How To Give A Systems Talk

11 Aug 2017

Vijay Chidambaram: Jotting down the advice I give to my students about presenting at a systems conference. Most of this is advice I got from Remzi and Andrea when I went to grad school at Madison. These aren’t hard and fast rules, and the more experience you have, the more you will know when you can break them.

Caveat: everybody has different notions of what a good systems talk should look like. These are merely my own preferences.


  1. The aim of the talk is to get the big idea from the paper across.

    You don’t need to present every detail from the paper. You need to get the audience interested enough to go look at your paper.

    In a similar vein, don’t show every graph from the paper. Show the most interesting graphs, and point at the paper for the rest.

  2. Remember your audience hasn’t been thinking about this for as long as you have.

    Build up material as you go, introduce definitions and terms.

  3. Build up your slide

    Don’t throw a whole out of text and pictures at the audience at once. They will get lost. Instead, put only what you are currently talking about on the screen.

    A good example of this is showing a graph to the audience. First show the axes, explain what they are. If you have multiple bars, introduce them one by one, comment about performance.

  4. Whenever possible, use pictures and animation.

    It is possible to go overboard on animation, but in general most talks don’t have enough of it. Making animations is a lot of work, but your audience will be more engaged.

  5. Avoid walls of text

    Each slide should have a major point it is trying to make. Don’t have more than 3 sub-bullets.

  6. Have a takeaway slide

    I’m a big fan of a slide in the talk which asks a big question that your work solves, and in a line gives the intuition for your solution. This is the takeaway slide. See Slide 5 and 6 in my OptFS talk

  7. Pause between major sections of your talk, and at the end of each slide

  8. Repeat important intuition/insights at multiple points in the talk.

    Your audience will zone out occassionally. You still want them to be able to get the main idea of the paper.


I like talks organized like this:

  1. Introduction to the Problem, what your solution is (5 min)
  2. Outline slide, what is the rest of the talk
  3. The Problem
  4. Our Solution
  5. How it Performs
  6. Summary (give intuition again)
  7. A thought-provoking conclusion


  1. I’m partial to a color scheme where the title slide, the outline slide, and the slide with major points have a black background. The other slides have a white background and black text. See recent talks from our group for an example of this.

  2. Don’t use font smaller than 24 pt on your slides.

  3. Your talk should have a small color palette (apart from animation). A background color, a text color, a color for emphasis. I like to use white slides, black text, red for emphasis.


For a 25 minute slot, your talk should be around 23-24 minutes. If questions are included in the slot, your talk should be 20-21 minutes. Nobody likes a talk that goes over the time limit.

Practice and Iteration

  1. Your first version of the talk will be bad. This is the case for everyone. Give multiple practice talks and keep improving the talk.

  2. A good rule of thumb is to have revised the talk at least twice, and practised at least three times before giving the talk.

  3. Memorize the first few slides so that you can work through them without mental effort.


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