This is how Vanessa’s SO, Lane Medina, wraps a Christmas present. The young man shows promise!

The Magi present gifts to the Christ child

And so we come, rather belatedly, to the fourth and final part of this series on preparing and giving talks at scientific conferences.  If you’ve followed the previous installments, you should have figured out a clear, compelling story that you want to tell from your research; you should have clear slides with striking, relevant images and no visual distractions; and you should have rehearsed your talk so that it’s clear and coherent, and fits into the time available with a minute or two spare.  Now we come to the business of actually delivering the talk.

Matt’s talk in Bonn

If you were paying attention, you’ll have noticed that I used the word “clear” three times in the previous paragraph — once for each of the three previous stages.  That’s not by accident: the whole business of giving talks is about clarity, and that’s not going to change as we talk about delivery.  Remember, once more, that your talk is one of maybe fifteen or twenty that your audience will hear that day: by the time they get to you, their brains will be half-frazzled.  They will thank you (internally if not out loud) for leading them by the hand through your argument.  You don’t want listening to your talk to be hard work.

Remember, too, that you are the expert on your subject.  Even if you’re a student giving your first ever conference talk, and even if the front row is full of Mike Bentons, Eric Buffetauts and David Normans, the magic of specialisation means that you know more than they do about your subject.  They want to know what you have to say.

And that leads us to Rule One, Rule Two, and Rule Three, which are so important that together they make up 90% of what you need to do to deliver your talk well.  Here they are.

The big three rules

  • Rule 1.  Speak up.
  • Rule 2.  Slow down.
  • Rule 3.  Don’t Panic.

So let’s look at these in order.

First: speak up.  It’s so simple that it seems almost insulting to mention it, but if people can’t hear what you’re saying, you might just as well not be saying it.  Not everyone has a naturally loud, resonant voice, but that’s OK: conference venues will provide a microphone.  Stay reasonably close to it — a foot or so will be fine.  Many microphones are extremely directional, so make sure it’s pointing directly at your mouth, not past your ear or at your belly-button.  If your natural tendency is to get quieter and quieter as you speak, have a friend sit at the back and wave at you if your volume falls too low.

And the second is like unto it: slow down.  Again, if people can’t hear what you’re saying, you might just as well not be saying it.  I know that I tend to go rather fast myself, but then I rarely finish before my time is up and I don’t think anyone has any problem making out my words, so it’s not a disaster.  Where it can hurt much more is if you’re nervous, and keep speeding up incrementally.  (Vanessa suffered from this tendency when she gave her talk at the sauropod meeting.  Fortunately we knew this from rehearsal, so I was ready with a big SLOW DOWN sign to hold up as a reminder when necessary.  I used it twice.  To my surprise, Matt needed a dose of the SLOW DOWN sign in his talk, too.  Maybe I should get a really nice one made and take it to all the conferences.)

You probably won’t need Rule 3; but if you get into a situation where it’s applicable, you’d better remember it.  First-timers are most likely to feel panic; and the only advice to give is, don’t panic.  Take your time.  Everyone’s on your side.  (It’s always interesting to see how an audience’s tenor changes from talk to talk: for some speakers there’s a sort of hunger to hear what’s coming next, and for some there’s a subtle challenging feel, as though everyone is silently saying “Oh, yeah? Show me.”  But without exception, every time I’ve heard someone giving their first talk, the audience has been polite, respectful and encouraging.  They want you to do well; so don’t panic.)

The best example I’ve seen of not panicking was at this year’s SVPCA in Lyme Regis.  A student, giving her first talk, lost her thread completely and just stopped.  It was a horrible position to be in and my heart — everyone’s, probably — went out to her.  But she just stood still and silent for as long as it took (felt like twenty seconds but was probably more like five), thought hard about the line of her argument, then when she’d found the thread, carried on like nothing had happened.  It was actually really impressive.  If I remember right, she didn’t even apologise, and that is definitely the right way to go.  The idea was just “I was gone for a moment there, but now I’m back; so ANYWAY …”  Good stuff.

