How I Design a Talk

This year I'm co-chairing a session at the American Geophysical Union meeting called "Teaching and Career Challenges in Geoscience." We have been maintaining a blog for the session at keepinggeologyalive.blogspot.com. I wrote a post that I wanted to cross-post here in hopes that you too may find a few tips to help with the next presentation you need to give.

Hello everyone! While I was preparing my talk, I thought I would share my process in the hope that maybe someone will find a useful nugget or two. There are lots of great resources out there. Books like Pitch PerfectTalk Like TED, and the MacSparky Presentations Field Guide are great places to start. With AGU only a couple of weeks away, I wanted to highlight a few ideas on presentation planning.First, close PowerPoint or Keynote. The presentation software is not the place to start preparing a presentation. I like to sit down in a comfortable spot with a stack of index cards and a mug of coffee. While I love technology as a tool, it's just too early. I write out one major thought on the top of each card and put supporting material on as a list. For a short talk, like the pop-ups, this is just a few cards, but I've had stacks over 2 cm high for longer talks. I put everything I might want to bring up on these, pruning the content comes later.  After my cards are made, I lay them out on a big table (or the floor) and play with the ordering. I'll ad-lib sections of a fake talk and see if two thoughts can flow smoothly into each other. Once I'm happy with the general layout, then I'm ready to move on.

After playing with index cards, I'll let technology in. I like using OmniOutliner to help here. I put my index cards into a digital outline. Lots of people start here, which is fine. I like starting on paper because I can sketch things out and feel less constrained. Index cards also don't have email notifications that interrupt your thinking. In OmniOutliner, I break out my thoughts into short bullets. I can drag in content such as a photo of a sketch I think may turn into a graphic, sound bytes of an idea, or quotes I want to include.

Now it is time to decide on supporting graphics. I have an idea of what I'm going to say, so what visual aides will help tell the story? Your slides are not an outline and are not meant to guide you through the content. You and the slides together will guide an audience through your work in a logical way. Graphics can be photos, graphs of data, schematic diagrams, anything! Personally, I like make my graphics using an assortment of applications like PythonAdobe Illustrator, or OmniGraffle. Making graphics is a whole other series of books that you could dive into, including the great books by Nathan Yau: Visualize This and Data Points.

Finally, it's time to make your slides. I follow the Michael Alley approach of a slide with a (nearly) complete sentence at the top, followed by graphics. The fewer things that the audience has to read, the closer they will be listening to what you have to say. If you need to document your material to hand-out, produce a small one or two page text document with the necessary graphics (an idea from Edward Tufte). Again, the slides should not be the presentation, but support for it.  If you are stuck for ideas on slide design, head over to Garr Reynold's blog Presentation Zen. Garr has some great examples, as well as his own books.

My last tip regards the ends of your presentation. The beginning and the ending are incredibly important. The beginning is where you gain or loose the audience, and the end is where you make sure that their time was well spent. Nail these. I don't script presentations, it sounds too robotic, but the first and last 30 seconds are written down and well thought out.

I can't wait to hear what everyone has to share and I hope that some of these tips and resources are useful in your preparation!

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