Unsolicited Advice XI: How to Write a 5 Minute Talk

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 4, 2011 10:46 am

In the American astronomical calendar, early January looms large.  Tis the season of the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (the AAS).  Thousands of astronomers are currently gathering up their rain gear, preparing to descend on Seattle next week.  A significant fraction of these thousands are currently preparing posters and talks for the meeting.

Unfortunately, AAS presentations are almost entirely 5 minute talks, in contrast to the more typical 50 minute colloquia on which we’ve all cut our teeth.  This short format presents a real challenge, and requires a very different approach.  So, in CV’s long running Unsolicited Advice series, I now give my basic guidelines for writing a short talk.

1. In a 5 minute talk, you can usually only teach people about one new thing.  The key to framing the talk is to figure out that One New Thing, and then build the rest of the talk around it.

2. So, the very first step is to pick the absolute best single visual to show the One New Thing.  This is usually an awesome plot.

3. Make this plot the first slide you prepare.  Don’t start with history and motivation and data acquisition and analysis techniques — if you do, you’ll prepare way too much material, and find yourself at 4 minutes and 59 seconds without having actually gotten to your results.  Instead, generate the one or two slides that show the One New Thing, and explain its meaning.   (If it helps, think of this as “How would I explain my results, if someone walked into my office and asked what I was working on?”  In all likelihood, you’d pull out the coolest plot, and start explaining it.)  If there are multiple features to explain about the awesome plot, consider repeating the plot on multiple slides, and explaining one feature of the plot on each slide.

4. Now, work backwards.  What are the essential facts needed to understand the plot and appreciate its awesomeness?   Operationally, this usually means one or two slides of motivation (covering why this is an interesting topic, and why there are questions that still need to be answered) and one or two slides describing the data and/or analysis (covering just enough that people understand the outline of what you’ve done, and accept the validity of your approach).

5. When presenting these essential facts, you have to return to the point in Step 1.  Since you can’t teach people more than one new thing in a 5 minute talk, your motivation/data/analysis slides should function more as “reminders” of what people already know.   Your audience has read a lot of papers, have done lots of observations, have written many analysis codes, and have seen tons of colloquia — since most will have this background, all you really need to do is trigger the right memories.  Note that this is different than assuming your audience are experts on your particular project — you still want to walk them through the essential facts from Step 4.  However, you don’t need to explain what the VLA is, nor do you need to explain anything that would be routinely covered in beginning graduate coursework.  Reminding people?  Yes.  Explaining details of routine astronomical tools?  No.

6. Add a conclusion slide to the end of your talk, ideally with two or fewer take home messages. Do not recap what you did.  If you can, reproduce the plot for your One New Thing.

7. Now, go back through your whole talk, and eliminate every single word you possibly can.  Turn sentences into phrases (i.e. “We took 2000 DEIMOS spectra with 8 hour exposure times in Spring 2008” becomes “2000 DEIMOS spectra”).  Eliminate any details that aren’t essential facts. You simply don’t have time to effectively convey nuance and complexity, so you need to strip such frippery.   You are trying to keep your audience on track, and do not want them distracted by unnecessary detail.  Rule of thumb: If you have to use smaller than 48 pt font, you’ve got too many words.

8. Take yet another pass through your talk, working on making the visuals as clear as possible.   Use Powerpoint/Keynote to generate new >48 pt axis labels for all plots.  Add arrows and text boxes to point out key features in plots.  Make sure all point symbols are clearly explained, and can be easily distinguished from 50 feet away (i.e. open and closed symbols of contrasting colors are better than X’s and crosses).   Eliminate all yellow or orange symbols from white backgrounds, since no one can ever see them when projected.  If there are additional lines on your plot that you will not have time to talk about (i.e. from fits, or models), remake the plot without the lines, or hide them behind white lines.  Adjust the image contrast and/or line thickness to make all lines and symbols beefier, and easier to see from far away.

9.  Finally, practice your talk, ideally with a helpful non-expert colleague roped into watching.   Find out what parts they didn’t understand, and fix them.

So, best wishes, and see you in Seattle!

MORE ABOUT: AAS, unsolicited advice
  • ChrisM

    Back when I gave my one-and-only 5-minute AAS talk in 2004, I was lucky to have some good mentoring…but could still have used this advice. Well done.

  • Scott

    She should know: Julianne gave the best 10* minute AAS talk I ever saw. Heed her advice! I will pass it on to my own students (presuming they ever need to give an AAS talk).

    * Thesis talks at the AAS get twice the allotted 5 minutes…

  • Moshe

    Wow, sounds like the next item in the series should be advice on how to get any information out of 5 minute talks…I actually like the idea of short talks, but 5 minutes seems too short to get anything but slogans. Then again, I don’t really have any experience with those, different cultures I guess.

