give four 15 minute presentations discussing things like our proposal, related literature and results. At the end of every individual presentation we critique the presenter and provide suggestions for things they could improve. When I took this last year I saw a noticeable improvement in how well people were able to present between the initial and final presentation.

    I think this solution is a much more interesting way of teaching presentation skills than having an entire course devoted to the skills themselves.

  4. Hi Matt,

    At Georgia Tech, I teach a course on "introduction to graduate studies" that includes several lectures on communications skills. Example past syllabus here:

    I'll be teaching a re-vamped version in the fall, so I'll be curious to pick your brain on how to improve it.


  5. Matt,

    Although they will publicly deny it, most professors do not see the goal of mentorship to be creating more professors. They see their oversight of grad students as (a) funding their lab via grants and (b) creating a nice, safe pipeline of mediocre students to fill the engineering departments of large corporations. From this perspective foreign students are especially attractive, since yanking their funding means the US ICE will expel them from the country (not just the school!). On top of this foreign students need an advanced degree (not just a BS) to qualify for most of the available green card slots, and the easiest way into the country by far is for them to get some company to like them and list their exact thesis topic as a job requirement on an H1-B (I've seen this happen THREE TIMES at one company).

    Sad but true. Until this changes your wise advice will fall on deaf ears.

  6. I think that your advice generalizes to all researchers, and not just future professors. Many of those students you see giving bad talks have no interest in (or perhaps more accurately - no chance at) becoming professors. They still need to understand the importance of clear and effective communication and "salesmanship" of their ideas.

  7. Hi Matt,

    I would like to add one point to your blog. Lets ignore the class of students and proffs who fall in category mentioned by Mr. Anonymous. Still it is natural to expect difference in quality for the talks given by research veterans and newbie student researchers. Even with all training and preparation, the art of communication takes time to master. I think experience plays an important role and competitive ones will pick up sooner or later.

  8. When learning to play go, you should lose your first 100 games as quickly as possible. I think that the same applies here as well: you should fail in you first 100 talks as quickly as possible, and be willing to learn from those failures. After those first 100 talks, you begin to understand the basics, and with a few hundred more talks, you may even become good at giving them.

    Influential researchers tend to give good talks, because they get a lot of practice.

  9. Yes! Two books that I recommend to any aspiring academic (or more generally, any aspiring professional):

    1.) Even A Geek Can Speak
    (for composing and delivering a great talk)

    2.) The Charisma Myth
    (for presenting yourself in the best light at conferences, talks, and other professional meetings)

  10. I may be oversimplifying a lot of things... but basically I think the student has to well and truly feel that the research he/she is presenting is amazing.

    Once that happens, I think the student will automatically give a great talk.

    Basically, a bad talk just means poor motivation to present mediocre work.

  11. The issue is very important, and at the same time I am sure that courses do not help much. I suggest you record your presentation with a video camera. And you watch great speakers (for instance, stand-up comedians).

  12. I recently visited Olin College and was impressed to learn that they make sure all their (undergraduate) students give at least one non-trivial presentation every year. My understanding is that these aren't cheesy little 5 minute exercises, but something more substantial. Unsurprisingly, the students I met there are the most impressive communicators I have seen, and I've spent significant time at 3 of the top 10 CS departments in the US. I wish this kind of emphasis was more common. Schools spend such little time and effort developing their students' communication skills, I think there is really low hanging fruit there.

  13. As a PhD student in the School of Computer Science, University of Manchester (UK), it is compulsory to attend a Scientific Method III course in which expert professors explain us how to present a piece of research, how to focus it, what to avoid, how to answer the questions, when we should start preparing the presentation, what the right pace is, tone of voice, enthusiasm, how to keep to audience interested etc.

    At the end of the course we have a formal presentation with a small but very critique audience. :) Personally, I don't think it is enough (maybe it will never be enough), but it is definitely a very good start. I learnt a lot in that course.

    We also do the same for writing papers and using statistical validation in our research.


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