Janet L. Kayfetz

The art and craft of writing and speaking

Category: Great Presentations

Feedback from a Great Presentations Student

A year and a half after completing my Great Presentations class at UCSB, Claire Phillips sent me this email with her thoughts about the class’s teaching/learning dynamic. I appreciate hearing what she has to say — especially now that she has had a chance to apply a few Great Presentations ideas in her work. ~ By the way, Claire is an environmental scientist and writer. ~ Thank you for your insights, Claire!

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Hi Janet,

I was just reading this article on Brainpickings about a book called Focus (by Daniel Goleman), which debunks the 10,000 hours-to-master-a-skill myth. He argues that the quality of the time spent mastering a skill is far more valuable than the quantity of time, and quality times includes mentors that provide meaningful feedback.

“Goleman identifies a second necessary element: a feedback loop that allows you to spot errors as they occur and correct them, much like ballet dancers use mirrors during practice. He writes:

‘Ideally that feedback comes from someone with an expert eye and so every world-class sports champion has a coach. If you practice without such feedback, you don’t get to the top ranks. The feedback matters and the concentration does, too — not just the hours.'”

This article really identified the genius in your teaching method for me, especially for the presentations class. I think one of the big reasons we were all jumping ahead so quickly in our presentation skills was because we analyze and provide feedback multiple times every class (as well as receiving feedback, of course). And the process of identifying what worked and what didn’t in live time helped those lessons sink in so much more profoundly.

I also think that verbalizing and discussing the critiques imbues a lot of confidence in everyone. At my new job I have had complete confidence (and gained my colleagues’ confidence) in my analysis of presentations because I have both a full understanding of the elements and am comfortable with the language to communicate those elements.

Anyway, I was just struck by that while I was reading the article and I thought I would pass it along!



Walk, Stand, Breathe, Speak

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Erica Cooper and Bingyi Cao, Columbia University

You are at a group meeting, or a conference, or an investor meeting — anyplace where you will be presenting your ideas to an audience. Perhaps you are standing at the side of the room waiting to move to the front. Maybe you are sitting at the meeting table and need to make it to the front of the room near your visuals. And it is your turn to speak.

These next few moments may seem obvious and simple. How do you get to your spot and start speaking? And how do you do it gracefully in full view of your audience? Let’s break things down into four steps:

  1. Walk

If you are already standing, walk in a relaxed manner to the place you choose to be for the beginning of your talk. If you are sitting, stand up, walk behind your chair and push it in calmly, and walk to your spot. Look at where you are going — don’t look at the ground while you are walking. If you are feeling extra confident, look at the group and smile.

You create an impression through the way you move and get yourself settled. Your audience will be looking at you the moment you start to move, even before you say a word.

  1. Stand

When you arrive at your spot, turn, face the audience, and stand in what I call neutral position.

  • Place your feet solidly under your hips. Don’t put your feet too far apart; if close together is comfortable, that’s okay.
  • Try to point your feet straight forward, not in a “V” shape.
  • Stand tall with your sternum up and arms relaxed at your side.
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Sea Pong and Alex Scarlett, UCSB Senior Capstone 2013


  1. Breathe

Looking at your audience with a relaxed expression, breathe. Take a nice deep breath, not a shallow tentative breath. Inhale. . .

  1. Speak

. . . and speak on the exhale.


Alex Sarraf, UCSB Senior Capston 2014

As you practice Walk-Stand-Breathe-Speak, think of each step as an independent unit, and execute each step completely before moving to the next step. For example, don’t walk and speak at the same time. Walk, establish your standing posture, breathe, and then speak. And about speaking? Remember — don’t speak without first taking a good inhale and sending some beneficial oxygen to your brain.

Then when each step feels solid within the sequence, let everything flow into a smooth pattern, and move fluidly into the beginning of your talk.


What I Learned in the Great Presentations Class


Yipeng Huang, PhD student in Computer Science at Columbia University

“As a PhD student, I feel a lot of pressure to sound smart. When I present, usually in the setting of group meetings, but also in formal presentations such as those we practiced in Great Presentations, I feel a lot of pressure to come off as a productive researcher. This is evident in the tons of stuff I try to fit in my talks. While I have had no talks that went overtime, the truth is I had always prepared more content than I delivered. My urge to tell more—wanting to give more background on robots, wanting to show every visual to convey the complexity of my chip design—stems from the uncertainty that my output passes muster for the field I’m entering.

