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How to Give an Exceptionally Good Presentation
Joe Cheng.............Moderator
Jennifer Bryan........As Herself
Hadley Wickham........As Himself
Aron Atkins...........Audience
Derrick Kearney.......Audience
Kirill Muller.........Audience
JOE: We are exceptionally lucky to have Hadley and Jennifer
with us today. I'll ask some questions to start with and
then we'll open it up. To begin with -- What is the purpose
of a 20 minute talk?
JENNIFER: You're trying to convince someone that they are capable
of something. Not how to do something -- that it is
possible, and possible for them.
HADLEY: It's a sales pitch. In 20 min you can't go deep
technically; "I should learn more about this." Make sure
there's pointers to learn more.
JENNIFER: That talk is a confidence-building ad.
JOE: In some circles the point is to show that you're smart.
JENNIFER: That's why we're not in those circles any more.
JOE: What are the most common mistakes?
JENNIFER: Front-loading the boring. "To be complete I have to show
you these things..." and starting with those things. For
example, when people start off with R by teaching a list
of every data type. Save that for later, if at all.
HADLEY: You want to persuade people in the first minute that they
should care about the rest of the talk. You need compelling
motivation for later on.
SOMEONE: How about a table of contents slide?
HADLEY: I hate that.
JENNIFER: I think it's terrible.
HADLEY: But for longer talks, it's good to give a sense of
structure, and sum up what you've done at the end.
JENNIFER: The final slide should be one people can take a picture
of. Tell them what you're going to teach them, then tell
them what they've learned. Don't try to have a surprise
in your talk. I've never had a satisfying reveal.
JOE: I have a funny story that's relevant here. The first
time RStudio has ever demo'ed in public, I showed RStudio
Server in Chrome the whole time, but full screen so you
didn't see the browser. Then I pressed F11 at the end to
show that I'd been running the whole thing in a browser.
That was supposed to be a powerful moment, but the audience
didn't get it right away.
JOE: I think for a lot of us who have not given a lot of
talks, it's nerve-wracking, but it seems like it's so easy
for you. What's the worst you've ever bombed?
HADLEY: I showed an XKCD comic and no one laughed. I realized the
presentation was wrong for the audience, and there was
nothing I could do. There's nothing to do but show the rest
of the presentation. For small things you can rescue
mid-flight, but when it's so far off you really can't.
JENNIFER: I've had lots of versions of this, where the audience
isn't into the topic. The most confidence-eroding was giving
a talk that was very applied, and someone wanted to talk
about the asymptotic approach of something. I ceded too much
control and it made me feel less confident.
HADLEY: Dealing with questions is hard.
JENNIFER: I was not prepared to say nicely that your question is
not relevant.
HADLEY: It's good to have canned responses like "I wish we could
spend time on this."
JOE: You each have a different speaking voice. Is it intentional?
How do you try to speak?
JENNIFER: I try to be more conversational. I notice on podcasts
when people use fillers and back off on things. It's better
to pause when I use filler words, and to skip softeners and
backpedaling. Just own it.
HADLEY: A couple of years ago I did five sessions with a voice
coach, just to learn how to project better. If you do a lot
of public speaking, that is really useful. Part of the
reason was because of Joe: there was a room with no mic and
it was loud, and Joe said it sounded like I was shouting. I
needed to learn skills to project without exhausting my
JOE: The filler words issue. Can you explain that a little
more? It seems really hard to get past.
JENNIFER: Being more patient; being willing to tolerate silence.
Silence is better than weasel words and ums. They undermine
your authority and soften everything.
ARON: Do you do dry runs?
JENNIFER: I do little bits in my head; I go over it when I drive.
HADLEY: When you are silent as a speaker for a few seconds, it
feels like an eternity. But your experience of your
performance is very different than the audience's experience
of that performance.
JOE: I felt like those pauses made me look stupid. But
they're actually what make you sound authoritative. Own
those spaces, and speak into them.
