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I deleted a rant from this question because I felt it detracted from the given answer to the specific question. However, beamer is the "new kid on the block" in terms of giving talks (not that new!) and there are many little hints, tips, and howtos that people have found that can make the difference between a nice presentation and a smooth presentation - or make the difference between a downright annoying presentation and a nice presentation!

With the general idea that good communication is 90% of good mathematics, and also with a little bit of self-interest (I might learn something, and if not then hopefully everyone else's beamer talks will improve to the point that I can sit through them without wincing), I'd like to know what those hints and tips are.

These can be both technical (how to get the pauses right after an itemize/enumerate environment) and non-technical (the deleted rant was about not using loads of pauses just because you can).

Please be nice: say "I like it when the up-coming text is greyed out rather than invisible because I like to get a sense of where the talk's going" rather than "It's horrible when you can't read ahead because when the speaker is rambling then there's no way to work out what they're talking about".

Also, inevitably, there will be non-beamer-related stuff. That's fine.

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It's way too late for this, but remember the idea of community wiki questions asking for advice: one response per answer! While Eugenia has given lots of good advice below, it's impossible to vote up individual items. –  Scott Morrison Nov 18 '09 at 16:42
    
I know what you mean, but I'd worry that Eugenia wouldn't have put all of that in individual posts. Also, I hope that most people are a bit more discerning than "It got 8 votes, I must do it.". (Though in the case of gowers' answer, I hope that they do!) –  Andrew Stacey Nov 19 '09 at 9:22
    
Voted to close as it's run its course (assuming it ever had one). –  Andrew Stacey Jun 23 '10 at 18:09
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closed as no longer relevant by Andrew Stacey, Harry Gindi, Andy Putman, Charles Siegel, François G. Dorais Jun 23 '10 at 19:12

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4 Answers

After my first Beamer talk, a member of the audience came up and politely suggested that I should repeat things from one frame to another rather than jumping backwards to remind the audience of what I had previously said. I adopted that piece of advice and my subsequent presentations (I was giving a series of three talks) were much less irritating.

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I think using Beamer well is hard. Even just getting the layout right is hard - I spend hours moving things around a bit so that the layout aids comprehension. I agree that one should not insert pauses "just because one can", but I think one should insert pauses because it helps people understand what is going on, as if one were writing it gradually on a blackboard.

My top tips would be:

  • Use pstricks for diagrams, because then you can increase the thickness of the arrows, and pause in the diagram so that it can be built up gradually. There is some kind of myth out there that you can't go through postscript with beamer; this is untrue.

  • Keep a running frame number discreetly (eg bottom right) so that you know where you are in terms of timing. However do not show how many slides there are in total, so that if you run out of time you can abort your talk without anyone knowing.

  • Keep the section heading at the top of every slide so that the audience knows where they are. Apart from this and the page numbers I remove everything else like Tom does, but I disagree with the total blankness approach.

  • Read out every word on your slide. If you don't, the audience will do it in their heads anyway, and won't listen to you while they're doing it. This is also why pauses are good (otherwise the audience will read to the end of the slide and not listen to you), and having the rest of the text in light grey before it has officially appeared is something I find extremely counter-productive.

  • I personally hate sans serif font for maths presentations but I seem to be the only person on earth who does. I find it extremely difficult to read from far away.

  • I prefer to keep the lights on the audience. It might make your slides more legible if you dim them, but it will make your audience fall asleep, and will mean they can't write their own notes or do their own work when they're bored, which is just cruel. Also, if you dim the lights you won't be able to see them, so you won't be able to communicate with them.

  • Personally I think the standard font size on beamer is too small, and I take it up by a point or two.

  • I agree with Tim Gowers' point about copying material you need again instead of flicking back through the beamer.

  • Purchase a Kensington remote page turning thingy with laser pointer. It's not that expensive (under 30 quid) and works extremely well. It's better than relying on your hosts to provide one, and we've all been to talks where the speaker can't work the remote page turning thingy. So it's better to have your own, which you know how to operate.

  • I have never read the manual. I assume I can do anything I want, and look it up when I need to. The manual is epic and I would probably reach retirement before making it through.

  • I try to avoid any text that has to run over one line; I think that indicates when my sentence is too long for a presentation. The one exception is if I'm saying something informal, like a slogan, idea, or moral, in which case I put it in a box.

  • My top tip for actually writing the beamer is to plan all the slides first on paper, then type in the material without any thought about layout, and then go through and sort the layout out separately. These three stages require different types of brain function and it's hard to think about them at the same time.

  • I love bezier curves for pointing at things on slides. I usually put them in purple.

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I agree that there should be a heading at the top of every page. My preference for "total blankness" wasn't meant to preclude that. –  Tom Leinster Nov 18 '09 at 13:00
    
Indeed I would not have typed each point in a separate entry. I also have never heard of "the idea of community wiki questions asking for advice" is. I apologise if I contravened some community rule. –  Eugenia Cheng Nov 19 '09 at 15:34
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My number one tip is read the beamer user guide from cover to cover. As well as telling you how to do stuff, it also contains an amazing amount of good advice on how to do good presentations.

(And if you're using graphics, read the PGF/TikZ manual as well - even if you aren't using that package to do your graphics.)

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I love the PGF/TikZ manual! Tons of good advice about how to make graphics contribute, instead of distract, from your paper. My favorite bit is "Do not feel afraid of a 5-line caption. (Your editor may hate you for this. Consider hating them back.)" –  Emily Peters Nov 18 '09 at 20:53
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My personal preference as a speaker and a listener is for the minimal: none of the stuff at the bottom or the top, and no navigation icons (those things at the bottom-right of the screen). Thus, if a slide contains no text, it's a totally blank white rectangle.

Enough people have asked me how to do this that I put instructions on a web page.

(You'll see there that my opinions about the Beamer manual aren't entirely the same as Andrew's.)

Also, I think it's helpful to use colours sparingly and systematically. E.g. it can help to put "Definition:", "Theorem:", "Lemma:" all in blue (say), but putting "Definition:" in blue, "Theorem:" in red, and "Lemma:" in pink is just distracting.

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I think our opinions on the manual have a fair overlap! I wouldn't advocate reading the manual all in one go before ever trying out beamer, but I recommend reading it before too long. Incidentally, I like your advice on giving talks (off your webpage, in case anyone else is reading) but I think you understate one thing: It is almost certain that someone will ask an awkward question (or, worse, an irrelevant one) so allow time to deal with it (and figure out a strategy for dealing with them beforehand). –  Andrew Stacey Nov 18 '09 at 10:49
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