Short, Non-Technical Talks Are Hard

I just gave my talk Testing Concurrent Programs, A 7-Minute Jargon-Free Introduction to the students of the Thesis Writing Seminar of the School of Engineering here at Rice. It went very well, but I’ve got to say that this was probably the most difficult talk I’ve had to prepare.

It is a 7-minute talk to an audience of smart engineering graduate students who generally are in all kinds of different fields. You can’t really use jargon or assume too much background knowledge and be too technical, otherwise you might lose your audience. You also can’t spend too much time explaining concepts. And at eight minutes, you get cut off.

I’ve really had to cut the number of slides down, gloss over a few things, and unfortunately also ignore some achievements that I think are really cool, like the reachability check of the join graph, which prevents “lucky” threads. Because of the extremely short time, practicing the talk pays off a lot, because your explanations just have to work. You don’t have time to start over.

The talk went very well and received unanimously positive feedback. What people liked the most was that it was virtually jargon-free, that the animations were simple and helpful, and that I was able to simplify the concepts and make them accessible to non-computer scientists without talking down to them.

Again, I finished working on the presentation only an hour before the talk, and my delivery definitely could have benefited from more time to practice. I also still haven’t figured out how to take a sip of water while giving a talk, but seven minutes fortunately were not long enough to develop a serious case of dry mouth.

Interestingly, Rui Zhang’s talk about software transactional memory was next, and my talk served as a good introduction.


About Mathias

Software development engineer. Principal developer of DrJava. Recent Ph.D. graduate from the Department of Computer Science at Rice University.
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