Well, that was tragic. I just left a seminar I was very much looking forward to (“to which I was very much looking forward” – thank you Ms. Rosenberg, my sixth-grade grammar teacher). Terrific scientist, exciting findings, and somehow, I almost fell asleep in my sushi. (Yes, moles eat sushi, even without insects). There were only a couple of rather forced questions, one from the moderator, and when the questioner began with “Very nice talk…” there was an audible snicker from the person next to me. I often wonder when the first question that follows a really awful presentation opens with something along the lines of “Nice talk…”. It could be embarrassment on the part of the audience, or encouragement (“it really wasn't that terrible”), or perhaps it is pure sarcasm (like when someone walks in from a blustery day and we say, “Nice hair…”).
But, of course, that isn't what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about talks. We need to talk about talks. We should have a guide to how to give a talk. And so it shall be.
First, though, are talks all that important? We are, first and foremost, scientists, and our findings should speak for us. A wonderful presentation of poor data and doubtful interpretations should never be valued (‘Nice talk’), while a mediocre presentation of truly important results certainly should be (‘Nice talk’). But if that mediocre presentation were elevated to an outstanding talk of important results, it might actually do what all talks strive to do: communicate.
Umberto Eco, perhaps best known for his novel The Name of the Rose (or maybe, Foucault's Pendulum) wrote a scholarly work on The Theory of Semiotics. I read it many, many years ago, so I'm sure I'm fuzzy on all of the details, but it contained a great deal about signs, codes, and signals and how their interpretation is directed, or not, by the competence of the sender and the experience of the receiver (a reader, or in this case, a listener). ‘Chair’ can refer to a particular chair, but represents all chairs, or something that looks like or can be used like a chair. And in science, we hope that a result does not refer to the result of one particular experiment, but represents the result that would be obtained should the experiment be repeated, even by someone else. As I've said many times, this does not render the conclusion ‘true,’ but it does make it potentially useful.
When we hear a great talk, we recognize how we may be able to use the conclusions (and whether we want to), integrating them into how we think about, well, everything pertaining to the subject at hand. The same conclusions, offered during a bad or mediocre version of the talk, may well lose this potential (unless the listener works very hard to ignore the distractions of the presentation to reach the conclusions from the data alone). When we leave a really great seminar, we can understand and communicate those conclusions.
Notice that I am not saying that our goal should be for others to say, “That was a great talk”. It isn't enough. Many times, when I have missed a presentation or seminar and I ask colleagues about it, they have told me that it was “fantastic”, but when asked about what they learned, the response was “Oh, I have no idea what they were talking about, but it was really exciting.” These are not great talks. Great entertainment, yes, but that is like saying that wonderful special effects make a movie great (don't get me wrong, I love good special effects movies, but some of the best films I've seen only have people talking).
I'm not going to tell you how to give a great talk; that is something that can take years to learn. But there are a number of things we can do to make our talks better. I know that many will disagree with what I'm about to say, and that's fine. But you should know, I often give great talks. Just saying. So here it is: ‘Mole's Guide to Giving a Better Scientific Talk’ (MGTGABST). In no particular order of importance:
1. Know your stuff. There is an old maxim that, to teach something, you need to know at least twice as much about your material as you are presenting. That doubles for scientific talks – I mean that you should know four times as much as what you show. (I don't know how to quantify knowledge in this way, I'm just making a point here). But don't show me everything – show me only what I need to know to understand and critically accept your conclusions. Distill your copious data to those key experimental results that strongly illustrate your point, and clearly tell me what you did and how you interpret it. And there should be no more than one important result on a slide (we'll come back to that).
2. Know your time. Almost all talks have time limits. Wait, no, forget ‘almost’. There is always a set time in which to present your talk. When you get to the end of that time, go to your last slide and say, “Thank you, here are the people who helped with this, and I'll be happy to take your questions”. If you are giving a 20-min talk, stop at 20 minutes (or before that; nobody minds if you end early). But if you are giving that talk and have another five minutes of things to talk about, don't. Nobody is listening – they are just waiting for you to finish. I have watched people close their notebooks (or laptops, or whatever they are taking notes on) when the allotted time is up, and show only their glazed eyes to the speaker. The same goes for a 10-min or 50-min talk. When it is supposed to be over, end it. So how do you do that? A good rule of thumb for novice speakers is to have one slide per minute (you can add more when you become more facile with the material, and with presenting in general). Then practice your talk, saying everything you want to say (out loud) and time yourself. Really. I once chaired a symposium in which one speaker was notorious for going over time (and this is not a good thing to be known for), and I was amazed and delighted when he concluded his story right at the end of his time limit. Except then he said, “But that isn't what I wanted to tell you about”, and tried to launch into a second subject. (He was very upset with me when I stopped him, but there you go). Say what you want to say to get your point across in the allotted time.