  • http://www.scientopia.org/blogs/galacticinteractions Rob Knop

    I’m sad I’m not going to the AAS this year. It’s one I could drive to in less than half a day…! Alas, I’ve got a class I’m teaching in January, starting next Monday.

    I eventually came to the conclusion that the answer to “How to give a 5-minute talk” is “don’t”. I much prefer giving a poster. At AAS meetings I’ve been to recently, I also don’t watch very many of the sessions of 5-minute talks. So many of them are so bad, usually because people try to cram so much into it. But, even if they’re good, the rapid topic-switching eventually just leaves me intellectually exhausted and not getting anything out of anything.

    During orientation my freshman year in college, we were told that the average human attention span is 22 minutes. Whatever it is, that *does* seem like a useful length for a talk. The “thesis” talks, in my experience, tend to be better. (Some are still bad, of course, but the talk format itself isn’t contributing to the badness.) I wish more of the talks could be like that, as then it might make them useful. In the mean time, I far prefer the posters.

  • Julianne

    I actually have a hard time digesting information from posters. I’m a fairly linear thinker, so having time functioning as a linearizer works well for me. When I go up to a poster, and there’s 8 different blocks of text and or graphics, and GUHZILLIONS of words, I just don’t know how to efficiently extract the information. I also am unused to reading while standing up.

    I’m way more inclined to grab the printout and then go read it in my hotel room or on the plane.

    But I do agree with you that 10-15 minute talks are probably ideal. Which may explain Scott’s fond remembrance of my dissertation talk! (Similarly, I remember Michael Strauss’s dissertation talk quite clearly. I was the undergrad running the slide projector.)

    Sorry I won’t get to meet you in person Rob — I was really happy to find out that you were at Quest!

  • Sarah

    Can the next post be on how to do an effective poster? Hopefully the first piece of advice will be “Don’t include a GUHZILLION WORDS”, because that makes me crazy. Fundamentally, it should look a lot like a 5 minute talk, with the advantage that you can talk to people about the cool plot one on one.

    But that’s just me. I know some people who love the poster format to present entire ApJ Letters…..

  • http://astronomy.ua.edu/keel NGC3314

    Sound advice. On poster prep, I just passed to an REU student my best tidbit and then enforced it on myself in draconian fashion – text only in fonts that stay legible when you reduce it to a one-page handout. That also helps for the people who like to hang back, unsure whether they want to interact, to get the gist and perhaps be drawn in. If I notice people nodding knowingly and uttering about faded quasars, I’ll know my job was done.

  • Charon

    “Can the next post be on how to do an effective poster?”

    That would be useful for me… I am also now even more jealous than usual of people who do research involving pretty pictures.

    “it should look a lot like a 5 minute talk”

    But I disagree with this. People need to be able to understand your poster even if you aren’t there. If people can get everything out of your talk just by looking at the slides, then your talk has way too much text.

  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw Ben

    I think you need to have as FEW SLIDES AS POSSIBLE. Actually, FEWER. Yes, I am not using my inside voice.

    Few things are worse than trying to cram too much information in with too many slides, and then having to page through them so fast that the audience can’t take any of them in.

    I can give a 25 minute talk with 5 slides and not have dead air. So can anyone, if you practice. So I think if you have more than 5 slides for a 5 minute talk, you’re losing the battle. I would prefer fewer.

  • http://michaelnielsen.org/blog Michael Nielsen

    “In a 5 minute talk, you can usually only teach people about one new thing. ”

    This is usually true for 50-minute talks as well. I suspect the median number of interesting new ideas that are communicated really well to most of the audience is zero, per talk, regardless of how long the talk is.

  • réalta fuar

    Rob is of course correct about the best advice for 5 minute talks. I’d never let a student give one as no good, but much bad can come from them. I’m sorta surprised anyone of note still gives them. NGC3314 has excellent advice on posters. I’ve always found the best time to see posters is when everyone is at the boring (at least one a day) long, invited talks or away at a long lunch.

  • http://vladimirkalitvianski.wordpress.com/ Vladimir Kalitvianski
  • http://mingus.as.arizona.edu/~bjw Ben

    My advice for how to make a poster – present a few important figures, maybe 3 to 5 – make an abstract/summary – have no more than about 3 paragraphs of text, in a largish font. Don’t cut and paste an ApJ letter’s worth of text into a poster. People can’t focus enough to read all that. It’s part of the presenter’s job to edit it down to a summary of the most important points.

    I don’t think “much bad” can come from a student giving a 5 minute talk. The worst things that can happen – student gives rushed talk, no one remembers student’s performance; or student gets scheduled for Thursday afternoon, nobody shows up. These both suck, but it is not like anyone really gets a black mark on their permanent record for an AAS talk.

