How to give a good talk on a Computational Linguistics topic

“We are delighted to inform you..” Yes, you made it. Congratulations! And you’re off to planning your trip to the next conference, to enjoy the next breeze of fresh research ideas (or the conference surroundings…). But wait a minute. You have to prepare that talk. Publishing is more than just writing papers. It is an entire process that starts from identifying your research question, carrying out your research, writing it up, doing rebuttals, to, ultimately, presenting your work to a large audience. Science is not just about generating new knowledge, it is also about sharing that knowledge with a broader audience. In this short guest post, I would like to share my thoughts on giving a good talk.

Essentially, giving a good talk is telling a good story. If you are telling a good story, you hook your audience and you get your message across. This, in turn, can help shape new ideas.

Good science lives from good talks! A good talk lives from a good narrative: What is the problem? How is it relevant? How did you solve it and what are your key take-aways? Following Chris Anderson (2012), try to limit your talk to one major idea, and build around it. But before delving off into details and preparing your talk–the content–, there is a second important point: the audience. Failing to consider it typically ends in poor talks.

Your talk is like a wine glass. And your audience determines its shape

The structure of a narrative typically consists of three parts: the beginning (act one) sets the scene and context, act two provides the main content, and the final act contains the resolution and take-away message. These three parts nicely correspond to the parts of a wine glass (Tim Miller, 2012), cf. Figure 1 (b). The key insight is that the shape of the glass is determined by the audience. At a technical symposium, just like NAACL, your audience is typically from the same field and very familiar with the main concepts. So the bowl can be wide and short, just like a Martini glass, Fig. 1 (a), with a narrow stem and more technical details. For a public talk, your talk could look more like Fig. 1 (c) (a Whisky glass), where you spend more time on setting the scene and providing context. This can help shape the content of your slides accordingly.

The wine glass metaphor

Regarding the slides, typically less is more. Try to avoid long texts, long tables of results, or outlines for short talks. Consider a few key phrases, visualizations, and go straight into the problem and motivation to “give the listener a reason to care” (Anderson, 2016). Finally, it is also about how you communicate your story. Try to connect to your audience, talk calmly, and don’t forget to breathe 😉 Rehearsing helps, ask friends or colleagues to listen to your dry-run.

I’m looking forward to NAACL and hope we all enjoy a series of great talks, to learn and get inspired from each other.




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