Mike’s talk in Bonn

Different styles

It’s worth pointing out there are very different styles for giving a talk, and cliched as it sounds it really is true that none of them is better than another.  To pick examples from among the SV-POW!sketeers …

When Matt prepares and gives a talk, he does it not by learning the talk itself at all, but by learning the source material, and by knowing his own work inside out.  The slides then function (for him) as a visual cue, reminding him what to talk about next — even as they are also functioning (for the audience) as illustrations that support what he is saying.  The specific words that he uses are made up as he goes along.  (If real-time improvisation sounds hard, just think that this is exactly what you do every time you have a conversation.)  I’ve heard Matt rehearse a talk the night before, then give it on the day, and hardly a word is the same between the two performances; but the substance is the same.

By contrast, I have the impression that Darren prepares every word, and that if he gives that same talk twice it will be the same both times.  That’s not to say that he won’t take the opportunity to throw in new comments that occur to him at the time; but basically I think he writes and memorises a script, which he then plays out when the time comes.

Both approaches can work really well.  (They both did in the sauropod conference, where both Matt’s and Darren’s talks were outstanding.) Doing it Matt’s way can have the advantage of feeling more informal, and it gives you more opportunity to engage the audience non-verbally — eye-contact, responding to laughs, and so on.  On the other hand, Darren’s approach lets you use the time more efficiently — you know you’re not going to waste time repeating yourself or going off on a tangent.  It also means your running-time is more predictable, so you can keep cramming in more material till you get right up to the end of the slot.

Personally, I use the first approach — I like the freedom of approaching each slide’s discussion in a way the reflects how people have been responding.  Many students start out doing it the other way — probably because, in an intimidating environment, it feels better to be fully in control of content.  Let me say again that neither approach is intrinsically superior — you should feel free to do it whichever way feels most natural to you, and that may or may not change over time.

The one thing you don’t want to do is write a script, then not memorise it, so that you have to read it out from a printed copy. That’s a recipe for not engaging.  All the time your eyes are on the printout, you’re not looking either at the audience or at the same images they’re seeing.  How can anyone in the audience join you on your journey if you’re off on your own somewhere in a stack of index cards?

Hints and tips

Face the audience.  It sounds obvious, but I’ve seen it not done.  At the Bonn conference, the talks were given from a laptop sitting on a surface to the side of the screen.  At one point in the conference, it got turned around so it faced more towards the screen than the audience, so one speaker gave her entire talk looking at the screen, with her back towards the audience.  Straight away, bam, you’ve lost people.  If they can’t see your face, you don’t come across as a human being.  They might just as well be paging through a copy of your .ppt.

More generally: engage.  Sense the mood of the audience.  Feel the atmosphere.  Make eye-contact with a friendly face.  If you crack a joke and people laugh, take a moment to enjoy it, don’t plough determinedly onwards through your list of points.  As a rule of thumb, treat it the way you would if you were giving a talk to a group of friends in a pub.  You don’t want to sound like a technical paper, you want to sound like a person.  (Example: when Matt ran his talk the night before his presentation, he said that in birds, the pneumatic diverticula run “subcutaneously and intermuscularly”.  But there was no reason for him to say that instead of “under the skin and between the muscles” — it’s harder to say and to understand, and carries no greater precision.  So he changed it for the actual presentation.)

Vanessa’s talk in Bonn

You don’t need to say “This work is from my Masters project”, or from your Ph.D, or whatever it may be.  Doesn’t matter.  Your work will be evaluated on its content, not on what stage in your academic career you’re at.  Some — no, most — of the best talks I’ve ever heard have been given by grad-students, or even on occasion undergrads.  Some of the least engaging were by seasoned, even respected, professionals. Basically, once you’re standing at the podium, the playing-field is level.  No-one cares about your status, they want to hear your ideas. In academia, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Leave the laser pointer alone.  If you really need to point at something, pick up the laser pointer, point to it, and then put it down again.  DO NOT WAVE IT AROUND.  Do not circle it repeatedly around the feature of interest.  These behaviours are distracting us from your talk.  Don’t you want us to concentrate on your talk?

Don’t read the slides out loud.  We can read.  If you say the words on the slide, we will be reading along with you; but because reading internally is faster than speech, we’ll be ahead of you, and frustrated that you’re not keeping up.  You don’t want that.  When you’re giving your talk on the subject that you know best out of everyone in the whole world, you don’t want to seem like the dumb one.

