How to Give a Bad Practice Talk

Computer and Information Sciences Department
University of Pennsylvania
January 2008
Updated April 2008

You have a conference presentation or job talk to give. You've decided to ignore Commandment X from How to Give a Bad Talk (Thou shalt not practice), so you're giving a public practice talk. Or you were "forcefully encouraged" to give a group practice talk. Either way, below is a list of tips for giving a bad practice talk. The goal of these tips is to avoid work at all costs by skimping on preparation, wasting the time of others, and minimizing useful suggestions.

Ten tips for giving a bad practice talk

I. Start late

  • All talks start late, right? People expect to sit around wasting their time. Why waste your time by showing up early and making sure the video projection system works? Why waste your time just to avoid wasting the time of everyone else?

II. Don't invite anyone, especially anyone outside your research area

  • Don't advertise the talk widely, don't e-mail individuals asking them to come, and certainly don't ask anyone in person if they would do you the favor of attending. Remember, the larger the audience, the more suggestions. The more suggestions, the more time you'll waste incorporating them. Furthermore, don't provide snacks or donuts as a way of encouraging attendance and showing your appreciation to those that attend.

    Even if you do invite some colleagues to attend, be sure to invite only those colleagues that are most familiar with your work. Why would you want suggestions from someone outside your field? This is an especially important tip for practice job interview talks.

III. Don't return the favor

  • If you're invited to a practice talk (especially one outside your area), don't waste your time attending. What do you have to learn from others? Besides, what could you possibly learn from a talk outside your research area?

IV. Don't plan ahead

  • Why give more than a day advance notice when scheduling the practice talk? Also, be sure to give the practice talk the day before the conference as to minimize the time you have to incorporate suggestions. Finally, don't reserve the practice room long enough to allow those in attendance to actually give you their suggestions.

V. Don't bring hardcopy printouts of your slides

  • Why make it easy for your colleagues to correct typos or give concrete written suggestions? Besides, paper is expensive, so if you do bring some printouts, don't bring enough of them.

VI. Don't put slide numbers on your slides

  • As in tip V, why make it easy to give suggestions? Also, if someone asks to go to back to a specific slide number, be sure to flip through each slide one-by-one rather than just typing in the slide number into PowerPoint and hitting "enter".

VII. Don't take notes on the suggestions you receive

  • Don't bring anything to write with so that you have no way of taking notes on the suggestions you receive. You have a perfect photographic memory and you can remember 350 detailed comments, right? And if you forget a few, no problem. That's just less work for you later.

VIII. Argue with those giving you suggestions

  • Being open to suggestions is just a sign of weakness. Be defensive and argue against any suggestions you receive. Alternatively, just be dismissive of all suggestions and stubbornly refuse to incorporate them.

IX. Make excuses

  • Why have a complete talk ready? Your audience will enjoy spending their time listening to a poor practice talk if you explain that you are too important and too busy to have the time to properly prepare. If you've received prior suggestions on the talk, explain that you were too busy to have incorporated them.

X. Don't Practice

  • Finally, don't practice on your own. Why would you practice just for a practice talk? It's a practice talk, right? So it should be as rough as possible. Entire sections should be missing, yet you should be twice as long as it should be. This ensures that your audience spends all its effort on figuring out how to make your bad practice talk acceptable (versus figuring out how to make a good practice talk great).

As with the tips for giving a bad talk, tip X is the most important. Even if you ignore the other nine, tip X is the key to giving a bad practice talk.

Bonus Tip: advice for giving suggestions

  • As an audience member giving suggestions after a practice talk, never take the time to point out anything positive. Why focus on the positive aspects of the practice talk (for the benefit of both the speaker and the others in attendance) when jumping right into nasty and negative comments is easier and will make a lasting impression on the speaker? Also, be sure to jump right into gritty detailed comments and typos before giving any high-level or structural comments.


For those that don't appreciate tongue-in-cheek advice, the actual suggestions can be boiled down to: be ready to start on time, invite people to the talk (especially those outside your area), attend other practice talks, plan ahead, bring printouts for the audience for recording their comments, number your slides, graciously accept suggestions, don't make excuses, and be prepared. When giving suggestion after a practice talk, always point out positive and high-level aspects first and always provide constructive suggestions.

Disclaimer: I personally have learned most of these tips over the years. I share these tips in the spirit of helping others avoid learning them the hard way.


This document's style (and some substance) follows from David Patterson's How to Give a Bad Talk and How to Have a Bad Career in Research/Academia, David Wood and Mark Hill's Conference Etiquette, and Mark Hill's Ten Commandments for Poor Technology Transfer.

Thanks to Mark Hill, Zack Ives, E Lewis, and Dan Sorin for useful suggestions for improvement of this document.

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