This collection of tips was transcribed from a seminar given in Seattle by
Edward Tufte. He attributes these tips to another author (but I can't
remember who it was).
- Show up early, and something good is bound to happen. You
may have a chance to head off some technical or ergonomic problem.
Also, whereas at the end of a talk people are eager to rush off and
avoid traffic, at the beginning they filter in slowly. It's a
great time to introduce yourself.
- Have a strong opening. Tufte offers a few ideas for structuring
- Never apologize. If you're worried the presentation won't
go well, keep it to yourself and give it your best shot.
Besides, people are usually too preoccupied with their own
problems to notice yours.
- Open by addressing the following three questions: What's the
problem? Who cares? What's your solution? As an alternate
but more sophisticated technique, Tufte offers the following
anecdote. a high-school mathematics teacher was giving a
lecture to an intimidating audience: a group of college
math professors. Early in the presentation, the teacher
made a mathematical error. The professors immediately noticed
and corrected the problem. And for the rest of the lecture,
they were leaning forward, paying attention to every word,
looking for more errors!
- PGP: with every subtopic, move from the Particular to the
General and back to the Particular. Even though the purpose of
a subtopic is to convey the general information, bracing it with
particulars is a good way to draw attention and promote retention.
- Not so much a tip as a law: Give everyone at least one piece
of paper. A piece of paper is a record, an artifact from your
presentation. People can use that artifact to help recall the
details of the presentation, or better yet to tell others about it.
- Know your audience. This is of course a general piece of
advice for public speaking, but Tufte adds his own twist: know your
audience by what they read. Knowing what they read tells
you what styles of information presentation they are most familiar
and comfortable with. Adapting your presentation to those styles
will leave fewer barriers to the direct communication of your material.
- Rethink the overhead. Tufte spent a lot of time explaining
why the overhead projector is the worst thing in the world. There's
a lot of truth to what he said. Bulleted lists are almost always
useless. Slides with bulleted lists are often interchangeable between
- The audience is sacred. Respect them. Don't condescend
by "dumbing down" your lecture. Show them respect by saying what
you believe and what you know to be the whole story.
- Humour is good, but be careful with it. Humour in a
presentation works best when it actually drives the presentation
forward. If you find you're using canned jokes that don't depend
on the context of the presentation, eliminate them.
Also, be very careful about jokes that put down a class of people.
If you're going to alienate your audience, do it on the merits of
- Avoid masculine (or even feminine!) pronouns as universals. It
can be a nuisance to half the audience. As universals, use the plural
"they". The Oxford English Dictionary has allowed "they" as a gender
neutral singular pronoun for years.
- Take care with questions. Many people judge the quality of
your talk not by the twenty minutes of presentation, but on the
thirty seconds you spend answering their question. Be sure to allow
long pauses for questions. Ten seconds may seem like a long pause
when you're at the front of the room, but it flows naturally from
the audience's point of view.
- Let people know you believe your material. Speak with
conviction. Believing your subject matter is one of the best ways
to speak more effectively!
- Finish early, and something good is almost bound to happen.
If nothing else, people will be able to leave early, and suddenly
they'll have an extra couple of minutes to do things they didn't think
they'd get to. People will really like you if you do that.
- Practice. Practice over and over and over. If you can,
record your presentation. Play it back and watch yourself. You'll
discover a thousand horrible, horrible things you never knew about
yourself. Now watch it again without the sound. Why are your
hands flying around like that? Now listen to it without the picture.
Get rid of those ums! Now watch it at twice the normal speed.
This emphasizes low-frequency cycles in your gestures.
- The two most dehydrating things you can do in modern civilization
are live presentations and air travel. In both, the way to
stay sharp is to drink lots of water. Take care of your
body, especially your voice. If possible, avoid alcohol too.
October 18th, 1999: Amazing. Seems my good deed of providing this
list over the web has been carried out before, and pretty close to home.
a former student in my department, transcribed
almost the exact same list back in 1995!
October 24th, 1999: I guess the trend is catching. Recently,
AJ attended the
Tufte seminar. She transcribed a more extensive set of
that you also might want to look at.
October 24th, 1999: Thanks to Shimon Schocken from
Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya
for pointing out a typo on this page. I'll sleep better tonight!
October 4th, 2001: Bernhard Reiter
points out that the above links to Ted Romer's home page
are now defunct. I don't even remember how many years
ago he left the department.