3. Put everything you want to say on your slides. Each slide you show should have a title, and the title should be the conclusion you wish us to draw from the slide. Some of us are visual learners; we understand what you are saying if we are also reading it. And if we get distracted for a minute, we can read the title and catch up. But this also goes beyond the title. If the experiment was performed using hair follicles from an albino warthog, ensure that this is indicated on the slide (apologies to Prof. Warthog, who has lovely white hair; I was not referring to you. Um, maybe I was. Thank you for the follicles). Don't fill the slide with text, but do write what you mean us to take away. (Besides, if you get a little distracted by a cell phone going off, you can quickly find your place by this).
4. Throw away your pointer. Pointers, even those that shoot laser beams, are a throwback to an earlier time when professors would use a stick to point out bones on a skeleton, or hit a student who was sleeping in the front row. Almost nobody uses a pointer well, and many use them very badly. It does not help us when you wave around little points of red, green, or blue dots to stress a word, or indicate a band on a gel. And it really doesn't help us when you accidentally shine them into our eyes (or, in the case of those terrible combination pointer/slide advancers, you accidentally go to the next slide when you wanted to point out the word, ‘Every.’ And then you do it again). Throw it away. If you want to indicate a particular thing on a slide, have an arrow or a circle appear with the click of a button, and we'll know what you are talking about. Not only is this more elegant, but it also shows us how well prepared you are to give this talk. (Sadly, I know that most reading this will not take this bit of advice. We love our pointers. But look, the perceived modernity of using a L.A.S.E.R. to dramatically underscore that data point is just so 1990s. It's distracting, and often just silly. If you really love using your laser pointer, get a cat. They’ll be really excited by your little moving dots).
5. Tell me a story. A great talk is a story. It could be the story of how a discovery was made. It could be a story of how things work. It might even be a story of how we thought things worked, but we were wrong, and now we have some idea of how they really do work. But tell a story. And here's the thing. Don't tell two stories. Or three or four (I think the record goes to Prof. Tapir, who managed to tell five completely different stories in 30 minutes. I have no idea what any of them were, and I doubt that anyone else does either. I really like Prof. Tapir, but really, it was not a good talk). Tell a story, and if you tell it well, we might remember it. We might even be inspired to go back and read your papers. This might be the most important bit of advice in this MGTGABST, but as I said, these are not in any particular order.
5. Breathe. A talk is not a sprint. You are not running a race. You are taking us on a leisurely walk through your findings. So take a breath. In fact, it is good practice to take a breath as you bring up your next slide. Give us a moment to orient. Take a moment to orient. I don't mean lose your enthusiasm (more on this below). But this is all new to us, so give us time to digest it. And here's another thing. When you take a breath, expanding your diaphragm, you can project your voice and speak more clearly. Don't mumble your talk, speak to us so that we hear and understand. Which leads to:
6. Summarize. You've just shown us several different results and told us what you think they mean. This is a good time to show us a slide that summarizes where we are in your talk (this only applies to talks that are longer than 15 minutes or so; in shorter talks, it is fine to summarize at the end). And when you show us this summary slide, read it to us (in a nice clear voice). We cannot listen to you and read at the same time. And you'll help us catch up.
7. Don't make assumptions about your audience's knowledge. There is little that is more frustrating than a speaker bringing up a slide with a complex pathway, who quickly skips past it while saying, “I don't have to go over this with this audience”. I'm often the one saying, “Yes, you do!” (Okay, if it is the fourth talk at a meeting on the same pathway, then yes, by all means skip past it, but in general, don't assume that we know it). In fact, if the talk is about different bits of the pathway, then it can be very helpful to show the pathway on each relevant slide, with arrows or circles showing where we are with respect to the data you are about to describe to us). Anything you can do to help us understand what you are showing can only help you give a better talk.
8. Nobody will care about your talk more than you do. Okay, I lied. This is probably the most important bit of advice we're sharing. (Although the ‘tell a story’ one is pretty good). Think about it: you have been devoting a good part of your days (or weeks, or months, maybe years) to this thing you are talking about. I'm probably just hearing it for the first time. You absolutely, positively care about this more than I do. It doesn't matter if you have given this talk before. It doesn't matter if you are tired of talking about it. If you don't care about it, I'm not going to care at all. Give this talk for the very first time, every time you give it. Try to remember the first time you ever got (or if you are the lab head, saw) this result. I don't need you to be frenetic (remember to breathe), but I do need to feel your passion. You are the one giving the talk, so show me why I should be paying attention (because the text messages on my phone are beckoning). Look me in the eye, speak clearly, and make me feel it. And if you do it well, I might.
So tell your story, show me your enthusiasm for it, make it clear to me, and talk to me (not the slide). Give me a chance to reach your most exciting conclusions with you. You will give a better talk. It might even be a great talk.
Any questions? I see a lot of hands raised. We should have time for a few.