Conference Presentation Faux Pas

I recently attended OSDI 2010 where I sat through about 30 presentations on systems-related topics. I was surprised that there were so many occurrences of things that I think should be avoided when giving a presentation.

In this post, I’m going to outline several things that, in my opinion, you should avoid when giving a talk at a conference. Keep in mind that this is just my opinion and you’re welcome to disagree, but I think you’re wrong and I’ll explain why.

Note that the examples below are all taken from the OSDI slides that were posted after the conference. If you’re an author of one of these presentations, please don’t take it as criticism of your work or you. The criticism is only aimed at your stylistic choices when creating your presentation.

Dark Backgrounds

Dark Background


This is probably the worst decision you can make. Now it’s definitely true that dark backgrounds can look nice. In fact, they can look particularly good on the screen where you created the presentation, which is why I think it’s an attractive choice for a lot of people.

The problem with this is two-fold. First, a more minor reason, is that it’s difficult to keep things consistent when using a dark background. Often you include things like images, tables, diagrams, and graphs. Many of these will have white backgrounds, so to get them to fit with your presentation, it’s extra work that you have to do.

Second, the major reason not to use a dark background is that it makes your slides much harder to read when displayed on a projector. The way that the human eye perceives blackness is relative to what’s around it. When you project black text on a white background, the black color of the text looks very black because of the large, bright, patch of white around it. When you project white text on a black background, the background looks washed out because there isn’t much light around it. This effect is also amplified because projectors can’t actually display a real black color. Black is the absence of light, so a projector simply doesn’t project any light at the pixels that are supposed to be black. Since conferences are always in brightly lit rooms, the black background ends up looking like a pale gray.

Ugly Fonts


This presentation uses the Chalkboard font. It turns what should be a technical diagram into what looks like a 4-year-old’s drawing. It’s very distracting. Comic Sans also made an appearance at OSDI. Please use reasonable fonts. You can also see the poor choice of a dark background here as well.

Outline Slides


I’ll admit that outline slides can have their place. For example, if you’re giving an hour-long talk, it can be nice to give an overview to your audience to tell them what you’re going to cover. When you only have 22 minutes, however, wasting time telling us what you’re going to talk about instead of just talking about it is silly. In this particular talk, they went back to the outline slide each time they switched sections. Even if it only takes a few seconds each time, you probably wasted a full minute just telling me what you were going to talk about. Especially when you’re throwing darts at your bullet points. No clue what they were thinking.

Underlined Text


This is not a deal breaker, but I still advise against it. Underlined text usually looks pretty ugly, as it does here. Avoid it.

Header/Footer on Every Slide



Sometimes these can be tastefully done, but many people abuse it. In the first example, the presentation had a giant bar that says “Facebook” on every single slide. Perhaps it’s company policy; I don’t know, but it looks obnoxious and I don’t need to be reminded every single slide that this presentation is from Facebook. In the second example, it even includes the name of the conference in the footer. I often forget which conference I’m at in the middle of a talk, so I’m glad it was there. But really, you don’t need a header and/or footer on every slide. It’s distracting and unnecessary.

Walls of Text



I think people are wising up to this, but there were still a few cases. If you put too much text on a slide, then one of two things will happen: either people only pay attention to what you say – making the slide ineffective, or they spend time reading the slide instead of listening to you. Instead, use the text on your slide to support and enhance what you’re saying. The first example here just has too much text. The second example has a lot of code. Both make it difficult to simultaneously listen to the speaker and read the slides.

Conclusion

Again, this was just my opinion, but if you can avoid these things, please do. It will enhance your presentation and make it so people don’t get distracted.

  • Good things to fix. However, I suspect most presentations would benefit significantly more from careful thought about which ideas are the most critical to present, and then how best to present just those ideas. And practice.

  • I definitely agree. But even a carefully constructed, well practiced talk can be ruined by a washed out background, ugly text, and a footer on every slide – distracting your audience from your content.

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  • I find, though I haven’t been to many conferences, that presenting complex ideas tend to use a lot of text in presentations. I’d like to see more presenters turn off the projector and use a whiteboard more. In some situations (obviously not all) following the train of thought is much easier that way.

  • Hi Jeff, Thanks for putting this list out there. I think it’s a great starting point. :-)

    Here’s an example of something you *should* do in your research talk: use your slides to aid the audience in understanding your graphs. For example, in Mike Piatek’s “Contracts” talk at NSDI10, when presenting a graph comparing two data series, he would 1) present a slide with just the graph axes, and explain what was on each axis and how it was measured , then 2) introduce the first data series and highlight the relevant features and finally, 3) add the second data series to the graph, making the comparison with the original data series clear. Not every graph followed this pattern exactly, but slides 33-35 are a good example.

    I haven’t been to many conferences, so I don’t know how common his approach is, but it was definitely much more helpful then having to separate the plot lines in my head after the graph was presented, or trying to follow a laser pointer around the slide.

    I think the key lesson here is to present your audience with slides appropriate to what you are talking about and build them up during the talk. The process of building up to a complicated slide is tremendously helpful because it illustrates your thought process. Don’t ask the audience to decipher complicated slides while you speak about little bits at a time — An audience which is deciphering your slide is not listening to what you are saying.

