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How to speak by Patrick Winston

These are the refresher notes for Patrick Winston’s “How to speak” talk, a part of How to Speak MIT OpenCourseWare.

How to start

Don’t start with a joke (people are not ready, they are adjusting to your manner of speaking, vocal parameters, tuning themselves)

Do start with an empowerment promise. Tell what the audience is about to know by the end of the talk. It’s the reason they come.


Cycle on a subject. Go around it, reiterate and repeat. About 20% of your audience will forget what you were presenting, no matter what. So if you want to ensure that the probability that everybody gets it is high, you need to say it three times.

Build a fence around an idea you are talking about. Define similarities and differences with boarding concepts. So that it is not confused with somebody else’s ideas.

Verbal punctuation. Because people will occasionally fog out and need to get back on the bus, you need to provide some landmark places where you’re announcing that it is a good time to get back on.

Ask a question to help people get back on the bus. How long to wait for an answer? 7 seconds is the standard amount of time you can wait for an answer.

Time and places

Points to consider:


11 AM is best

  • People are awake by then. 
  • It is not right after a meal. 
  • People aren’t fatigued.


  • Well lit. Whenever the lights go down, or whenever the room is dimly lighted, it signals that we should go to sleep.
  • The place should be cased (movie theatre is a bad choice for science talk).
  • Reasonably populated.


Blackboard, chalk -> when informing, teaching, lecturing.

Slides -> when exposing (ideas).

Blackboards introduce the graphics to the talk and allow the optimal speed. The speed with which you write on the blackboard is approximately the speed at which people can absorb ideas. If you go flipping through a bunch of slides, nobody can go that fast.

Target (pointing to the board (use your hands))


Use board and props and less of slides (empathetic mirroring).


  • Use fewer slides with fewer words.
  • Stand near to the screen to avoid the tennis match effect.
  • Simplify:
    • get rid of the background junk (including logos. This is always a distraction)
    • get rid of the words
    • eliminate clutter (no bullet points, etc.)
    • get rid of the title (tell the title, it doesn’t have to be on the slide)
  • Use a font size between 40-50. This will not you allow to put too many words on a slide)
  • No laser pointers (you lose contact with the audience). If you need to point at something, put an arrow on the slide (and number).

By reducing the number of words on the slide, you allow the audience to pay more attention to you and less to what’s written. We only have one language processor, and we can either use it to read stuff or listen to the speaker.
Too many words on the slide forces people to read and not listen.

Quality check:

  • Lay all slides as a table to see if the talk is too heavy (not enough imagery, no air, too much text). 
  • Hapax legomenon – No more than one heavy slide per presentation! It has to be justified (to show complexity, for example). 
  • If there is a text, allow the audience time to read it.



Some are inspired by someone who tells them they could do it, others are inspired by someone who helped them to see a problem in a new way, but everyone is inspired when someone exhibited passion about what they were doing)

How to think

Storytelling! Provide people with:

  • stories they need to know
  • questions they need to ask about those stories
  • mechanisms for analysing those stories
  • ways of putting stories together
  • ways of evaluating how reliable a story is


Job talks

Show you have a vision and you have done something – demonstrate all this in less then 5 minutes.

Vision is (in part) a problem someone cares about and something new in your approach.

Vision = problem and approach.

How do you express the notion that you’ve done something? 

– By listing the steps that need to be taken to achieve the solution. You don’t have to do all of those steps. But you can say here’s what needs to be done.


  • We need to specify some behaviour.
  • We need to enumerate the constraints that make it possible to deal with that behaviour.
  • We have to implement a system.
  • And we’ve built such a system, and we’re about to demonstrate it to you today.

Conclude by enumerating your contributions. Talk about your research in context.

Getting Famous

How you are going to be recognised for what you do


Your ideas are like your children. And you don’t want them to go into the world in rags. You want to be sure that you have these techniques, mechanisms and thoughts about how to present ideas that you have in a way that they’re recognised for the value that is in them. That’s why it’s a legitimate thing to concern yourself with “packaging”.


How do you get remembered? How to ensure that your work is recognised?

If you want your presentation ideas to be remembered, one of the things you need to do is to make sure that you have some kind of :

  • Symbol associated with your work.
  • Slogan – a phrase that provides a handle on the work.
  • Surprise
  • Salient idea (not necessarily important, but the idea that sticks out)
  • Story (of how you did it, how it works, why it’s important.)

How to Stop

Final slide

What to put on a final slide?

  • Collaborators. NO! Put them on the first slide.
  • Questions? NO! This is the worst possible way to end a talk. Because this slide can be up there for 20 minutes.
  • Links. NO! Nobody follows them, and this wastes an opportunity. 
  • The END! NO!
  • Thank you! NO! All these lines do nothing for you. They waste an opportunity for you to leave people with who you are. 
  • List of Conclusions. OK. But if you say these are my conclusions, these will be perfectly legitimate conclusions that nobody cares about. What they care about is what you have done
  • And that’s why your final slide should have this label: CONTRIBUTIONS.

Final words

How to finish the talk?


Thank you. Saying “Thank you” after the talk is a weak move. It suggests that everybody has stayed that long out of politeness and that they had a profound desire to be somewhere else. But they are so polite, they stuck it out. And that’s what you’re thanking them for.

Once wild applause has started, you can mouth a thank you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the last thing you do should not be saying thank you.


  • Tell a joke. This will be the last thing people will remember, so they will think they has a great time.
  • Salute the audience. Say something about how much you value your time at a place. So I could say, well, it’s been great fun being here. It’s been fascinating to see what you folks are doing here at MIT. I’ve been much stimulated and provoked by the kinds of questions you’ve been asking; it’s been really great. And I look forward to coming back on many occasions in the future.
 I'm glad you're here. And the reason is by being here, I think you have demonstrated an understanding that how you present and how you package your ideas is an important thing. And I salute you for that. And I suggest that you come back again and bring your friends.
Prof. Winston's closing words for the talk

Patrick Winston. RES.TLL-005 How to Speak. January IAP 2018. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare, https://ocw.mit.edu. License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

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