“I’ve put in so much work! Surely everything I did is worth telling about,” I think to myself when planning my talks, “If I made any of this seem simpler than it is, my audience may confuse my work for an easy project.” Leaving out any detail and every bug I encountered would be such disservice to the hours poured into making progress.

The pressure to give dense talks is also due to an impression I get from being an audience in other presentations, those given by professors and more senior students. As a PhD student still learning the arcane language of my field, I often find it hard to understand talks by more established researchers, and when I do understand, the efforts that went into the research always seem herculean.

As a result of these pressures, I feel I aim to impress (and possibly to beg approval) rather than to communicate when I am on the stage. When I am pressed for time to hit all the points I planned, my mind becomes singularly focused on powering through the content; my story gets muddled, I forget to breathe, and “um”s, “so”s, “I think”s break out. Being rushed is also bad for my body language: I break connection with the audience, I cease to interact with my visuals, and I stare at my own visuals.

Committing to giving a good presentation, especially one that communicates rather than merely dazzles the audience with myriad details, and in particular one that fits in the talk’s time limits, requires courage. Crafting such a presentation requires omitting the details in the research that were often the hardest parts to overcome. The presenter has to be confident the research is sound even when parts have to be left out.

Having a well-timed presentation gives the audience the chance to absorb the story, and it gives the presenter valuable time and a clear head to be aware of the talk’s delivery. Among all the feedback I got from the Great Presentations class, this advice to exercise restraint while planning talks is the most important, since it affects so many other aspects of presenting.

The other major finding I had in Great Presentations is about practicing and improvising.

Now that I frequently speak about my own research, I’ve come to understand presentations as assemblages of many smaller talks. Oftentimes, presentations are ad-hoc: I may be describing my research as part of a conversation, or I may be put on the spot at a meeting. In every setting, the time allocation and level to which my audience is up to speed varies, so I change the way I assemble my mini talks accordingly. However, while the overall speeches are tailored, the mini talks are often well practiced and get carried over between presentations.

The hazard of endlessly repeating segments of old talks is a failure to consider whether the mini talks are up to date. As my research progresses, my mini talks should obviously change as well. Furthermore, while giving a familiar talk is comforting for me, I may have failed to consider better ways to describe my research.

Question-answer interactions during talks help break the cycle of repeating old ideas. Audience questions taught me as the presenter what ideas are not getting across. I noticed I often resort to rehearsed answers: I start back at the beginning in attempt to tell the full story. Instead, I should aim for depth in my answers. If the question asker didn’t nail the question, guide her to ask the deeper question. Answers to good questions are the best chance to fill in the details that had been left out, and they are the precursors to mini talks to include in the future presentations.

Giving great presentations takes time, certainly more time than simply throwing together PowerPoint slides and winging through the talk on stage. But expending time to prepare great presentations is worthwhile.

We admire researchers who adeptly communicate their work. Deciding what details to include and what to leave out—to attempt presenting new ideas in untried talk segments, or to resort to familiar spiels—these decisions are the heart of the art of giving great presentations.”

From Yipeng’s blog    

Best Poster Awards at UCSB Senior Capstone 2014


This year’s Weihan David Wang Computer Engineering/Computer Science/Electrical Engineering Capstone Poster Prize was shared by two of the total fifteen project teams — NP-Compete and String Cheese. The co-winners were teams of students in our CS 189 class.

I present these two beautiful posters so that you can study and appreciate how the project stories and the complexities of the technical details were realized in a poster format. Imagine walking up to these posters in the event courtyard and taking a few minutes to learn about the 6-month long project that was conceived and realized by the student group. See if you can capture the essence of each project.

P2P Cast Poster by the NP-Compete Team

NP-Compete Poster

NP-Compete Poster

Eye in the Sky Poster by the String Cheese Team

String Cheese Poster

String Cheese Poster

Congratulations to groups NP-Compete and String Cheese!

NP-Compete is Daniel Vicory (lead), Nicole Theokari, Omar Masri, Jerry Medina, Justin Liang. String Cheese is Alexander Huitric (lead), EJ Fernandes,  Drew Hascall, Jasen Worden.