    I liked going to see AAS posters when there was a decent chance you could actually talk to the person who made the poster. One of my complaints about what the AAS has evolved into is that the poster session room is full of poster-blitzes from large projects, where no people are ever present, so if you are presenting a poster you feel lonely and sheepish for standing around near your poster in an empty room. Apparently some prefer viewing posters in an empty room, but I don’t.

  • http://www.scientopia.org/blogs/galacticinteractions Rob Knop

    I’ve only given one of these five minute talks a few times at most. The most memorable one was in 1998 when the SCP announced evidence for a positive cosmological constant. (This was before Michael Turner had given us the term “dark energy”.) That was an exciting meeting. I gave the 5-minute talk, and Saul had the poster. The poster had more information on it… and it was a media circus around it all day. Michael Turner was holding court, and there were all kinds of people interested in talking to Saul and the others of us present (which, currently active in the group at the time, may have only been Peter Nugent and myself).

    My 5-minute talk literally only had 4 slides, if memory serves. One was the title page. One was a one-slide description of the method we used for finding supernovae — it had a supernova lightcurve with a few points highlighted on it, and I talked about how we found them and where. One was the Hubble Diagram, showing that, yes, we had magnitudes and redshfits of lots of supernova to plot. The most important one was the preliminary version of the Omega-M Omega-Lambda confidence intervals, which showed all of the confidence floating above the Omega-Lambda=0 line.

    The saddest thing about all of that this was January, and we didn’t write a Letter or some such that we got submitted later that month. The actual paper was a magnum opus, and wasn’t submitted until something like November, and has a 1999 publication date on it. The other team saw our preliminary results, lit a fire under themselves, and got their discovery paper out just a few months later.

  • Ben Finney

    Find out what parts they didn’t understand, and fix them.

    Then, after fixing the colleague doesn’t work, fix the parts they didn’t understand.


  • Eugene

    I’ve given a 5 minute talk before (in Columbia U’s astrofest). And sat through a bunch of them.

    I spent too much time trying to figure out how to present the One-New-Thing. I settled on presenting it as “One-Big-Joke”.

    Turns out that, after sitting through 30 talks, the audience were ready for it. I don’t konw if the audience remembered the One-New-Thing — but they did remember the One-Big-Joke, because one of them still needle me about it a year later.


  • Pausner

    Love this sort of advice. I think it should be more widely distributed. I would add, do not, under any circumstances, go over your allotted time. Unless you are a keynote, there are many other people in line to talk and opportunity for questions should be provided.

    An audience hates when a presented goes over his or her limit and bites into the other speakers time. Other speakers also tend to pare their own presentations and, presto, the takeaways from the panel discussion suffer.

  • Martin E.

    One more point on slidesmanship: Never put any important information on the bottom 25% of the slides. No-one more than a few rows back will see it; too many heads in the way.

  • Jane Rigby

    AAS talks can also be used to plug a poster, a paper, or an idea:
    – “We’re getting great results from this new instrument — you should apply for time on it!”
    – “My student has a poster on this tomorrow, #6563, go check it out!”
    – “We are finding very weird abundances for M stars — see our new paper (astro-ph 2997.925).”

  • Pingback: How To Write A 5-Minute Talk()

  • Martin E.

    more unsolicited advice: Don’t use a laser pointer. I can’t remember the last time I saw it used effectively; *everyone* waves the thing around too much to be useful, including me.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2011/01/04/unsolicited-advice-xi-how-to-write-a-5-minute-talk/ Steve R.

    I haven’t given an AAS regular session talk since the switch to 5 minute length – not a protest, just it’s not for me.

  • Count Iblis

    And some powerful laserpointers will actually burn a hole in the screen if you point it at the same spot for too long :) Now, what I’ve done some time ago was to simply announce some interesting results in a few sentences. I decided not to use the 4 minutes we were all given, but instead talk for just 30 seconds. There were then some questions from the audience which I answered and then that led to more questions that could not be answered in the talks sessions, so that led to discussions afterwards.

  • http://page3.com I.P. Freeley

    Wow, this is great advice!

    I guess you didn’t have a chance to read it before your talk. 😉

  • http://www.astro.wisc.edu/~kbarger Kat

    I just wanted to make a quick comment about NGC3314’s advice, which encouraged the usage of poster font that would stay legible in a smaller handout size. Sound advice. I would like to add you can get handouts printed on both sides. For my poster this year I took a decent chunk of my material and throw it on the back – in an organized, coherent, logical manner of course. Though my poster didn’t have an excessive amount of writing, I thought my audience would appreciate the effort to keep their eyes less strained. I would also like to add that these handouts should also include your contact information so they can be used as quasi business cards; make sure to include your email and website.


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