HADLEY: It's odd when you first start practicing that. You
recognize when you've said "um", and you can't unsay it, but
you need to be aware of it.
DEREK: The pauses are natural; it makes a conference talk
sound more conversational.
KIRILL: How do you allocate time? How do you make sure
you're not spending 20 hours on a slide deck?
HADLEY: We never create a new presentation.
JENNIFER: Talk more often! Manufacture opportunities to talk more
often, so that you're not starting from scratch.
HADLEY: There may be pathologies where you spend hours tweaking
slides. Maybe you need to start by scratching things out. My
pathology is buying new fonts.
HADLEY: I will rough out the whole thing, and then let it sit
overnight. If you can, prepare a week before the talk, and
then don't look at it until the day before the talk.
ARON: I started with a story first and an outline. The
slides were the absolute last thing that I did.
JOE: Can you talk about the relationship between the concept
and the slides?
HADLEY: One of the goals of this is being brutally honest about
what this is.
JENNIFER: Another is that if a few slides from this get circulated,
what should they be? Put those slides in first and then
connect the dots. It's easy to connect the micro-stories and
then never get to the conclusion you want to reach.
HADLEY: You don't want your slide deck to be self-contained. Why
would they waste time watching you deliver it when they
could read it?
JENNIFER: I use the presenter notes in keynote, so that when I look
at the slides before my talk I have them. When you're
switching between RStudio and demos, you can't see your
HADLEY: There's a certain level of preparation. If you end up
preparing so much, and you forget one, the audience is not
going to know that you missed one -- they don't know what
you're going to cover! It distracts you more. I don't use
speaker notes. Sometimes I don't know what the next slide is
going to be.
JOE: But you're looking at it just to remind yourself what
the point is. Some speakers are basically just reading the
slides when they come up. That means you're trying to teach
too many concepts. Your first sentence after the slide comes
up should come out with conviction.
HADLEY: One of the most useful slide layouts, which is what I
have a template, is assertion plus evidence. The goal of the
slide is to supply evidence for the assertion. This makes it
less likely to create bullet points.
JOE: All this advice is awesome, but some people don't need
it. Whatever the hell Yihui does is working. And as I was
matching Mara, I was thinking "Only Mara could give this
talk." Mara, you did the opposite of all these things and it
worked great. You don't have to be Hadley or Jenny. You can
be Mara or Yihui.
JOE: What other problems comes up?
HADLEY: Demos don't work. Hecklers.
JENNIFER: I wouldn't plan a demo I wasn't completely sure would
work. Do not call the Internet! If there is a video I plan a
static version of the code in case it doesn't work.
HADLEY: Never assume that the wifi is going to be any good,
despite any assurances to the contrary. Code demos where you
type the code, even if you make mistakes, it's really good.
It shows that developers make mistakes too.
HADLEY: One piece of advice for asking questions is that you
should count in your head up to 7. That's how long it takes
form a question in your head.
JOE: So when you've given a talk, how do you judge success?
HADLEY: You can see it in the faces of people.
JENNIFER: If you get any reaction, any questions that seem good.
You find out later if it was succcessful or not.
HADLEY: If you're teaching, you can tell if people are following
along or if their eyes are glazing over. There are things
that happen that make you think your talk is terrible, like
people falling asleep. That doesn't mean that things are
going terribly, it means they are sleepy. Accept these
JOE: Can we say thanks to these two?
JENNIFER: I have two more things to add. Take your font and
make it bigger. And then make it bigger again.
Anticipate that it needs to be huge. Put the link at the
front, and put it in like 150pt font size. People often
want to take a picture. Leave a slide up for questions.
HADLEY: Don't have a slide that says "Questions". Have a slide
with useful information.
JENNIFER: The value of putting the slides up is greatly enhanced if
it's put up from the start and at slide 0. If you're going
to bother to put them up, there's a much bigger payoff that way.
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