    Time for “An Evaluation of the Ninth OSDI Presentations -or- How (and How Not) to Give a Good Systems Talk”? :-)

  • All great points. I totally agree. I think it would be a lot harder to write that post, so I went the easier route and just gave stylistic things to avoid :)

  • About headers and footers, I cannot totally agree with you. There are some case where they have a useful aspect… for example, a slide set which will be put in download after a conference. If someone turns pages and falls on the schema or the information he was looking after, I consider useful to have a quick glance to the interesting place where this slides has been presented.

    For all other cases, I just agree :)

  • It’s very easy to swap the template when posting online to include a header/footer, so I don’t find that a valid excuse for having it during a presentation.

  • thats very good article thanx for that

  • Very nice post,i really agree with you.

  • Yes, it is always important to give a talk or do a presentation in a way which is well connected with the topic. the font, style and tone of the words used should reflect the nature of the topic. Without cluttering the pages with words or sentences one should keep it simple and talk more about it than letting the audience do all the task.

  • Armut Koltuk

    About headers and footers, I cannot totally agree with you. There are some case where they have a useful aspect… for example, a slide set which will be put in download after a conference. If someone turns pages and falls on the schema or the information he was looking after, I consider useful to have a quick glance to the interesting place where this slides has been presented.

    For all other cases, I just agree :)

  • Thanks for those excellent tips, Jeff…

    Its always nice to hear before presenting, isn’t it? As you had mentioned, we can note down something from the others presentations, some things that we need to do to make the presentation good and something we need to avoid.

  • Good things to fix. However, I suspect most presentations would benefit significantly more from careful thought about which ideas are the most critical to present, and then how best to present just those ideas. And practice.

  • I stumbled across this post while looking for some of the slides from OSDI. Glad to see that none of mine made the list!

    One thing that probably didn’t help is that the camera-ready deadline for OSDI this year was later than usual, only two weeks before the actual conference. I assume this was because there were no printed proceedings. I’m guessing that most of the talks went through less revision or practice as a result.

    I did notice an awful lot of Comic Sans this year. Unfortunately, that font provokes such a visceral feeling of disgust in me that I was unable to concentrate on the content of some of the offending talks. (I am not proud of this.)

  • Quite an interesting post, I personally think the ugly font screen is totally different and in that way engaging, it matches the chalk board background given it a unique template. <

  • Ruizchester20

    think the key lesson here is to present your audience with slides appropriate to what you are talking about and build them up during the talk.

  • Changing the color of chart backgrounds to match the general background is a huge peave of mine.
    I also don’t need to have a synopsis of a 15 minute talk.

  • What a great post, when I first started doing presentations, I think I was guilty of all of those at some point or another.  I like to think I’ve improved somewhat, although I still have a slide every now and again that gets way too wordy.  On that note, I’ll end with I intend to make good use of your suggestions!  

  • I agree. The chalkboard font is hideous, but not even close to as bad as the “nested x86 virtualization” board. That. Is. Horrendous.

  • link building

    I recently attended OSDI 2010 where I sat through about 30 presentations on systems-related topics. 

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  • The commentary on the dark backgrounds is spot on! I couldn’t agree more.

  • Gary Cottam

    Dark backgrounds should be a thing of the past!

  • Nice post.Informative article.

  • Good work and explanation of work is too good..

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  •   About
    headers and footers, I cannot totally agree with you. There are some
    case where they have a useful aspect… for example, a slide set which
    will be put in download after a conference. If someone turns pages and
    falls on the schema or the information he was looking after, I consider
    useful to have a quick glance to the interesting place where this slides
    has been presented.

    For all other cases, I just agree :)

  • Atif Munir

    Great post you have shared here……

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  •  well written post. great work. thanks for sharing this post

  • So informative article and your way to teach us  is nice and agree your all the calculation for presentation.

  • So informative article and your way to teach us  is nice and agree your all the calculation for presentation.

  • I believe visuals play a very strong role in any presentation. Psychologically speaking , human mind has only 1 seconds to form an opinion of the content. In the time of facebook and other social media, people with short attention spans , it’s crucial that presentations are prepared keeping in mind the psychological mindset of people who are so accustomed to social media and clear yet precise details.

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  • I totally agree with you and I must say that individual mind has only 1 a few moments to type a viewpoint of the material. The main thing that graphics play a very powerful part in the presentation.

  • trangvu

    i agree, camera ready deadline is no more validation. in other aspect, i definitely agree with you, graphic is necessary factor for a good presentation

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  • I totally agree with you and I must say that individual mind has only 1
    a few moments to type a viewpoint of the material. The main thing that
    graphics play a very powerful part in the presentation.

  • Presentation need to be meaningful and interesting and I think photos can convey the message very easily.

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  • Good work, you have highlighted important points. One should avoid too much text in slides. Write down only main points in bullets.
    You should present in a way to blow the minds of the audience with meaningful & new information.

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  • I agree. It should be tastefully done and not too much text on the slides. Excellent post