Tips for Giving a Fantastic Conference Talk

At SSC coming up next month, we have a lot of student speakers who are new to academic presentations. To help them out, I had a chat with a few superstar Australian combinatorialists [previous winners of the CMSA Anne Penfold Street Student Prize at the Australasian Combinatorics Conference (ACC)] for tips on giving a standout research talk at a mathematical conference.  

Huge thank you to the following people for taking the time to answer my questions. I’ve written their current affiliation and the year in which they won the prize.

  • Joanne Hall – RMIT (2009)
  • Sara Herke – University of Queensland (2011)
  • Daniel Horsely – Monash University (2005)
  • Mark Ioppolo (2015)
  • Dillion Mayhew – Victoria University of Wellington (2001)
  • Kerri Morgan – Deakin University (2008)
  • Florian Lehner  – University of Auckland (2013)

A quick note, there are infinitely many ways to give a good talk. People are different, and giving a good talk is partly about finding a style that works for you. All advice like this should be taken with a grain of salt. With that said, here are some helpful pointers.

Writing the talk

Know who you are writing your talk for. Conference talks are primarily for exposure to new ideas and entertainment, and detailed discussions can come afterwards. I always wrote my talks for an imaginary maths PhD student who had started research in my field the week prior. I aim to tell a story about the key ideas, why they are worth thinking about and the story of how the research problem came into existence. – Mark

As a format, talks are bad for conveying rigour and details but great for giving a big picture perspective. Before I write anything, I think hard about the big picture story I want to tell. Then, I try to be ruthless about leaving out anything that isn’t contributing to that story. – Daniel

I try to require as little background knowledge as possible. If I’m unsure whether a definition is too basic, I tend to include it. It is easier to quickly skip over a definition that everyone knows than to make it up as I go, in case half of the audience doesn’t. I’d only give the technical details necessary to get the main point of the talk across (this is especially true for short talks). If I absolutely need a technical definition or lemma, I make sure that I spend enough time explaining it. – Florian

The most common weakness in graduate presentations is a lack of explanatory motivation. When I suggest to my graduate students that they should include more background material, sometimes they resist the idea. Often, they think that their audience couldn’t possibly need that much explanation. But remember that no one in the world knows as much about your topic as you do! The material you think of as utterly basic is only basic to you because you’ve thought deeply about the problem. Your audience doesn’t have that experience, and they need help to get up to speed. – Dillon


Keep your slides visually simple. It is difficult for an audience member to read lots of text while also trying to listen to you talk. When explaining a difficult concept or construction, it can be very effective to demonstrate it via an example. – Sara

If the main idea of a proof can be conveyed by a picture, then I usually don’t bother writing it out on the slides. If the image needs some explanation, it is easier to do this orally than write it on the slides. If there is text on a slide that I want people to read, I give them time to read it before moving on (“read it aloud in my head”). If there is text on a slide that people should not read, then it probably shouldn’t have been there in the first place. I have occasionally broken this rule, flashing a detailed definition for a few seconds while telling people not to read it. I will immediately give an intuitive explanation illustrated by a picture. – Florian 

I would always write up my slides and then go through them multiple times to cut out as much notation and technical detail as possible. – Mark

The final slide should summarise the main result and list related or further work. Careful design of the last slide can influence the questions your audience will make (and allow you to present some further work). Also, the final slide doesn’t need to be the ‘final’ slide. You can include hidden slides with data, results, additional proofs etc. and use these slides when answering questions. – Kerri


Practise in front of a few people and ask for feedback, or you can even practice by recording yourself. When practising, I always find something that I can improve in my slides or explanation. I think I practised my first ACC talk at least 10 times! But it was worth it because, in the end, I knew my slides so well I could just focus on connecting with the audience, and I received the student prize that year! – Sara

Polish the presentation using feedback from peers. Do a practice run with your research group. My PhD cohort used to present our talks to each other during lunch, followed by enthusiastic feedback. They were the harshest critics, but I believe this contributed to the success of my presentation. – Kerri

Giving the talk

Be aware of the time! Even experienced presenters run over. Another advantage of practising your talk out loud is that you can feel how much time you will use. Think in advance about slides you can skip or glide over quickly if you find yourself short of time. – Dillon 

When giving the talk, I try to convey some energy and enthusiasm. A talk is a performance of sorts – it’s okay to throw yourself into it. – Daniel

Sometimes things go wrong, but you can turn the situation to your advantage. I once fell off the stage giving a presentation. Rather than being an embarrassing mishap, it increased the audience’s attention and initiated a conversation that led to more research. – Kerri

Dress in a way that makes you feel confident, whether it’s a suit, fancy shoes, bright colours or a t-shirt with a maths joke. – Joanne

I hope these tips help and I wish you the best of luck for future talks. If you are a student in combinatorics or combinatorics-related fields and want to practice your presentation skills, I highly encourage you to attend SSC. Registration is free and open now. Hope to see you there!

This article was inspired by the Neumann Talk, a podcast where Yudhi interviews the BH Neumann Prize winners. If you enjoyed this, please check it out!

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