The worst possible thing you can do combines both of the last two DON’Ts, yet I’ve seen it done more than once.  The way you do it is, you slooowly read the words off the screen while tracking each word as you say it with the laser-pointer.  About two slides of that is enough to make the audience want to gnaw off their own heads so they won’t have to see any more (or, if they are clearer thinkers, gnaw off your own head).

Finally, a time-saver.  Many talks finish with a summary slide and an acknowledgements slide.  Both are very wordy and take a long time to read.  So don’t.  Skip the summary completely — we should be able to remember what you told us only fifteen minutes ago.  And don’t read the acknowledgements — just put them on the screen as you finish, and people can read them as you take the questions.

Handling questions

Not too much to say about this.  The questions at the end of talks fall into a few categories.

— Someone doesn’t understand something you said in your talk and wants clarification.  Just explain.  It may be worth going back to the slide in question.

— Someone wants to demonstrate that they know a lot about your subject by commenting on an esoteric point.  Sad to say, yes, this does happen.  Quite a lot.  Best just to let him (it’s nearly always a man) get it off his chest, acknowledge the point, and move on.

— Someone has useful information for you.  This is the best kind of “question”.  For example, at the end of my Bonn talk, Phil Manning happened to know the relative thickness of the cartilage between the cervical vertebrae of a hadrosaur mummy, and threw that in.  Very useful.

— Finally, someone might have spotted a real flaw in your work.  This is rare — after all, you’ve been working on this stuff for months or years, and the audience are only just hearing about it for the first time — but it does happen.  In this case, it’s probably best to say as little as possible, beyond acknowledging the issue, and save the deep thinking for later.

Darren’s talk in Bonn

To finish, here is (what I think is) an example of the latter.  I was at SVP in Austin in 2007, when Jack Horner gave his talk claiming that Dracorex and Stygimoloch are successive growth stages of Pachycephalosaurus. At the end I stuck up my hand and said something like the following (Darren remembers the actual words much better than I do):

We’re used to seeing animals develop more elaborate crests and other display structures through ontogeny, but in the sequence you’re proposing here, the cranial ornamentation becomes progressively less flamboyant.  Do you know of any extant animals that follow this ontogenetic trajectory?

Horner paused briefly, then replied as follows (and this is word for word):


There is much to be said for such economy.

Update: one more thing (from Matt)

I hate to destroy the elegance of Mike’s ending by tacking something on, especially since he let me do an editing pass and I had a chance to get this in before he published. But it’s important, and it’s not worth a post of its own, so here goes.

Please don’t say at the beginning of the talk, “I hope in this talk to convince you that…”, and likewise don’t end the talk with, “I hope by now you’re convinced that…” Blecch. This is just gross and lame, for several reasons.

Reason 1: You shouldn’t hope that your audience is convinced by you. Either your argument is sound and your evidence solid, or not. If so, then your job is to make those things clear, and once you’ve done so, to some extent it is out of your hands. You can’t force people to come to the same conclusions. And if your argument and evidence are not good enough, then you don’t want people to be swayed by rhetoric–that might make you feel good, but it would be a loss for science. And clever people in the audience would notice anyway. (Also, if your stuff isn’t that convincing, give a different talk!)

Reason 2: It’s not your job. You’re there to talk about your science, not how the audience should feel or think about your science. So don’t pull people out of the talk by talking about the talk (another reason never to apologize for the talk during the talk). Get out of that meta-level and tell your story, simply and directly. Or quit and go into marketing.

Reason 3: It sounds pathetic. You absolutely can affect your audience, but you do so by connecting with them, being responsive, and above all knowing your stuff and presenting it clearly. Telling the audience that you hope that they’re convinced is pleading, plain and simple. It makes you sound weak, and corrodes your credibility. Just don’t do it.

Hot on the heels of PLoS ONE-like open-access megajournals such as BMJ Open, Nature’s Scientific Reports, the Royal Society’s Open Biology and SAGE’s SAGE Open, now the king of evil predatory price-gouging publishers-whose-business-model-is-to-prevent-papers-being-read Elsevier are — you won’t believe this — launching their own PLoS ONE clone, FEBS Open Bio.

