How I live-tweeted my own conference talk

Recently, I wrote about my strategy for preparing scientific talks and promised to follow on that with an example I was preparing at the time. The whole thing took longer to prepare than I had planned, even though the talk itself went smoothly (including the live tweeting!).
Let me start by telling you a story:
Superconducting systems are among the best candidates for quantum computers. Light is ideal for quantum communication owing to low losses and noise. Mechanical oscillators can mediate coupling between microwaves and light. Better performance can be achieved by optimizing for a specific task. We can also use new designs to improve efficiency and bandwidth. Highly efficient transduction is possible using adiabatic state transfer. Transducer bandwidth can be increased by increasing the array size. Reflection from a large number of cavities introduces a phase shift. High conversion efficiency is possible in presence of losses and noise. We must also limit backscattering. Transducer array is an interesting platform for frequency conversion. Generalizations of the system are possible.
Granted, it’s not a compelling read. The sentences form a logical sequence but I simply dropped them down one after the other. There are no links between them, no therefores and becauses. Just one fact after another.
But this story is not supposed to be perfect—it’s the core of my talk. These are the topic sentences I used, one per slide (except for one slide where I had two sentences). This is the story someone who doesn’t really pay attention will see. Those who listen will hear the proper version—all the links between ideas are only for those who listen.
This story goes roughly like this:
Good afternoon, my name is Ondrej Cernotik and I work at the Leibniz University in Hannover. I am going to talk about Novel approaches to optomechanical transduction. The main motivation for this research is the following: superconducting circuits—operating at microwave frequencies—are one of the best platforms for quantum computing. Quantum communication, on the other hand, is best done with light. So, if we want to build quantum networks of superconducting quantum computers, we need a link between microwaves and light.
Such an interface can be provided by a mechanical oscillator that interacts with light via radiation pressure and with a microwave circuit by electrostatic forces. The system can look like this: …
What I say is assisted by the slides that I show. I start with a title slide that shows all the relevant information—title, my name, and affiliation. I continue with a slide showing a picture of a superconducting circuit for quantum computing, then an experiment with quantum communication, followed by a scheme for an optomechanical transducer. Later, I show basic mathematical description of the systems I talk about (the most important rule here is to keep the maths simple!) and simple plots that show how the systems behave.
slides
I can cover the middle ground—not just the basic facts and not the nitty-gritty details—on Twitter. The topic sentences I use are short so it’s no problem to fit more information in a tweet. I can upload figures to make the tweets more appealing or provide additional information. After all, my audience on Twitter is different from the audience at the conference and might need more background.
tweets
And how did I tweet while presenting at a conference? I didn’t actually tweet while talking, of course. There are many tools that enable one to schedule tweet (I used buffer), which get posted at a specified time in the future. That’s where good planning of my talk came in (apart from sticking to the allocated time window, obviously). If I know how much time I’ll spend on each part, I know when I have to tweet.
Originally, I decided to live tweet my talk only to illustrate how identifying the key messages of the talk can work (and to prove to myself that I can do it). But now I think it wasn’t a bad idea and might try it again in the future. I won’t tweet every single slide but only the most critical information. Because making a talk Twitter-friendly is not merely an interesting exercise and a way to make sure that the main message is clear. It’s also a great opportunity to share my work with those who cannot attend or who might enjoy a less technical version of my presentation.
If you’re going to give a talk soon, do give live-tweeting a try! And let me know how it went!
If you want to know more about the details, I storified my tweets and uploaded my presentation to SlideShare. Feel free to check them out!

Scientific presentations and the art of storytelling

How many talks have you attended in the last year? And how many of those did you enjoy? Even when the topic itself is interesting, one often leaves disappointed. Some speakers spend too much time on technical details and do not have time to discuss the main results; others are not well prepared and keep jumping backwards to remind us of something they mentioned ten minutes ago. It’s almost as if they didn’t consider sharing their work important enough to warrant careful preparation.
No matter the situation, I always have to prepare; it’s not entirely voluntary. Because of my stutter, I have to make sure that I know what I’ll say—less stress means that my speech will flow better. These preparations cost me a lot of time that many would spend working on something else. But a thorough preparation often beats my handicap, and my presentation can be above average at a conference.
In the course of my PhD, I developed an effective workflow for preparing academic talks. It takes time (a lot of time, sometimes). It’s not the only method to prepare. And possibly not even the best one. But it works for me. And the main idea is simple enough that anyone else can adapt my approach in no time.
It all boils down to a single piece of advice: You are telling a story, and your job is to make sure it’s a good one. That’s all. If you know what story you want to tell and how you want to tell it, you’re prepared.

The what

Figuring out your story is the most critical part. There are many ways how you can frame your research in the context of existing work. Maybe you started studying social behaviour of dolphins because you love the animals. Or you think that we can learn from them and improve our own relationships. Or you want to understand the variations between dolphin species.
You will also have to choose the right story for your audience. A group of academics might not care for your love of dolphins but it can be a good way to connect with a class of middleschoolers. Different academic audiences will want to hear different talks as well.
Finally, your story will depend on the time allocated for your talk. If you have to give a short talk, you can’t delve into all the fascinating details of your work; you have to pick the most interesting and important results.

The how

Once you figured out the story you want to tell, you can think about how to tell it. This is, of course, entirely up to you, but there’s one rule you should follow if you’re preparing a powerpoint/keynote presentation: Each slide should be one step forward. Not more, not less. If you jump forward too fast, you’ll lose your audience; if you’re too slow, you’ll bore them.
To ensure that I stick to this rule, I design each slide around a short sentence. This way, it is easy for the audience to understand what the main message is. The rest of the slide supports this statement—by illustrations, equations, or graphs.
Once my presentation is ready, I make a simple check that I created a good story: I copy all sentences into an empty document and make sure that they build on each other. Each sentence is a logical step in a sequence leading to the grand finale. If this is not the case, I can see where the problem is and rewrite the spot accordingly. In the end, each slide is a concise, independent idea and together they form my story arc. Each slide is so simple that I could tweet it if I want.
The rest is practice, practice, practice. I make sure I know how to transition from one slide to the next without awkward pauses. This also gives me an idea about how much time I need. I identify places where I can speed up if need be and create a few checkpoints throughout the presentation—I write down how much time I need to get to particular slides. When presenting, I can see whether I’m following my schedule and adjust my tempo as I present.

Example

I will show you my approach on an actual presentation I will be giving in a few days. This week, the annual spring meeting of the German Physical Society is taking place in Mainz. On the last day of the conference, Friday, March 10 at 15:15 CET (9:15 am EST) I am giving a presentation about my current research.
Since not everyone can attend my talk, I will tweet it live. For me, it will be an interesting experiment. For everyone else, it’s an opportunity to follow my presentation; you will also see how I can fit each slide into a tweet. Later (probably next week) I will write a second blog post in this miniseries looking into this talk in more detail and comparing it with the live tweeted version.