Giving a Talk in Philosophy


This page is primarily intended for students, and for philosophers at early stages in their careers. These people have often given a small number of talks and received little or no input on their presentations. If more experienced philosophers also find the page useful, so much the better.

The below are my opinions, for what they are worth. I do have strong opinions about presentations (as about most things), and since I am not forcing anyone to read this I express them here without mincing my words. I hope you can draw some benefit from this page; if not, just browse elsewhere. Feedback on the page is very welcome.

For students I strongly recommend consulting Jim Pryor's excellent Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper.


A number of philosophers give good, well-prepared presentations, but many don't. But why should we care about this? Is it not the content that matters?

First, unnecessarily giving a bad presentation is impolite. Clever people with busy schedules will be listening, so the presenter owes the audience to create as good a presentation as she can, in return. While genuinely unforseen things do happen, giving an under-prepared presentation should be the rare exception, and not the rule.

Consider the time spent by your audience in attending your talk. With a 25-minute talk, a 25-minute Q&A, and 20 people attending, one thousand minutes were spent on your talk, that could have been spent otherwise. Keep this in mind when you prepare. If philosophers committed to spending even a quarter of the audience-time to prepare their presentations, the standard of talks would improve a dramatically. (You will need to spend much longer on working out the actual issues, of course.)

Second, giving a bad presentation is also imprudent. People will lose concentration, and not ask a question, or not ask as good a question. A large part of the Question and Answer ('Q&A') session will be spent clearing up confusions, and it will take longer to get to the really important issues, if they come out at all.

Chances are you decided to give a presentation precisely to get feedback, to improve your thinking and your work. Even if you present only because you have to, you have a golden opportunity to learn. Bad presentations routinely get in the way of useful feedback. You can't guarantee a good Q&A by giving a good presentation, but you can maximise your chances.

Finally, giving a bad presentation is also damaging to your reputation as a philosopher. The less your audience is familiar with you and your work the larger the impact of a bad presentation will be, so graduate students and early career researchers have a special reason to prepare their presentations carefully.

1. Do NOT Read

Do not read your talk out from a manuscript. For the audience, such a "presentation" is
  • hard to follow
  • much less useful than just reading the paper or chapter
  • boring
  • irritating

Written prose is simply not suited for oral presentation. The level of detail that can be included in written prose cannot be sustained in an oral the presentation. When reading a text, one can re-read difficult passages, remind oneself of definitions, arguments and other key points. If a manuscript is read out aloud, the audience cannot do any of these things.

A read talk is usually very boring to listen to. A person who reads out from a manuscript is and appears disengaged from her audience; her main focus is the page in front of her. But the focus should be on the audience. Your goal is to engage the audience, gauge their reactions, and even modify your presentation based on what you learn. A good presenter adds more explanation on points she notices that the audience has not grasped, and moves on earlier than planned from points that have already sunk in. It is not impossible to do this when reading out from a manuscript, but in practice the difference here is enormous.

From text to presentation

Some people want to read out from a manuscript because they are nervous. That is perfectly understandable; one of my role models, a good, young philosopher, never sleeps before giving a talk. Reading out one's paper is, however, the wrong response. It leads to a worse result, not a better one. It is also wholly unnecessary.

Perhaps you prefer having the paper that you base your talk on written out in its entirety before the presentation. This might make you feel properly prepared. Good. While that text should not be what you present, you can work toward a good presentation with it as a basis.

A good way to go is to reduce the text to dot points with short phrases. No full sentences, just key phrases or words that remind you of the point that you wish to make. Practice giving the presentation using only those dot points as your guide. At first, you will occasionally consult the full manuscript, but after a while you will find way of saying the things that does not duplicate the written prose, and that comes naturally to you. This is very important, since a presenter who speaks naturally is much easier to understand.

You want to explain your points to your audience, lead them along a thought process with you. You are unlikely to accomplish that by reading aloud, but you can accomplish that with a list of dot points in front of you. The list will help you keep the structure clear, and cover all the points you need to cover, without killing your audience with boredom.

Of course, it is possible to write a text specifically in order to later read it out, and the result is very different from reading out a text that was not prepared in this way. Perhaps this is an acceptable step along the way to a better presentation form. Still, this method is much inferior to relying on dot-points, since it almost invariably leads the presenter to be much less engaged with the audience, much less attuned to their reactions, a much less fluid and natural presentation, etc. etc.

2. Start with a simple overview

It is easy to over-estimate how much your audience knows about the area your talk fits in to. Even if they are all very clever, impressive, and scary, they may know very little of the background to your talk; philosophy is now very specialised. So, start by giving a very simple overview.

