Reading 10 – Presentation Tips

President Barack Obama delivering his State of the Union address on January 28, 2014.

For your final “reading” assignment, you will take a look at some material on how to give effective presentations. Giving truly great presentations is an art, and a lifelong endeavor. Especially in technical fields there is often a temptation to believe that if your ideas are brilliant enough, then essentially nothing else matters. This sentiment could not be further from the truth: ideas that are not broadly communicated or understood cannot have an impact on the world. Moreover, the process of distilling difficult technical material into a clear and accessible explanation is in and of itself a creative act that can often lead to new insights.

Next week, each of you will give a 10 minute in-class presentation on your final project topic. Since 10 minutes is a very short amount of time, your presentation should make use of visual aids that help your classmates quickly gain some geometric intuition about your chosen topic—just as you have seen in the lecture slides throughout the semester. For this reason you are strongly encouraged to use slide presentation software like PowerPoint, Keynote (or any number of free alternatives), or Beamer, though if you are exceptionally good at drawing compelling figures by hand in real-time then you may also give a presentation on the whiteboard. Either way, note that the visual aspect of your presentation will constitute an important part of your evaluation. You do not, however, have to generate all of these figures yourself! For a class presentation, it is perfectly acceptable to use figures found on the web, and textbooks, or in other media, so long as you properly cite the source on each slide.

As a reminder, the structure of your in-class presentation should look similar to the organization of your writeup. In particular, it should be split up roughly as follows:

  1. (1 minute) An intuitive introduction to your geometric object–this should include some visual aids.
  2. (2 minutes) A formal definition of the object in the smooth setting, and a brief statement of the most relevant theorems or properties of this object.
  3. (3 minutes) A high level overview of efforts to discretize the object, perhaps commenting on places where the current literature falls short.
  4. (3 minutes) A high level overview of applications of the object in computational algorithms. This section motivates why this object is interesting from a practical point of view.
  5. (1 minute) A very brief statement of your goals for the final implementation part of the project. Here you are setting your own criteria for success, and will later be evaluated on your success in carrying out these goals (or cogently explaining why things didn’t work out as expected!)

(Although this might not seem like much time, real conference presentations are often not much longer than this and still manage to pack in quite a bit of meaningful information—consider this an exercise preparing you for the real deal.) If you have been attending lecture, then you should already have a pretty good sense of what a presentation like this looks like: it is basically the structure we’ve been following in class, and you will find many examples for various topics in the course slides.  For this “reading” assignment you should also take a look at the following resources:

  • Trivial Connections on Discrete Surfaces—this presentation doesn’t strictly follow the format outlined above, but it is an example of a real conference talk that addresses a problem in discrete differential geometry, i.e., it takes a well-established idea from the smooth setting and shows how that idea can be put to work for computation. It also uses visual aids to quickly get the most important ideas across. (Also, this is a fun algorithm that could be easily implemented using the knowledge you’ve gained in this class!)
  • Giving an Academic Talk—some great general advice from Jonathan Shewchuk.
  • Tips for Giving Clear Talks—some great advice from Kayvon Fatahalian; some of these points won’t apply directly to your presentation since for the most part you’ll be explaining a mathematical idea (and its discretization) rather than discussing research outcomes. But still definitely useful to flip through.
  • How to Write Mathematics Badly—an amusing discussion of mathematical presentation and writing from Jean-Pierre Serre.

Just as important as content and organization are mechanical aspects of giving a talk such as body language, pacing, vocal tone, elimination of verbal pauses, and so forth. Here I don’t have any particular recommendations for readings or videos, but there are plenty on the web. In the long term, the absolute best way to get better at giving presentations is to practice it on a regular basis! there are plenty of fun organizations they can help you get this kind of practice—for instance, at CMU there is the CMU Mock Trial; you might also try tracking down a local chapter of Toastmasters.

Your assignment for this reading  is not to write a summary of what you read or watched, as we have done with previous readings, but rather to simply leave a link to your favorite resource on giving presentations in the comments below. These links will also help your classmates as they prepare for their presentations next week.   You should post a link no later than 6 PM on Monday, April 25.

[Also stay tuned for the schedule of speakers on Tuesday/Thursday of next week.]

14 thoughts on “Reading 10 – Presentation Tips”

  1. Warning: All of my links are musical in nature.

    Here is a speech that demonstrates great presentation technique that stuck with me and advocates for the dancing between disciplines and proper communication.

    Victor Wooten does a great job of breathing properly and taking appropiate pauses between statements:

    Louis Armstrong was a fantastic presenter, because he was able to say exactly what he needed to say with as few notes as possible with great timing and body language.

  2. Bullet point is one of the most common objects existing in slides. However, Cliff Atkinson stated that it makes both presenters and audiences trapped, frustrated, and alienated from one another. Therefore, he create a framework, Beyond Bullet Points, with the aim of creating a storytelling slides without bullet points.

    Here is CMU library link to the book “Beyond Bullet Points”:

    Here is the book review:

  3. I went to a workshop on presentation slide design held by the Global Communications Center last year.

    This was one of the handouts we got from it that summarized some tips I found useful:

    The gist is that slides should stand alone from the speaker and each slide should provide both a statement and a demonstration of that statement that the viewer can digest on their own.

    1. Keenan currently spends several hours on each illustration using several different tools.

      My senior thesis project is to start creating that automatic beautiful geometric picture software of which you speak, although it is still a journey in progress:

  4. Keeping with the Terence Tao theme, the following are some good articles by him on presenting math talks, but I think some of the principles apply to any technical talk.

    I enjoyed reading this book on technical presentations, although sadly there isn’t a copy available at the CMU library.

  5. A perspective on how give a good scientific talk, motivated by the idea of having a conversation with the audience:
    (Some of the listed “principles” may seem a bit extreme, but there are points there worth considering)

    A TED talk on speaking so that others want to listen:
    (The 7 deadly sins mentioned in the first few minutes don’t really apply to giving presentations, but the toolbox described starting around the 4 minute mark certainly does)

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