UCSB Computer Science Senior Capstone 2014

It’s UCSB Senior Capstone time again!

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On June 5, eight teams of Computer Science and Computer Engineering students presented their industry-sponsored projects to the public in an all-day event centering on 22-minute team presentations and a poster event/lunch session.

I am an integral part of the two-quarter Capstone class. Working alongside CS Professor Tim Sherwood and Teaching Assistant Geoff Douglas, my role is to coach the groups for their public presentations. Before any coaching from me, I was coached by the students! I had to work hard to understand the stories behind the project problems and technologies so I could provide honest and instructive feedback.


So let’s break things down a bit. What were the important things about a Capstone presentation that we talked about and practiced?

1. The core message. I urged the groups to think about a few key questions:

What is the real world, concrete problem that you are addressing? What did you develop/create/build to solve your problem? What are the complexities of your solution? What were the technical challenges you faced and how did you resolve them? What specific things are interesting and unique about your solution? If you had more time and support, how would you continue to develop your project?

2. The presentation plan. Organizing a collaborative project effort into a 22-minute talk that tells a complete story and that all group members can agree on is a challenge. This is especially true when you have been working with 3 or 4 other classmates for 6 months; you have other classes and work obligations; and you are a graduating senior and are thinking of new jobs and new graduate school experiences.


We talked first about backward buildup and parsing the talk into its essential components, and then the best order for sequencing the components of the talk. We talked about how each group wanted to introduce itself to the audience and how much preliminary material should be included with these personal introductions.

Since it is a course requirement for each team member to give a portion of the talk, the group had to decide who said what.

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And what about the live demo — when in the talk should that happen, and who should be in charge?


3. Visuals. How do you embed visuals into the presentation story and use them in the most excellent way during your talk? How many visuals should there be anyway? What is the best way to transition from the visual you are talking about to the next visual and keep your story moving forward?

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4. Delivery. Practice, practice, practice — Introductions, timing, volume, facing, remembering the story, projecting excellence and enthusiasm, the demo, breathing. And preparing for the question and answer session following each talk.

The Capstone students were coached through all of these things.


And more. In addition to creating amazing products and preparing for their presentations and demos, the groups produced beautiful and informative posters for audience participants to look at during the courtyard lunch celebration.

RingBase poster

Capstone Presentation Day 2014 was amazing. Congratulations to all of the UCSB Computer Science Capstone students and their industry mentors!

Retelling in a Computer Science Talk

This interesting insight about the organization of content in a science talk comes from Adam Waksman, a PhD student in Computer Science at Columbia University:

“One challenge that is always present in computer science talks is the need to constantly remind the audience what is happening. Computer scientists expect to be told what they are going to hear before they hear it.

While I do not necessarily think that results need to be a mystery, I also think the constant re-telling gets tedious. For example, the audience might be told something on an initial overview slide, then again during motivation, then reminded of it on an outline slide and then told it in detail later in the talk. For me, that is too much.

One example of where that is an issue for me in my Berlin talk [presented at CCS 2013 – http://www.sigsac.org/ccs/CCS2013 in November] is the issue of multiple scores. At some point in the talk, the audience needs to understand that there are two different scores being computed and why they are both relevant. Saying it too early gets redundant and derails the story. Saying it too late makes it seem like it came out of the blue and also somewhat derails the story. I have moved the relevant slide a couple of times in recent revisions, but I am not sure I am happy at the moment with the placement.

In my experience, these are often tricky cases — where there is a detail to the story that is important because of scientific reasons but not inherently obvious. One cannot withhold these details in a long talk, but when introduced at the wrong time they make the story seem less simple and perfect, which is often what a computer science audience wants to hear. This is something I expect to improve upon as I do more practice talks.”

Thank you Adam!


Words and Pictures

Here is something to think about when you are writing about visuals, or when you select visuals to highlight your written story.


“Reflecting on the art of picture book story-telling, Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are; In the Night Kitchen) shares his strong opinions about the interplay between words and pictures:”

 “An illustration is an enlargement, and interpretation of the text, so that the reader will comprehend the words better. As an artist, you are always serving the words.

You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work. Then you must let the words take over where words do it best. It’s a funny kind of juggling act.”

(From Eric Carle in.Artist to Artist: 23 Major Illustrators Talk to Children About Their Art, 2007.) In this week’s Brain Pickings – www.brainpickings.org. 

