A Reflection on Giving ONLINE Talks

By Dr. Laura Colmenarejo and Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez

Acknowledgments: Special THANKS to Matthias Beck, Sophie Rehberg, and the Discrete Geometry Group/The Villa at FU Berlin.

Dr. Laura Colmenarejo is currently a Marshall H. Stone Visiting Assistant Professor at the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez is a PhD candidate at the Department of Mathematics at the University of Kentucky.

Early in 2020 during, January and February, the second author was visiting the FU Berlin Discrete Geometry group where they held a weekly “soft skills” seminar and one of the topics was on how to give a good talk.  After coming back the second author wrote “A Reflection on Giving Talks,” where he compiled some feedback he received about a talk he gave and the advice presented in the soft skills seminar.  Putting the advice into practice for in-person talks was short-lived since the coronavirus has pushed the field to modify the way seminar and conference talks are presented: ONLINE.  

In November, both authors were invited to facilitate the soft skills seminar on the topic of online talks.  Both authors have experience in organizing and facilitating online math conferences and seminars.  For instance, the first author co-organized AlCoVE (Algebraic Combinatorial Virtual Expedition) in June 15-16, and FPSAC (Formal Power Series in Algebraic Combinatorics) during July 3-30, with 27 talks and more than 50 posters distributed during a total of 12 virtual sessions distributed among time zones all over the world.  The second author co-organizes the Discrete Combinatorics, Algebra, Topology, and Statistics (CATS) seminar at the University of Kentucky and the Graduate Online Combinatorics Colloquium (GOCC).  Moreover, both authors participated in AIM UP (Advancing Inquiry/Inclusion in Mathematics Undergraduate Program), a virtual research experience for undergraduates,  during July 6-31 where they mentored undergraduate students on projects focusing on parking functions

Despite the transition to mainly online talks, much of the advice in “A Reflection on Giving Talks” still holds, but we detail a few points here related to online talks with the hope that they may help others in their preparation and presentation of online talks. 

Preparation Ideas:

    • Prepare some slides or notes that you can use during your talk. Some seminars use the following rule: 20 minutes for a pre-seminar + 10 minutes break + 30 minutes for the research talk. The pre-seminar should be aimed for undergraduate and graduate students. 
    • Leave space to annotate during your talk, or even to answer questions. 
    • Leave space for small examples that you have done before, but do not do long or complex computations during your talk. 
    • Take special attention with the colors and the font you will be using. 
    • Preparation reflection: What’s your goal for this talk? Collaboration, presenting results, describing a new project you are working on and the problems you are looking at, etc. 
    • Know your audience by asking about it in advance or looking at the seminar/conference websites or list of participants. You could also attend another session of the seminar if it is a recurring meeting. 
    • Have back-up technology or presentation in case something does not work.  For example, at one seminar a speaker had trouble using their tablet to give their online version of a “board talk.” Fortunately, this speaker had prepared a PDF with notes that they then screenshared and filled in details if needed. 
    • If possible, make your slides/notes accessible before the talk. Have a link ready or file to share with the audience.

On the day of your talk:

      • Pre-talk ritual: these days it is hard to focus and get into the mood for a talk. Find a few things that help you prepare to give a talk. For instance, review your notes, meditate for a few minutes, listen to some music, eat something.
      • Turn off the notifications on your devices, so you are not disturbed during your talk.   
      • Prepare the physical space from where you will be giving your talk: make sure there is good light and that you look good on camera, have some water or another drink nearby, check that you feel comfortable talking to the camera with how your setup is.  
      • Connect a few minutes earlier, between 5 and 10 minutes, and schedule your talk for also another extra 5-10 minutes after the end. 
      • Check with the organizers if there is some pre-talk or after-talk informal meeting or tea-meeting with the audience.

During your talk:

    • If you cannot see the chat, let them know and ask for someone to interrupt you in case there are questions posted on the chat. 
    • If you feel uncomfortable with having all cameras off, invite some collaborators or colleagues and ask them to have their cameras on, or ask the organizers to do it. 
    • Check with the audience that they can hear you without issues and that they can see your pointer as you move it around on your screen, whether it’s your laptop mouse or a pointer from an app. 
    • Recall that many people still take notes during talks, and take your time delivering your talk and give space for people to ask questions. One good way could be to pause for 3 to 5 seconds between slides. 
    • Recall that the audience is watching you as much as your slides and your attitude and mannerisms matter.
    • We should be mindful and minimize going between screens and technical-setups or switching back and forth between windows.  Minimize pressing a lot buttons to avoid confusion for yourself and to not distract from the point of your talk. (Thank you Sophie for this point!)

After your talk:

    • Follow up on questions that were interesting and that could lead to collaborations. 
    • Take notes of what did work and what didn’t, of typos in your slides, or interesting notes that you could use during future talks (both related to the research and about the experience). 
    • Post-talk ritual: Talks are intense and require a lot of energy from us. Take some time to relax, hydrate and eat something, before switching to some other tasks. 

Other ideas:

    • Giving the same talk in different seminars/environments lead to different experiences and there are many factors that affect how we feel about our talks. Some of them are related to us and we can work on them, some are not and we cannot control them. 
    • Be yourself before the talk, during the talk, and after the talk. 
    • Include jokes or have a list of topics to talk about before or after the talk if you are not comfortable in those situations.

We hope you have fun and enjoy giving your online talks! 



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About Andrés R. Vindas Meléndez

I am currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Kentucky working under the guidance of Benjamin Braun. I am also an affiliated graduate student in the Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino/a Studies program. Before coming to Kentucky, I earned a master's degree in mathematics at San Francisco State University where my advisors were Federico Ardila and Matthias Beck. I completed my undergraduate degree in mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley where I also minored in Philosophy and Chicana/o & Latina/o Studies. If you are interested in my research & writing, teaching, upcoming activities & travel, or CV, I invite you to visit my personal webpage: http://www.ms.uky.edu/~arvi222 .
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