Giving Better Presentations

I also posted this on my other blog.

Last Sunday I went along to Presentation Camp London where I spent the day learning about how to improve my presentation skills.

Two particularly useful talks were given by Mike K Smith and Chris Atherton.

Giving Technical Presentations

When presenting a complex topic, such as your academic research, Mike Smith emphasized the importance of motivation. In other words, making it crystal clear why you’re talking about this particular subject and why the audience will find it interesting.

A summary of Mike’s talk can be found on his blog:

Keeping the Audience’s Attention

Although keeping your audience’s attention is an obvious point, how many academic presenters do that successfully? Chris Atherton discussed several ways to do this based on findings from psychology that can be boiled down to:

  • Less is more – people can only hang on to about four bits of unrelated information at a time.
  • Use multimedia to your advantage – integrate your words and images, don’t overload the audience with on-screen text.
  • Tell stories – suspense draws people in and keeps them focused.

Chris’ slides (and audio sometime soon) are available here:

And this is one of her posts on giving presentations:

Further Reading

  • Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds
  • Show Me the Numbers by Stephen Few
  • Edward Tufte’s writing on analytical design –

Review of Task Management Tools

For the last six months, my procrastination method of choice has been to try out different task management tools (closely followed by data visualization techniques – but that’ll have to wait till another day).

So while this post isn’t related to LaTeX, I thought it might be useful for those of you managing a long-term project like a PhD.

Software Requirements

In searching for task/time/project management tools, my criteria were:

  • no fees/open source
  • ability to schedule tasks and milestones with due dates and priority levels
  • tags or categories for tasks
  • clear visual interface
  • compatibility with Google Calendar

I have tried a lot of different packages that do a lot of different things – from Basecamp to Open Workbench, from Manymoon to Zen. But at the beginning of October, I finally found something that works really well: it’s called Intervals.

Task and Time Management with Intervals

I have used Intervals daily for the past two months and it has really helped me to plan my work and get more done.

On the company’s website, it is described as ‘web-based project management software that marries time tracking and task management in a collaborative online space with powerful reporting.’

In comparison with the other software I have tried, the most useful features of Intervals for my project are:

  • time tracking and reports
  • ease of adding tasks to a milestone
  • clear and intuitive project dashboard
  • ability to categorize project phases (called ‘modules’ in Intervals) and work types
  • daily email showing my tasks for the week

Time tracking and reporting

Before I came across Intervals, I didn’t think I needed a time tracking or reporting feature. But now I have changed my mind – for three reasons:

  • No more procrastinating. Once I sit down to do a task, I start the timer for it. This helps me to focus on that task alone – no checking emails, no unnecessary internet browsing. And if I get a phone call or am interrupted, I pause the timer.
  • Now I know where my time goes. The reporting feature allows me to view the time I have spent on tasks that day, month, quarter, etc. I can view this by project module (e.g. literature review or writing-up), or by work type (e.g. translation, reading/note-taking, correspondence).
  • I am better at estimating how long different tasks take. Once I’ve completed a task, I can review how many hours I spent on it and compare that with how long I estimated it would take when I first created the task. This then helps me plan future phases of my project.

Project Dashboard and Tasks Email

The dashboard (‘home’) is clearly structured and shows me:

  • A weekly or monthly calendar view with milestones and tasks displayed. Colour-coding indicates high, medium and low priority tasks, and overdue items.
  • A graph of how many hours I have worked in the current week. This is updated whenever I add time to a task, so I can see if my day’s on track, or if I haven’t spent as much time working as I planned to that day.
  • Navigation short-cuts to add a new task or to add time to a task.

The daily email includes a copy of the weekly view of my calendar, so I can see what I have to do today and for the rest of the week.

Unused or Unsupported Features

Intervals does not support task dependencies or auto-scheduling – there is no Gantt Chart-like feature. But for my straightforward PhD project, I haven’t found that to be a problem.

As the software is designed for small businesses, there are a lot of features I don’t use, such as: invoicing, file storage and allocating tasks to other people on a team.

Intervals is also a bit heavy for managing lots of little tasks. For this kind of thing and for displaying external deadlines on my main calendar, I tend to use Remember The Milk.

To-Do Lists with Remember The Milk

This is a nice little online tool for managing multiple to-do lists. The best feature is that it’s compatible with Google Calendar, and according to their website it also works with Twitter and Blackberry.

I tend to use Remember The Milk for funding or conference call deadlines, to-do lists for calling or emailing people, or keeping track of meetings or seminars.

Getting Started

Intervals and Remember The Milk are pretty easy to set up once you’ve registered with them. I was able to get the hang of both within a week. They also have good customer support and help forums.