The First Part of a Talk

UCSB Senior Capstone 2013

UCSB Senior Capstone 2013

The very first moments of a talk deserve your consideration. These first seconds should be practiced and perfected so that you feel confident about how to introduce yourself and move into your presentation in a fluent and natural way — even though you may be fighting the nerves that most of us feel when we stand in front of an audience.

This first connection with the audience sets the tone for the rest of your talk. It is during these first seconds that you as the speaker create the spirit of the experience. It is for you to decide how you want to present yourself and your material. Are you friendly? serious? authoritative? brilliant? collegial? humorous? nervous? calm? and so on. The audience will pick up much of the emotional feeling you project about yourself and your content in the introductory part of your talk, so rehearse until you are able to present yourself in the way you would like to be perceived.

UCSB Senior Capstone 2013

UCSB Senior Capstone 2013

It is very important to look at your audience during your entire introductory remarks, no matter if this section lasts 10 seconds or 2 minutes. I cannot stress this point enough. Try to look at all parts of the room where you have listeners so that everyone benefits from your connection. I know — this is not easy, depending on the size and shape of the room and the number of people in the audience. But try to make it happen. Looking at your audience in an authentic way, especially at the very beginning of a talk, signals that you are comfortable with yourself and with them.

Hold your focus on the audience and not on your first slide. In fact, I recommend that you memorize the information on your first slide (title, collaborators, advisor, and so on) so that you do not have to look away from the audience and read from your slide. Break eye contact with your audience only after completing your initial remarks as a way of transitioning to the next section of your talk.

And finally, try to hold your hands still during the very first seconds of your talk (by keeping them naturally by your side, by holding them together in front of you, by leaning on the podium, or by using some other technique to keep them out of the picture), and then introduce your hand gestures more organically as you develop your story.

UCSB Senior Capstone 2013

UCSB Senior Capstone 2013


Kyle Klein - UCSB

Kyle Klein – UCSB

Writing and talking about data is one of the core jobs of a scientist. But how do we give voice to our non-verbal graphs, tables, charts, photos, and so on?

Let me introduce “WALTER.” Each letter in the WALTER acronym represents an important element in a data commentary.

W        Why

A         Axes

L          Lines

T         Trends

E         Exceptions

R         Recap

The idea is to include all of the WALTER elements — or as many as you think would be most helpful to a reader or listener — in any description of a graph or figure. You can use WALTER when you are writing a caption for a figure, when you are discussing your data in a paper, or when you are describing your data during a presentation.

Thank you to UCSB Computer Science Professor Tim Sherwood for telling me about WALTER and for providing the examples below from Computer Science.

W – Why Before you describe a figure, you need to set up the context. Sentences such as “To understand how our technique scales under heavy loads, we …” or “As performance is critical to the usability of our system, we …” set up the expectations for the figure.

It is critical that the reader be made aware of the new insight she will discover by studying your graph. None of this is obvious to the reader. This “why” part of your commentary is the most important part of describing a graph.

A – Axes The axes frame the results of a graph and are an opportunity to precisely describe the parameters of your experiment. Example: “We varied N, the number of virtual machines running our improved memory manager, from 1 to 64 as shown on the x-axis.” Example 2: “The y-axis shows the average power consumed by the devices as measured in Watts”. 

All axes should have units, and complex metrics or units should be fully motivated and described. If the axis shows a ratio (such as speedup) it needs to be clearly indicated if this ratio is presented as a fraction or percentage.

L – Lines Oftentimes we need to show several experiments on the same graph so that the results can be compared directly. Here “Lines” could refer to lines on a multi-line graph, or the different types of bars in a bar chart. The point is to make sure that each line is clearly described. Example: “The solid black line shows the performance of the baseline system described in Section 1.2, while the dashed grey line shows system performance after our optimization is applied.”  Example 2: “The solid grey portion of the bar shows the fraction of users that indicated they were satisfied with the user experience, while dissatisfied users are shown in black.” 

Keep in mind that most publications are black and white only (there are exceptions), and that most reviewers print out the papers on non-color printers. Avoid colors that look the same when printed in grayscale (or avoid color altogether).

T – Trends Now that you have the stage properly set, including the motivation (the Why), the parameters (the Axes), and the types of data points (the Lines), you can begin to discuss the overall trends of the graph — the main points you want people to take away from the visual.