So please join me in giving a hearty “meh”.

I don’t see how this can work.  Surely the only reason people ever send their work to Elsevier journals rather than somewhere truly open is because of the reputation that individual Elsevier-owned journals have accumulated over the years?  No-one sends to Cretaceous Research because it’s published by Elsevier, do they?  In which case I don’t see who is going to submit to a brand new Elsevier journal just because it’s Elsevier’s when PLoS ONE already has the momentum and (increasingly) the prestige.

So I am not predicting a bright future for FEBS Open Bio.

And that suits me fine.  Success should go to people who went open because it was the right thing to do, not to for-profit publishers who are belatedly realising that the world has changed and scrabbling to make the best they can of it.

Mannion et al. (2011:fig. 3)

Mannion et al. (2011:fig. 3)

Oh, and by the way: a little bit of searching shows that FEBS Open Bio not actually Open Access.  Its User Rights page says that “articles are protected by copyright and may be used for non-commercial purposes”, and goes on to give a long list of things that you’re not allowed to do with FEBS Open Bio articlesAs Peter Murray-Rust points out, it’s not Open Access if it has the “non-commercial” clause, which has all sorts of undesirable consequences.

This year, I missed The Paleo Paper Challenge over on Archosaur Musings — it was one of hundreds of blog posts I missed while I was in Cancun with my day-job and then in Bonn for the 2nd International Workshop on Sauropod Biology and Gigantism.  That means I missed out on my annual tradition of promising to get the looong-overdue Archbishop description done by the end of the year.

Brachiosauridae incertae sedis NMH R5937, "The Archbishop", dorsal neural spine C, probably from an anterior dorsal vertebra. Top row: dorsal view, anterior to top; middle row, left to right: anterior, left lateral, posterior, right lateral; bottom row: ventral view, anterior to bottom.

But this year, Matt and I are going to have our own private Palaeo Paper Challenge.  And to make sure we heap on maximum pressure to get the work done, we’re announcing it here.

Here’s the deal.  We have two manuscripts — one of them Taylor and Wedel, the other Wedel and Taylor — which have been sitting in limbo for a stupidly long time.  Both are complete, and have in fact been submitted once and gone through review.  We just need to get them sorted out, turned around, and resubmitted.

(The Taylor and Wedel one is on the anatomy of sauropod cervicals and the evolution of their long necks.  It’s based on the last remaining unpublished chapter of my dissertation, and turned up in a modified form as my SVPCA 2010 talk, Why Giraffes Have Such Short Necks.  The Wedel and Taylor one is on the occurrence and implications of intermittent pneumaticity in the tails of sauropods, and turned up as his SVPCA 2010 talk, Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus.)

We’re going to be realistic: we both have far too much going in (incuding, you know, families) to get these done by the end of 2011.  But we have relatively clear Januaries, so our commitment is that we will submit by the end of January 2012.  If either of us fails, you all have permission to be ruthlessly derisive of that person.

… and in other news …

Some time while we were all in Bonn, the SV-POW! hit-counter rolled over the One Million mark.  Thanks to all of your for reading!


Best. Exhibit. Ever.

December 13, 2011

Wedel lab group photo, December 12, 2011. Vanessa Graff and Mathew Wedel, with Diplodocus carnegii, Giraffatitan brancai, Dicraeosaurus hansemanni and assorted stinkin’ theropods and ornithischians for scale.

Best. Conference. Ever.

December 12, 2011

I’m just back from a three-day conference in Bonn, Germany, which I unhesitatingly nominate as the best I’ve ever been to.  To begin with, the subject was a guaranteed winner: sauropod gigantism.  I can hardly overstate how awesome it was to hear 43 talks about or relevant to sauropod gigantism (sixteen on the first day, fifteen on the second and twelve on the third).  For another thing, it was one of those rare occasions where all three SV-POW!sketeers got together — I think the fourth or fifth time ever.  For yet another, I met honorary SV-POW!er Ranger Vanessa Graff and Brontomerus artist Francisco “Paco” Gasco for the first time.  And it’s always good to spend time with people like biomechanics wizard John Hutchinson and occasional SV-POW! guest-blogger Heinrich Mallison.  (Apologies to those I’ve not mentioned by name: lots of good people!)

