Tips for Ten Minute Talks

The Great Short


It has been a busy month! After going to the Frontiers in Quantum Information and Computer Science workshop, I took off for the American Physics Society Four Corners Meeting in Tempe. The meeting brought together graduates, undergraduates, and faculty to share their work.

A challenge at this meeting was the fact the talks were limited to 10 minutes! That is either not enough time or all the time in the world, depending on how you look at it. In reflecting on the meeting and the talks I went to, some common themes emerged regarding which talks were well received. Below are some tips and ideas for giving great short talks.

  • Have a well-developed narrative.

    Narrative is the essential point of your talk. With only 10 minutes, you have to focus on that essential point - it’s all you have time for. A helpful question for distilling a narrative is to ask “If the audience remembers only one sentence, what will it be?”

  • Use graphics, not text or equations, to describe ideas.

    Humans are visual creatures, which is probably why advertising goes heavy on images and avoids long texts. With regards to equations, it is certainly hard to find ways to replace them with pictures. But if you ask “What idea or fact does this equation convey?”, you can often find a way to visualize that statement. Sometimes though, you may need to define a quantity, and that’s OK. Keep in mind the difficulty your audience might have in processing notation and what the math means in the time it takes for you to cover the slide.

  • Talk with the audience.

    Some speakers forget that the audience is full of people. When you are speaking, act as if you are having a (one-sided) conversation with them. Science is interesting and exciting! You have done something nobody else has! Let that show. Tell people something new, something unexpected. When we talk with our friends, we do not just dryly monotone our thoughts - we sprinkle them with emotion. Do the same when speaking to the audience.

    This point also suggests to me the need to be mindful of who the audience is. Is is mostly students? Are you speaking with your peers? Presenting a talk as part of a job interview? Audiences are a diverse group of people, and a great talk keeps the audience in mind, tailoring it to them.

  • Stay within your alloted time.

    This tip is not particular to shorter talks, but it is important to follow. While the chair of the session is ultimately responsible for keeping the session on time, you should do them a favor and make sure you finish within the time given to you. People are going to be going from your talk to other ones, or coming from other sessions to hear the next speaker. Make their lives better and happier by helping everyone stay on schedule.

  • Practice.

    Most of the tips above follow from this point. Rehearsing the talk is a great way to see what works and what does not. And, at ten minutes, you can practice quite a bit and still not take too long! For a shorter talk, I think practicing until you can give almost the entire thing without looking at your slides is the minimum you want to do.

    If possible, go to the room where you will be presenting in and practice there. You will be able to see how you will have to interact with the presentation, which may affect how you were planning on giving it.