How To Present A Paper

(Paraphrased from my hazy memory of what Drew McDermott taught me many years ago.)

Many students present a paper, especially one authored by someone else, by talking through it section by section or page by page. The student reads out the definitions and points the audience to the figures. Anything in italics is read out. The student works through the paper linearly, taking great care not to miss anything that the author might have written that might possibly be relevant. This approach is not useful because all that is happening is that the student is reading the paper aloud, forgetting that the audience is perfectly capable of reading the paper themselves and in most cases has already done so. Here is a different approach.

If you’re presenting the paper:

  • Read the paper ahead of time, and decide what you think of the ideas presented in the paper. In particular, decide whether you think the paper has some good ideas or whether it belongs in the recycling bin. Keep in mind that very few papers have no worthwhile ideas whatsoever; however, if you’re convinced that your paper belongs in this category, follow the steps listed below for critiquing a paper.
  • Next, decide which idea is the best idea (or a small cluster of related ideas) in the paper. “Best” may mean most novel, most central, most relevant, most clever, most important, and so on. Write down this idea, preferably in your own words, and a one-line justification for why this idea is the best one. (This step is particularly important when the paper you’re presenting is your own.)
  • Now comes the crucial step: Figure out how to get your audience as quickly as possible to the point where they can understand this idea.
  • Next, if necessary, elaborate the idea and fill in the details. Explain things like how the idea came about, how it was fleshed out in the paper, how it was proven, what benefit it had, what difference did it make, what alternative ideas might have been pursued instead, and so on.

If you’re critiquing the paper:

  • Read the paper ahead of time, and decide what you think of the ideas presented in the paper.
  • Next, determine what you think is the central fallacy or bad idea (or a small cluster of related ideas) in the paper. Don’t pick something tangential; you want a novel, central, relevant, clever, important idea (similar to the kind of idea you’d pick if you were presenting the paper) but one that is, in your mind, simply wrong. Write down this idea, preferably in your own words, and a short “bottom line” reason explaining why this idea is wrong.
  • Now comes the crucial step: Figure out how to get your audience as quickly as possible to the point where they can understand the fallacy or bad idea.
  • Next, if necessary, elaborate the idea and fill in the details. Explain things like how the idea came about, how it was fleshed out in the paper, what problems did it raise, why the proof was inadequate, what alternative ideas might have been pursued instead, and so on.
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