Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.


The hour before you start is lost. The person speaking before you makes some points, but your only concern is how those points might be brought into your presentation to make an effective transition.

Now it’s your turn. You start speaking and point to your slides for emphasis. You scan the audience. Some people are sleeping. They are a lost cause. Others are nodding. You said something that resonated with them.

There’s a third group. They look confused. You can ignore them, but is this a good idea? One argument for this is after the talk is over, it isn’t possible for everyone to understand the work. This argument feels a little false since there may be future opportunities to present the work. At the very least, those interested enough to attend should have a sense for the elevator pitch.

Accepting that it is important to reduce confusion, how does one go about this? I gave a talk last week and was thinking about this as I got feedback from others. While pats on the back from people who knew my research already were welcome, most of their constructive criticism was on presentation style rather than the specific message I was targeting. They had already seen the work, and there were no real surprises in the content.

The most instructive comments came from those who were seeing the work for the first time. Many were unfamiliar with the practical motivation, and their comments highlighted places where I had glossed over these issues. I could convert them into simple questions. What were the assumptions I was making? Why were they relevant? As I got more feedback, I had a much clearer picture of how I wanted to present the work in the future.

It’s a little strange to think of a presentation as just another tool to understand how to present one’s work better, but perhaps this is the purpose of a conference. Taking this perspective, feedback appears to be an effective way to crystallize the main points of one’s message.


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