Left to right: Mike, Darren, Matt, Paco. Note the complete lack of commitment in Paco's MYDD expression. Matt's showing how it should be done. Darren seems to have had something unfortunate happen to his nose, and (in this picture, not in real life) look like a hobgoblin. Nothing personal. Just saying.

The meeting was The 2nd International Workshop on Sauropod Biology and Gigantism: a public meeting of DFG Research Unit 533 “Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs”.  That’s a mostly German group, headed by Martin Sander, which has been working for nearly eight years on multiple lines towards understanding the evolution of gigantism.  Along the way, that group has produced 105 publications and counting, including a very nice hardcover volume Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants, available for the reasonable price of £40 [] or $50 [].  (Compare with the price of £95 [] or $190 [] for the comparably sized Geological Society volume on the history of dinosaur palaeontology.  Hang your head in shame, GeolSoc.)  Maybe most importantly, the group published a big synthesis paper at Biological Reviews that is freely available, and which everyone interested in sauropod palaeobiology should read to understand the current state of the field.  Although I certainly don’t agree with everything that’s been published by the group, overall it’s done excellent work and plenty of it.  So it was a real privilege to be a part of this second public meeting.  (Matt and I were also at the first, three years ago.)

Maybe the greatest thing about this meeting was the involvement of many scientists whose usual work is not on sauropods, but who were able to bring their expertise in other fields and apply it to sauropod-related problems.  For example, Jurgen Hummel on on digestive energetics, Michael Fagan on biomechanical modelling, Tom Schanz on soil mechanism (and implications for interpreting tracks) and Jennifer McElwain on plant growth in simulated palaeoatmospheres.  The word “interdisciplinarary” is bandied around a lot, but this conference really fulfilled that description.  That’s truly helpful: for example, five minutes’ conversation with people who actually understand digestive energetics saved me weeks or months of what would have turned out to be fruitless work on the Nourishing Vomit Of Eucamerotus hypothesis.

Wedel is disappointed to discover that baby sauropods didn't need Nourishing Vomit; but Naish is delighted.

Another huge benefit of working with scientists who have other specialisations is the ability to triangulate on a problem.  For example, in my talk on how little we truly know about sauropod necks, I mentioned that we don’t know whether their intervertebral joints were fibrocartilaginous, like those of mammals and crocs, or synovial, like those of birds.  I had been hoping to get a student working on comparative dissections of birds and crocs in the hope of identifying osteological correlates that might allow us to recognise relevant indications in sauropod bones.  But Martin Sander pointed out that histological analysis of the preserved osseous articular surfaces might allow us to tell directly what kind of joint was used — an approach that would never have occurred to me.

So: scientists who know about things other than sauropods. Recommended.

Unlike most conferences, this one allowed time for discussion after each talk — something that made a huge difference.  The slots allocated were each 30 minutes long, but speakers were asked to use only half of that time.  In practice, many talks ran twenty minutes or so, but nevertheless the kind of discussion that you get in ten minutes is qualitatively different from the rather perfunctory one-quick-question-and-move-on that you get at most meetings.  It was in those intervals that a lot of important ambiguities were clarified, misunderstandings remedied, and ideas explored.  (I’d love to see this become more widespread, but of course I understand the difficulty of fitting all the talks into the programme at a larger conference like SVPCA.  Not to mention SVP.)

Unsurprisingly, highlight talks for me included those by Matt (reviewing the last three years’ developments in pneumaticity, and considering the way forward) and Darren (presenting our no-necks-for-sex work in a way that was both persuasive and funny).

The last slide of Darren's talk; original source unknown

But perhaps the talk I enjoyed most was Vanessa’s on neck support hypotheses (ligament, pneumatic stabilisation, ventral compressing bracing, muscle).  It’s only the second time she’s presented at a conference, and the first time ever in palaeo.  Having workshopped the content of the talk extensively, first with Matt, then with both of us, she then prepared the presentation within an inch of its life and did a fine job of delivering it.