Do not assume that this is obvious — tell your reader directly: “Looking across all of the applications we can see that in most cases an 8% to 10% reduction in memory footprint is achieved.”

E – Exceptions/Anomalies In most graphs of experimental data there are some outliers and exceptions. Your readers will notice them. Don’t try to hide them (you are a scientist after all), but do try to explain them. Example 1: “While we achieve near linear scaling up to 64 processors, there is a short performance dip at 16 processors where the data structures can no longer be completely memory resident.” Example 2: “The only program for which this technique actually hurts performance is gcc. The complex control dependencies of that program are large enough that they overflow the small buffer in our design.” 

The exceptions section can be made even stronger by including evidence that your theory behind the exceptions is true. Continuing Example 2: “If the buffer size is doubled for gcc, the overall speedup jumps to 5%.”

R – Recap/Segue Finally, now that the graph is described, discuss why these results are significant and segue on to the next result. Example: “Even after simple optimizations are applied, a very large fraction of the execution time is being spent in memory copy. In the next section we evaluate a novel copy free implementation that eliminates more than 70% of this overhead.” Example 2: “Now that we have demonstrated the stability of our routing scheme in the face of errors, we need to examine the performance of the algorithm across those same topologies.”

As you can see for these examples, the “Recap” comment can overlap nicely with the “Why” of the next data commentary in your paper or presentation.

Bryce Boe - UCSB

Bryce Boe – UCSB

Great Presentations and Trust

This post expresses the thoughts of Adam Doupe who recently completed a 10-week Great Presentations class I taught for PhD students in Computer Science at UC Santa Barbara. This was Adam’s second time participating in the class. I will post more of these personal reflections, so be looking for them!

“The last thing that I worked on [in the Great Presentations class] was ad-libbing or off-the-cuff presentations. I wanted to experiment with giving presentations with minimal preparation.  In doing so, I learned something not only about myself, but also about presentations in general.

What I learned was how Trust is important in a presentation. Here, I’m specifically talking about trust in yourself and your abilities. The more presentations I gave with little preparation, the more I began to trust my ability to string together coherent thoughts into a coherent story to get my point across. This gave me confidence in my ability to react to questions, interruptions, and general presentation surprises.

During the course of the class, after watching my fellow students rely less on memorization, I came to a theory about trust. These students would memorize their talks beforehand. Then, when giving the talks, they would recite and remember the exact words they should say. I firmly believe that memorization leads to presentations that are boring; presentations where the speaker is not really present. It also leads to very awkward moments: the speaker loses their train of thought and tries to remember exactly what they had written down, not the point that they were trying to make. Or when the speaker gets completely derailed when someone asks a question. Or when the speaker makes a mistake and goes back and corrects that mistake repeatedly until the sentence is “correct” with respect to what they had written previously.

Adam presenting in the GreatP class

Adam presenting in the GreatP class

I believe that trust in one’s own speaking ability is the key to getting over the rigid adherence to a memorized script. The true path toward a more effective presentation is in memorizing only the key points you need to make. Then, you can let your mind create the specific sentences and words on-the-fly to connect those points. You should know your story down cold. This way you can be present, in the moment, during your presentation.

Now, it should be noted that I am not against rehearsal. I believe that rehearsal leads a presentation to become crisp, and rehearsal is the key difference between a good presentation and a great presentation. Rehearsal helps you fine-tune those transitions and words. You can identify the places where you stumble, the places that are great, and the key ideas that are missing. Once you marry trust and rehearsal, when you are actually giving your talk, you won’t be rigidly following a script. You will trust yourself to take those detours, to point out details, or say things that you never did in rehearsal. You will be able to handle questions, skip some parts for time, or wrap up the presentation 15 minutes early if need be. And you will do it without the audience knowing that anything has changed. In short, you will be in full command of your presentation.

In class I practiced this principle in the two-minute talk, without visuals, about the book that I was reading. Beforehand, I thought through the main points that I wanted to hit. I also decided on the format (posing the situation and asking the class what they would do), but I had never given the talk before. As this was the first talk that I did not deliberately prepare beforehand, I was frankly surprised by how well it went. This was the talk that intrigued me into exploring the interaction between lack of memorization and trust.”

Thank you Adam!

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