Presentation Guidelines For Computer Scientists
Prof. Dr. Jan Borchers, RWTH Aachen University, 2005-2019
These guidelines were compiled from observations and advice given during several semesters of student presentations in my HCI and Post-Desktop User Interfaces seminars in the CS undergraduate and graduate programme at RWTH Aachen University, and at top international HCI conferences such as CHI and UIST. They continue to be updated, and should help as general advice for anybody aiming to give a professional or scientific presentation in computer science or a related area.
Why Are You Talking?
- People don't come to your talk to hear you read off a set of slides. They don't even come to hear you give a bullet-point summary of a written paper or other document that they can read themselves much more efficiently. So use the special opportunities for learning that only a personal presentation can provide: Engage the audience, interact, pose questions, demonstrate something live, etc.
- When you introduce a theory or concept, think hard about real-world examples that your audience may be able to relate to, and include these when you present the concept. You may not need to show the example textually on the slide, but maybe include an image of the example. Actual, existing, observed examples are more convincing than contrived examples that you invented. If you quote a result from a well-known person, introduce the person briefly and show a photo, for example.
- Use professional presentation software. Keynote does the best job at supporting the author in creating good visual layout, through its templates and guides. PowerPoint is not quite as good, but available on Windows. Slides are a highly visual task, so a nonvisual tool such as TeX does not work as well here. Really.
- Use the design template provided by our lab. Don't mess with this or the standard design templates unless you have some design expertise. They've been built by experts (well, at least in Keynote).
- Put name of presenter(s) and title of talk into footer of each slide. Use a shortened title, and abbreviate names, if necessary to fit into one line at a large enough font. Why: Attendees at a conference may come in late to your talk and wonder who you are / what session they have just walked into. Or they didn't pay attention when you introduced yourself at the beginning beause they were getting settled in their seats (very common).
- Put current slide number and total number of slides in the footer of each slide. Why: This lets attendees and session chairs estimate if you are still on time.
- Make sure that those infos on every slide don't stand out too much and don't occupy too much space / grab too much attention / distract from the main contents.
- Start your talk with a title slide that has your complete name and affiliation (e.g., university and research group name and logo), date, and reason for the talk (e.g., research seminar, conference title,...) Why: Because your slides may be read by someone outside the seminar, found through a web search, where the link to their original context is easily lost.
- Use your institution's logo in its proper form, usually available as download from the institution's public relations / corporate identity department. Be careful about changing its shape or colors, and don't try redrawing it yourself. Also see "graphics".
- Do not put a "Thank you! Any questions?" slide at the end of your presentation (nor anywhere else). Although polite, this is a useless slide and looks especially weird for someone looking at your slides after the talk. Instead, provide a summary slide that gives a wrap-up of your topics and helps the audience identify/remember questions they might have. Thank the audience and ask for questions verbally while that slide is shown (and preferably after you explained the summary).
- If you include a graphic, wherever possible, use a vector-based image (Illustrator and most PostScript and PDF files are vector-based). It will give the best visual results when scaling it up or down to any size. Most logos consisting of text, simple lines or simple graphical shapes are usually available in this format if you look hard enough.
- For images only available in raster (pixel) form, such as photos or most icons, use the highest resolution version of the image you can find. Put it into your presentation at that highest resolution and let the presentation software scale it down as appropriate - if you scale it down yourself in an external program like Photoshop, you throw away information that will be missing when showing the presentation on a higher-resolution screen than anticipated, or when printing your slides to PDF or paper.
- Adjust contrast, brightness and color balance of any photographs to optimize their visual clarity. Many image programs offer automatic adjustments for this that work well in most (not all) cases.
- Blow up complex diagrams so that they become as readable as the rest of your text. Leave out / cover the background matter on that slide to use the entire screen area if you have to.
- Build complex texts and graphics slides piecewise to make it easier for the audience to parse the visual data.
- Highlight the area of the text or graphic that you are talking about, and move that highlight as you progress through your talk.