Me commenting on one of Vanessa's slides. Needless to say, my comments were all helpful, constructive, and tactfully delivered.

There is good news for the 6,999,999,940 of you who missed this conference: the sessions were all recorded on video, and will hopefully become available shortly.  And there will be a proceedings volume — exact venue to be announced, but we have some good options.  Matt, Vanessa and I will all contribute to this.  (Darren won’t, of course, since his talk was describing already-published research.)

And more good news for the future: although the funding for DFG Research Unit 533 is coming towards an end — it has about a year left to run — the people who have been running it are keen to hold a 3rd International Workshop, in maybe three years’ time.  It’s not clear yet where the funding will come from, but let’s hope they come up with something!

… and a correction to Taylor et al. (2009)

One point that came up in Kent Stevens’ talk was a factual correction to something we wrote in our 2009 neck-posture paper, and it seems right that we should put it on the record.  We wrote (Taylor et al. 2009:216) that:

Physical manipulation of the mounted Diplodocus skeleton DMNH 1494, by Ken Carpenter, resulted in a mounted posture in which the neck is extended farther vertically and horizontally than is allowed by Stevens and Parrish’s digital model (personal observation).  Since the neck of this mount is a cast of the Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84, the very same individual used by Stevens and Parrish (1999), it is evident that the results of such computerised studies are not as objective as they may appear.

The Denver Diplodocus mount

Regarding the provenance of the Denver Diplodocus mount, we were misled by the DMNH online catalogue.  Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be online any more, but this is the information it gave regarding the reconstructed portions:

Majority of specimen exhibited in Prehistoric Journey; skull cast from CM 1161, cervicals cast from CM 84, Left scapula, and L & R humeri, radii, & ulnae all cast from HMNS 175 (Houston Musuem of Natural Science), distal 6 caudals cast from Western Paleontology Laboratory specimen.

Kent has spoken to Ken Carpenter about this mount, and it turns out that while the majority of the neck is indeed a CM 84 cast, the last three or so posterior cervicals are from a different specimen — presumably DMNH 1494 itself — and are somewhat restored in plaster.  Thanks to Kent for clearing this up.

(Regarding the rest of Kent’s talk: I’ll withhold comment until Kent publishes his criticisms.)

Update (the next day)

Thanks for John H. and Heinrich, who both tweeted the conference.  You can (for now, anyway) read their comments, and a few by other people, in the saved messages under #SauroBonn.  But I don’t know how long they last, and I don’t know a good way to save them.  Can anyone help?


Many meetings

December 9, 2011

Mike, Darren, rex, Vanessa, and Matt. Photo by Paco Gasco.

As previously reported, the lot of us are in Bonn for the sauropod biology workshop. Last night we met up at the welcome reception at the Goldfuss Museum. It was the first time for Mike and Darren to meet Vanessa Graff and Paco Gasco in person, and of course we all got to meet people we didn’t know previously who are here for the workshop. There is an outstanding series of talks lined up. Three days with some of the world’s best workers talking about sauropods all the time? Yeah, I reckon we can handle that.

No sauropods in the Goldfuss Museum, so we naturally hung out the biggest saurischian around (even if it is a vulgar, overstudied theropod).

This and any future posts for the next few days will necessarily be brief; gotta go learn about sauropods!

Hello again, old friend

December 5, 2011

This week the SV-POW!sketeers are off to Bonn, Germany, for the Second International Workshop on Sauropod Biology and Gigantism. All three of us will be there, plus SV-POW! guest blogger Heinrich Mallison, plus Wedel Lab grad student Vanessa Graff, plus about 50 other awesome scientists from around the world. So we’ll have a ton of fun, but we probably won’t get much posted.

In the meantime, enjoy this cool encounter from the bone cellar at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin, where Mike and I fetched up at the end of the last IWSBG back in 2008. It’s a transversely-sectioned dorsal centrum of Giraffatitan, one that Janensch illustrated in his 1950 monograph on the vertebrae of Giraffatitan. Mike and I were very familiar with the cross-section image from the paper, so it was cool and a bit unreal to find the actual item.


Janensch, Werner. 1950. Die Wirbelsaule von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3:27-93.