Situate the talk in the philosophical landscape. One way to do this is to recount the way one gets to the specific question you are concerned with, from much more general questions, which the audience will probably be familiar with.

Explain key assumptions and terms. The participants in a given sub-sub-sub-debate (or 'cottage industry') have often all taken on certain key assumptions, and this is now the basis for further debate. If you don't mention this to your audience, the result will be confusion. And if terms have a very specific meaning you must say what that meaning is, if you want your audience to follow.

3. Do not attempt to cover too much

An extremely common mistake is to try to present too much, and too complicated, material.

It's easy to understand why this happens. The more you work on philosophical material, the more you see connections between the question you're interested in and other issues. You see how your argument hangs together with, and hinges on, other questions and positions. When you present, you want to be thorough. So there's a great temptation to try to cover all the things which you think your argument depends on.

Often you will have worked on the material you present for months. You know it very well. You have had time to think through the points, to realise, in your own time, how the argument structures hang together. It is therefore very easy to significantly underestimate how long it will take your audience to grasp various points, and to overestimate how complex and long an argument structure the audience can take in.

Presenting too much material will make it impossible for your audience to follow your presentation. They will become bored, and disengaged. Some that would have asked a question to a talk they could follow will now not ask one, and the quality of the other questions will be reduced.

It is impolite to give this sort of talk. You are not putting on a spectacle, trying to impress your audience with the quantity of thoughts you have had. The audience is giving you their time. The least you can do is to give them a fair shot at engaging with the material you present.

You will probably not be able to present as much as you would like, and you may have to simplify the material. That's ok. If you have simplified an argument and someone asks about it in Q&A, you know how to answer. And no-one will think worse of you for giving a talk which people can actually follow.

To help your audience, speak slowly and pause frequently to allow a point to sink in, and to give people time to think. This will probably be uncomfortable. But it will make for a much better and more useful presentation. (In fact, a good heuristic to get the speed right is to speak .... so .... slowly that it does feel uncomfortable.)

4. Practice your presentation

Practising giving the presentation beforehand has so many benefits that it is hard to believe that anyone presents without doing this. Practising will help you avoid pretty much all the pitfalls of a bad presentation. Practising allows you to find good ways of saying things in a way that is natural to you. It allows you to catch a bad example or an unhelpful aside before a full audience has to listen to it. It allows you to get the timing of your talk (much closer to being) right. And it allows you to go in with less nerves. Do practice giving your presentation.

You can practice by yourself or in front of a couple of friends. Practising in front of people is especially useful. For one, it will help you find out whether you are presupposing too much, especially if those you are practising in front of are not exactly in the same area as you.

In either case, you should aim to go through the talk as you would have with an audience. The first couple of times, if you are like me, you will stop to make adjustments or write something down. This is useful, but makes the practice run less useful for timing purposes. That means you have to practice multiple times to get all the benefit. It's not crazy to practice five times (remember the point about audience time).

Also consider recording your presentation. Uncomfortable though it is, this can be very useful.

5. Be abundantly clear about key points

It is extremely frustrating to walk out of a talk without a clear idea of what the presenter wanted to argue, what the argument supporting that conclusion was supposed to be, or other key points. If your audience does not know what thesis you are defending, and does not understand how you want to support that conclusion, the talk was very likely a waste of everyone's time.

At the very least, the audience should never be in doubt about what your conclusion is or about how you want to support it, because you should tell them.

This can be challenging. It is not uncommon to feel like one does not exactly know what one is trying to argue. But if you are presenting it is your responsibility to get clear on this, and to then tell your audience, in as clear a way as you possibly can. If you can't do this, you are generally not ready to present. (There are exceptions, for work-in-progress seminars etc.)

It's a good idea to both start and end your talk with clear statements of what your conclusion is, and how you support it. If you think you have concluded more than what fits in three or four dot points, you have tried to present too much.

6. Ensure that the structure is apparent at all times

A good philosophy paper is characterised by its structure being apparent to the reader at all times. In a talk, this is even more important. When reading a paper, you can go back and remind yourself of anything you have forgotten, and you can re-situate the discussion you are reading right at that moment in the overall structure. In a talk, it is largely up to the presenter to help the audience do this.

As in a written paper, signposting is the key. Tell the audience at the start of the talk what the structure will be. As you move along, remind them of where in the overall structure the current discussion fits in.

Some pay lip-service to this by having an overview of sections at the start, and then mentioning the title of a new section as they start it. This is insufficient.