- Use the presentation software's animation features rather than duplicating slides to create animations - that makes it easier to find a slide you are looking for, and to print the document later. If you need to show particular stages of the animation in your printed handout, duplicating slides may still be necessary.
- Make sure your videos play smoothly in the setup you will be using. Playback sometimes suffers when sent to a secondary display (projector).
- Check your audio levels, connect to existing speakers or bring your own. Test your setup: Is it easy to understand spoken text in your video? Is it uncomfortably loud or clipped?
- Don't talk over a video with audio track. Mute the video to provide live spoken commentary yourself, or let the video run with its own audio track and shut up while it's running. The audio balance between you and the video is very hard to get right otherwise.
- Most importantly: Make sure your videos are meaningful for your talk. Don't use them as eye candy, and cut away unnecessary parts of the video clip.
- Make sure your colors work well on the projector or screen you will be using!
- When testing the presentation setup (see below), color-calibrate your system (thanks to John Hickey from Apple for this). On a Mac, go to System Preferences - Displays - Color - Calibrate... and follow the instructions. Check the projected image from a distance to make sure your slides come out with the right contrast and colors, especially with low-contrast content (light colors against white background, dark colors against black background, and in general similar colors for foreground and background are problem candidates).
- Use a professional (artistic) color scale, don't pick random colors yourself. Use a tool like https://color.adobe.com.
- All text everywhere on every slide has to be 28pt or larger (including labels in inserted graphics!)
- Never use underlining to emphasize text, it's a relict of the typewriter age and makes text harder to read because it cuts through the letters
- Always capitalize the first letter of each bullet point if you need to use bullets
- For titles, check the capitalization style guide.
- Use typographically correct double quotes, single quotes, and especially apostrophes for your language. For example, the correct apostrophe in English and German looks like a very small "9" character (in the font these are called APOSTROPHE or PRIME). Don't use an accent instead, for example.
- Hyphens and Dashes:
- Use a hyphen (-, press minus key) for dividing words at the end of a line, for compounds like "open-ended" (CMOS 7.85) and as separator like in "(415) 555-1234" (CMOS 6.77)
- Use the en dash (–, press alt-minus) for the word "to" in number ranges like "pages 9–11" and words like "Human–Computer Interaction" (CMOS 6.78-81)
- Use the em dash—without spaces around it—for insertions in sentences. Press alt-shift-minus to get it. (CMOS 6.82-89)
- If in doubt, see the Chicago Manual Of Style (CMOS)—thanks to us, RWTH has a subscription so you can access it for free!
- People may wish to print your slides to paper. Provide a version of your slides to the organizers or your audience that prints well. Changes for a printable version include
- Using light instead of dark backgrounds (often can be done automatically through a print setting in your presentation software)
- Replacing invisible hyperlinks with spelled-out URLs
- Replacing movies with one or more still images from the movie plus a URL on the slide pointing to the movie
- Adapting animations - for some, printing each stage of builds will be necessary, for others it will be the wrong approach. Look at the resulting PDF.
- Use one language consistently (e.g., English or German), except for verbatim quotes and fixed expressions that don't make sense translating
- Get rid of useless "word shells", simplify your language, use active speech
- Example in German: "Die Entwicklung durchführen" -> "entwickeln"
- Read "The Elements of Style" by Strunk & White to learn how to write good, straightforward English
Semantic Progress Bar
- If your talk is longer than 10 minutes, consider putting the three to six major parts of your talk into a running header and highlight the current topic
- Spell-check your entire presentation with a spell-checker
- Have it read for misspellings, funny choice of words (such as fixed expressions that don't translate) and other corrections by a native speaker
- The worst thing you can do is go over your allotted time.
- When preparing your slides, think about how you could skip some slides towards the end if time runs out or the speaker before you
- Also put some extra material after the end of your slideshow that you could use if you find you have more time available.
- Practice how to give your talk in its normal version, in its shortened version and in its extended version. Ideally the audience wouldn't even notice that you decided to skip some part, for example.
