Thoughts For Paper Presenters by Henry Spencer

Usenix is coming up fast. In a continuing effort to make conference papers more worth listening to :-), some thoughts for the presenter, especially the first-time presenter… (These are my own opinions as a long-time attendee and sometime presenter, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of Usenix or anybody else.)

Run through your talk at least once in advance so you know how long it will take. It probably needs to be cut down. My talks usually need to be cut by at least a factor of two. Doing this in advance is far superior to improvising when you discover you only have five more minutes. Don’t forget to leave time for questions at the end.

Doing a practice run in front of a mirror (or a tape recorder!) can be revealing. Mumbling, speaking to your notes, etc. can be fought effectively by speaking only when you have eye contact with a member of the audience. Not the same person all the time, though!

Avoid wah-wah syndrome: if you’re wearing a lapel microphone, don’t keep turning your head to look at the screen while you’re talking, because it makes your voice fade in and out. Put your notes on paper, not on your slides (or make a paper copy of your slides), so you can have your notes in front of you while you talk.

Say something interesting. If short of time, pick one subtopic and say something interesting about it, and forget the rest. Few things annoy an audience more than hearing “well, the rest of that’s in the paper” every two minutes. Especially since it usually comes just as things start to get interesting. If there isn’t time to cover everything, don’t try. (Remember this if you find yourself unexpectedly short of time. Dashing through half a dozen topics in five minutes means you can’t say anything interesting about any of them.)

Say something your competitors would find fascinating. If your talk bores them, it probably bores the rest of the audience too.

Remember that your audience can read. Rather than reciting the results in the paper, talk about how you got them, especially what problems you solved and what mistakes you made, or about the implications.

Plan your slides for visual content. Pictures should be worth a thousand words. If a slide isn’t useful when shown backwards, it has too many words and not enough picture – take it out. The outline of your talk belongs in your notes, not on your slides.

Using visual media for things with visual content also does wonders for the poor people at the back of the audience who can’t read your 3-point type anyway. If you must put words on your slides, 24-point type is about the minimum. For viewgraphs, stand up and drop them on the floor at your feet; if you can’t read them that way, the print’s too small. If using a video projector, do remember that they often don’t reproduce fine detail well, especially thin horizontal lines.

Video-projector slides should simply pop up, complete. Audiences quickly get sick of waiting while the animated dancing turtles assemble your next slide… especially if you stand there silent until they finish. This also applies to viewgraphs: put the whole viewgraph up at once. Coyly revealing it a line at a time, by sliding a cover sheet down, distracts both you and the audience.

The audience has come to listen to you talk, not to watch you fiddle with the computer and the video equipment. If there is the slightest doubt about whether your desired video setup will work (e.g. whether your laptop will talk to the projector), resolve it in advance. If you can’t do that, then be prepared to deliver some approximation to your talk with no video, and activate that plan if you can’t sort out the video within one (1) minute.

Visit the washroom shortly before your talk.