What the audience needs to know is where in the argumentative structure the various parts fit. Tell them that. One way of doing this is by having a talk divided into sections that coincide with the logical structure of the talk. That is helpful, but it is not sufficient on its own. Be ever mindful that it is easy for you to see how things hang together, but hard for those attending your talk to do so. Interspersing your talk with reminders of the overall structure, and how a particular point fits in, is very good practice. Don't be afraid to sound boring or repetitive. Chances are very high you won't be.

7. Use a visual aid

Use a hand-out, the white or black board, or slides (powerpoint, keynote, beamer) for your presentation. The visual aid must be easy to read. Do not use fancy fonts, or too small typeface. Use it to help your audience:

  • understand the structure of your argument
  • understand subsidiary arguments
  • know where in the overall structure a particular bit of discussion fits in
  • remember key points
  • understand how you use key terms
  • keep track of your assumptions
and similar things. Do not design the visual aid to help you to know what to say next. Use a different aid (e.g. a list of dot-points) for this purpose.

To see this, note that the criterion for including a dot-point on an aid for the speaker is whether the speaker needs it to be there to remember everything she wants to say. That is not the criterion for whether something should go on a visual aid that the audience uses (such as a slide). A point should go on a slide if it aids the audience in some way (to see the structure, remember key points, etc). It should not go on the slide otherwise.

You should not have full sentences on your visual aid. There are exceptions, for regimented arguments, definitions, etc. But far too many philosophers think that a cut-and-paste from their written manuscript onto a slide presentation means they have created a visual aid. It does not.

A lot of text on a slide is a hindrance, not an aid for the audience. Keywords and short phrases can be read while you draw breath or pause, but full sentences usually cannot. If your audience is reading your slide while listening to you, these two compete for attention, and they will retain less of both, and understand both less well. If a point on your slide can't be read in less than 2 second, it's probably too long.

Long quotes are nearly always a hindrance. In a written paper they have a place, but in an oral presentation they nearly never do. Instead, summarise what you take that person to be saying. Draw out the key points that matter for your argument. If someone doubts that you have gotten it right this can be addressed in Q&A, or, even better, after the talk.

If you absolutely have to include a long piece of text, it is best for you not to read it aloud. Instead, be quiet for about twice as long as you think it will take even the slowest reader in the audience to read the text. Only thereafter do you continue, addressing the content of that text. A person reading along while listening to you speak will retain and understand less than a person who just reads it.

Do not include formulas and other formalism unless you have to, and unless you plan to go through it in detail. Formalism of any kind is time-consuming to absorb. If your audience is trying to parse a formula, this will compete for attention with listening to you.

8. Other points

Keep on time

Partly as a consequence of wanting to cover a lot of material, many people go over time in their presentations. That is a very bad idea. If you go over time, you have obviously tried to present too much material. You are also saying to the audience that you are less interested in hearing what they have to say than in pressing on with your own material. That is not very polite.

A presentation should usually be limited to 45 minutes. This is already pushing everyone's attention span, and longer is in my view just detrimental. Even if you're allotted one hour, aim for a shorter presentation. A longer Q&A is to the good.

Eye contact

Try to keep in eye contact with your audience. If you never look at the audience you will appear disengaged, but if you meet people's eyes, they will feel that it's important to you that they follow. This can be difficult, but it is important. Don't try to fool the audience by aiming just above their heads, it is very easy to spot when a presenter does this.

Don't sit, and don't pace around

Stand up during your presentation. Your audience will both see and hear you better than if you sit, and you will engage them more. Using gestures to underline an important point is fine. However, do not pace around. This may help you think, but it is distracting to your audience.

Try to eliminate nervous ticks

Just as walking around distracts your audience, so, too, do verbal and other tics. Try to eliminate as many of these as you can (recording yourself can be very useful). If you say 'okay', 'you know', or any other phrase incessantly, this will distract. If you flap your hands, this will distract. And so on.

Prepare the opening sentence

Have your first sentence ready to go as you walk in. That way you'll hit the ground running.

Ensure technology works

Make sure any technology you want to use, most particularly a powerpoint or beamer presentation works. Do this before your audience arrives.

Thanks to Alan Hájek, David Chalmers, Jonathan Farrell, Leon Leontyev and Weng Hong Tang for excellent input on earlier versions of this page. I doubt any of these agree with all the above in its current form.


       Ole Koksvik | Department of Philosophy | University of Bergen | Pb 7805| 5020 Bergen, Norway | (+47) 5558 2581