Note: both these tools are web-based, so they cannot be used offline.

Useful Links

Converting a Spreadsheet to LaTeX

For my research, spreadsheets are very useful for recording data and analysis. But I usually want to use that data in a .tex document as well.


Writing tables using LaTeX can be difficult if you have a lot of data, and editing it can be a bit of a nightmare.

One quick solution I have found is using a macro that converts a table in a spreadsheet into a LaTeX table. (A macro is a set of instructions that automate a particular task.)

An alternative to using macros is working with a spreadsheet program that supports the LaTeX file format.

Of the following three options, I have tried Calc2LaTeX. I’ve found it very easy to install and use.


This macro works for OpenOffice Calc. After running the macro, a dialogue box appears containing the LaTeX code. You can copy that and paste it straight into your .tex file.


This macro works for Microsoft Excel.


This is a spreadsheet program that can be used with Windows and Linux. It is possible to save a file in a number of formats including LaTeX.

Notes Package: todonotes


This is a package I recently stumbled upon. It allows you to easily insert notes into a document – either inline or in the margins.

It can also create a list of to-do notes, which would be helpful when editing drafts.

I particularly like the \missingfigure{} command. This inserts a bright, bold image into your text – so you won’t forget to add the final figure to your document.

The other commands are \todo{} and \listoftodos. You can customize the colour, font size and placement of each note.

\todo{Some note or other.}
\todo{Some note or other.}

For my example document, these are the commands I included:


\todo{Some note or other.}

\todo[noline]{Another note.}

\todo[inline]{And another one.}

\missingfigure{Add my picture here.}

Here is the code for my sample document: SimpleToDoNotesTex.pdf

Here is the output PDF of the document: SimpleToDoNotes.pdf

This is a new package, so there may still be some glitches with it – but I think it’s useful for editing and writing up long documents.

The todonotes package was created by Henrik Skov Midtiby.

Useful Links

Getting Started: Subdividing a Large Document

It’s easy and convenient to use just one .tex file when writing short documents. But for anything larger than, say, 10,000 words, I tend to divide the document into smaller parts so each chapter is its own .tex file.

For example, you might be writing a thesis that includes three chapters (introduction, results, conclusion) and an appendix. These are called introduction.tex, results.tex, conclusion.tex and appendix.tex.

These four files are like any other .tex file except you omit the preamble (\documentclass, \usepackage, etc.) and the \begin{document} and \end{document} commands. The reason you don’t include these commands is that they are included in your main file, thesis.tex, ensuring that your formatting is consistent throughout the final output document. This also means that page numbers and footnotes will be numbered correctly all the way through.

Which Commands to Use

There are two commands you can use in your main file, thesis.tex, to insert your four chapter files: \include and \input.

The \input command slots each chapter in straight after the one before it without any pagebreaks, while \include works by starting each new chapter on a new page and ends it with a clearpage command. (Thanks to the latex-community forum for help on explaining this to me!)

In other words, ‘natural candidates for \include are whole chapters of a book but not necessarily small fractions of text,’ for which \input would be more appropriate. (Quotation from The LaTeX Companion.)

Your thesis.tex file would therefore look something like this:



\title{My Thesis}
\author{John E. Smith}



Note: your four files (introduction.tex, results.tex, conclusion.tex and appendix.tex) must be saved in the same folder as thesis.tex, otherwise it won’t work.

Omitting Files

If you wanted to produce a PDF from the file thesis.tex without the appendix, all you have to do is comment out that particular \include command (you just add a % at the beginning of the line): %\include{appendix}

Useful Links

Cambridge University LaTeX Courses

Students and staff at the University of Cambridge may be interested in the following courses on offer this term:

  • 10-11 February LaTeX: Introduction
  • 13 February LaTeX Follow-up Practical Using TeXshop on a Macintosh

See for course descriptions and booking information.

Eligibility: The standard programme of short courses run by the Computing Service is aimed at the staff and students of Cambridge University. Others may also be eligible to attend if from certain related institutions. For details see:

I would encourage readers of this blog to submit information about other LaTeX courses being run near you. You can do this by adding a comment to this post.

Academic Writing

A great deal of academic writing is convoluted and dull (well, at least what I’ve been reading), and the American trend of using ungrammatical jargon to dress up second-rate thinking is sadly spreading to the UK.

But it doesn’t have to be that way – Nabokov’s scientific writings on butterflies have a lyrical quality, while Russell’s works on philosophy are clear and concise.

I have found George Orwell’s rules of writing to be very helpful:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

From Politics and the English Language (1946) –

Bertrand Russell also wrote a short essay entitled How I Write (1954) –

Useful Links