There is lots of advice out there on how to give a good scientific talk. But less is available on how to give a good short talk, where by short I mean 15 minutes or less. Non-astronomers might be surprised to learn that contributed talks at American Astronomical Society meetings are only 5 minutes long! I have seen many of these go poorly. Here are some things to consider, based on a seminar I gave to our department’s physics grad students recently.

There are two kinds of short conference talks: the kind in a large meeting when many parallel sessions are happening at once, and the kind in a smaller meeting where everyone is in the same room all day for several days. In either case, your talk is one in a series, so you need to get the audience’s attention, help them switch gears to thinking about you, and make your talk stand out. In the small meeting case, you can use the previous talks to put yours in context – an earlier talk may give the background for yours – but in the large meeting case you don’t have that luxury.

In preparing your talk, think about the one thing you want the audience to do after seeing your talk. It could be:

  • talk with me at the conference
  • read my paper
  • referee my paper favourably
  • collaborate with me
  • hire me or my students/postdocs

This one thing should be supported by one or two slides which show your main result in graphical form. Don’t try to cover everything: in a short talk, there just isn’t time.

Some dos and don’ts:

Put your name and talk title at the bottom of every slide 1 Put the conference name and date on your slides 2
Tell the audience what you’re going to talk about 3 Waste time with an outline slide 4
Motivate why the audience should care 5 Give a lengthy introduction 6
Have extra “backup” slides with details 7 Show too many slides (>10) or skip over any 8
Leave your conclusions slide up while you take questions 9 End with a nearly-blank ‘thank you’ slide 10

And their explanations:

[1] This helps people who are moving from room to room and miss the beginning of your talk.

[2] People generally know where they are. You can add this info to your slides later when you put them online.

[3] Helps the audience to remember your main point afterwards.

[4] I really dislike outline slides; I think they are particularly useless for a short talk.

[5] Particularly important when audience is being bombarded with lots of talks.

[6] You need time to get to the important result!

[7] These are great when you are answering tell-me-the-details questions.

[8] It’s annoying for the audience to see a slide that isn’t discussed. Use it, move it, or delete it.

[9] Reminds the audience what you said and provides a context for questions.

[10] Doesn’t add any useful information. Just say “thank you” out loud.

Some additional pointers on good short talks: these guidlines from APS and these from Northwestern’s CLIMB. Short talks can be exciting but they can also be disastrous. If the technology fails, there’s often no time to switch to a backup, so you should be prepared to explain your main point without slides if you must. All the more reason to practice in advance. Now go talk!