- Club i10 time:
- Mid-term talk: 10 minutes presentation + 20 minutes feedback
- Final talk: 10 minutes presentation + 10 minutes feedback
- Turn off your cell phone and PDA so no incoming calls or alerts interrupt your talk. Also, cell phones often interfere with wireless mikes you may be wearing for speaking, so take your phone out of your pocket and put it somewhere away from your body (but remember to *turn it off*!).
- If the projection screen is too big to reach all of it by hand, bring a laser pointer or use the stick sometimes provided. Don't try to hold your laser pointer still - your unavoidable hand tremor will be amplified by it and clearly visible. Instead, move it in circles around what you want to point at, then turn it off again.
- If you present off a laptop, get a remote control to move through your slides. It frees you from having to bend towards your laptop every few minutes. RF-based remotes (I like the Kensington Wireless Remote with green laser in our seminar room best) require you to stick a dongle into your laptop, but they act as a USB device and therefore require no driver installation. Practice using it, find out what each button does, and how to do common tasks (next/previous slide, stop/restart an included video, black/unblack the screen, end the slideshow, etc.) Bluetooth is cool, and you may be able to use your own mobile phone with special software, but it can be less reliable because of the more complex communication involved.
- Do not stack MacBook Pros one over another. The magnetic strips at the edge of the screen may trick your machine to believe that the latch is closed. Thorsten learned this the hard way the morning of his defense. :)
- Turn off Time Machine. Sometimes, when the backup fails, it presents a modal pop-up dialog box that takes the computer out of presentation mode.
- Turn off auto-sleep in Energy Saver.
- Know Your Slides: Never show surprise at your own slides. This often happens when you change your slides at the last minute and end up with a slide you didn't want to include, etc.
- Consider speaking as a pair, with frequent changes (every couple of slides, e.g., with each section of your talk, not just once in the talk)
- Talk to your audience. Look at your audience. Let your gaze wander and address people in different corners of the room by looking at them directly. Do not look at your laptop screen all the time. It's even worse to talk to the projection screen since that means you turn your back to the audience, and it also makes it harder to hear you (unless you have a microphone).
- Address your audience in direct speech (example: "When you're designing a user interface, you first have to find out who your users are.")
- Ask questions and let the audience think about the problem for a moment (while you continue, e.g., with some examples for the problem) before you give the answers in your talk. (Example: "So if you had to design a user interface, what would be the first thing you need to find out??")
- Do something else than just presenting at some point during your talk. For example, ask a question, collect answers from the audience on a whiteboard, then discuss the suggested answers and point out an emerging structure of the answer space or point out missing aspects that the audience didn't think about.
- Practice talking with emphasis and energy. If you mumble or talk like you're bored, your audience will be bored too. Don't speak too fast either; that makes it hard for the audience to follow. Record your own voice and listen to it to see if you like what you hear.
- Especially if you're not a native speaker, give your talk in front of a native speaker and have them point out any words you may mispronounce (such as "hierarchy", "ubiquitous", or "analysis") without knowing. This amusing poem lists many typical pitfalls, and we've collected some of our favorite mispronunciations by HCI students.
- Make sure to control any dialect you may have. Speakers with dialects are easily (albeit wrongly) perceived as less educated, and a strong dialect will make it hard for your audience to understand you, especially if the audience includes non-native speakers. Again, listen to recordings of you speaking. Professional speech training can help.
- Point the audience to their previous knowledge, the talk before you, or other talks you will be giving or others will be giving
- Watch good presenters and pay attention to their slide design and presentation flow. Steve Jobs' Macworld or WWDC keynotes are a good example.
- Read CHI 2007 Presentation Tips
- Read Presentation Zen for presentation tips (we have a copy in our chair's library)
- Read Strunk & White for good, concise English: The Elements of Style, 1999
- Check TheOatmeal for fun explanations of the right use of "i.e.", the semicolon, apostrophes and ten words you need to stop misspelling (thanks to Martin Wermers for the tip!)