Give a talk that holds attention!

September 9, 2014

I am just back from SVPCA, where I saw fifty 20-minute talks in three days. (I try to avoid missing any talks at all if I can avoid it, and this year I did.) As always, there was lots of fascinating stuff, and much of it not about the topics that I would necessarily have expected to enjoy. Examples include Tom Fletcher’s talk on the evolution of hydrodynamically efficient skin textures in fish, Lionel Hautier’s on the homologies of sloth teeth and Liz Martin’s on the skeletal-mass:total-mass ratio in birds.

Fletcher et al. 2104: figure 3. Flank scale of the osteichthyan Lophosteus: (a) scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of large buttressed tubercles on upper surface; (b) lateral view (surface rendering of mCt scan); and (c) dorsal view (SEM image). Scale bar: (a) 100 mm, (b-c) 0.5 mmFletcher et al. 2104: figure 3. Flank scale of the osteichthyan Lophosteus: (a) scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of large buttressed tubercles on upper surface; (b) lateral view (surface rendering of µCt scan); and (c) dorsal view (SEM image). Scale bar: (a) 100 mm, (b-c) 0.5 mm

Fletcher et al. 2104: figure 3. Flank scale of the osteichthyan Lophosteus: (a) scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of large buttressed tubercles on upper surface; (b) lateral view (surface rendering of mCt scan); and (c) dorsal view (SEM image). Scale bar: (a) 100 mm, (b-c) 0.5 mm

But the brutal truth is that some of the talks were much less engaging. As the fish, sloths and birds prove, it’s not necessarily the fault of the taxa being studied — other factors are more important.

In a moment of frustration during one of the less appealing talks, I made a list of four basic points that contribute to a talk being compelling.

Here they are.

1. Love your taxon. It’s one of the main generators of enthusiasm, and nothing is more engaging than enthusiasm. I’ve seen dinosaur talks given by people who clearly don’t much care for dinosaurs. It comes through and destroys the appeal of the talk. Conversely, at TetZooCon a couple of months ago, one of the highlights was Helen Meredith’s talk “What have amphibians ever done for us?” about a group that doesn’t honestly excite me much — but the amphibians excited her so much that I caught that excitement. Ditto for Lionel Hautier’s sloth talk at SVPCA.

What to do if you don’t love your taxon? Give a talk about something you do love. If you don’t love anything, why are you in this field? Really, without enthusiasm, you’re lost. If you don’t care, neither will we. So care.

2. Show us pictures of your taxon. If you’re a particle physicist, pretty much the only thing you can show in your talk is graphs. But one of the great things about vertebrate palaeontology and comparative anatomy is that the field is just bursting with beautiful, photogenic objects. So for heaven’s sake show them to us! Yes yes, you may legitimately have to show graphs later on when you get to the hardcore stuff, but your best bet to get us interested in (say) voles is to show us that they’re interesting. In palaeo, that means we need to see both bones and life restorations.

3. Engage with the audience. That means you need to know your material well enough that you don’t need to be reading notes. Yes, notes are a help if you’re nervous, but they absolutely kill any sense of connection between speaker and listeners. Do whatever it takes to avoid a monotone.

There are two ways to do this. The simplest is to learn your talk. Write it out longhand if you find that helpful, but then rehearse it enough times that you don’t need the script — so that seeing each slide is enough to send you, Pavlov-like, into the relevant bit of spiel. Then you can be making eye contact and waving your hands around, just like you would if you were explaining something in a pub.

The second way to do it is even better. Don’t just learn your talk but learn your subject. If you get sufficiently familiar with (say) sauropod necks, then you can hardly watch one of your slides come up and not start talking about what it shows you. It’s better to fly blind (even if you risk a crash) than to crawl. (And of course you’re not really blind: preparing the slides burns the narrative of the talk into your mind, so that you know where you’re going even without really trying.)

4. Tell a story. People are wired to love stories. It’s not coincidence that Aesop and Jesus both did their moral teaching principally through stories; nor that Dawkins’ fine explanations of evolution are expressed in pretty much story form. People who are listening to a story want to know what happens next.

“I did a principle component analysis” is not a story. “How separate radiations of anole lizards evolved to fill the same set of ecological niches” is a story. If a principle component analysis is the way you reach the punchline of that story, fine: the point is, you’ve made us care about the PCA before we get to it, because we want to find out what happens to the cute little lizards (which you showed us lots of nice pictures of early on).


Here is the key point that underlies all this, and which I fear students are not always told as clearly as they should be: talks are not papers. A paper by convention is dry. It’s mostly words, equations and (often) graphs. A talk can’t afford to be dry, and by nature is about images and speech. It’s a much more human thing.

Here’s one reason why. We only read papers that we’re already interested in. I’ll read the sauropod papers in JVP, but skip over the fish, sloth and bird papers. That’s because I am already invested in sauropods, and because I know enough about them to make sense of a dry, technical paper. But when we go to conferences, we hear talks on lots of things that we’re not pre-interested in. A good speaker makes us interested. She has to. In short, a paper is directed at a specialist audience, while a talk has to win an audience from among non-specialists.

To be even shorter: talks should be fun to watch and listen to!


[See also: Tutorial 16: giving good talks (in four parts)]

16 Responses to “Give a talk that holds attention!”

  1. brian engh Says:

    Nice guidelines!! I may be giving a talk on dinosaur life restorations in the near future and I will definitely be referring back to this!

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Nice — You certainly won’t lack for visuals!

  3. You’re not wrong Mike; there were some corkers and some stinkers.

  4. Great post! Perfect timing really too (preparing my first conference paper in two weeks and terrified of boring everyone to sleep)… but who can resist piggy pictures???

  5. Ab-so-friggin-lutely.

    Every. Single. Damn. Word!!

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Tom, that means a lot to me.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    A friend of mine and I were discussing the seeming lack of interest in regards to certain vertebrate taxa within the wider vertebrate paleontological community, and we came up with the same conclusion that the exact same issues were to blame. Specifically, we were thinking of post-Jurassic lizards and lissamphibians, which seem to be considered some of the driest groups to study if you go by the general consensus.

    In most presentations, researchers on these groups tend to treat specimens more as data points on a graph than the bones of long-dead animals (though maybe [hopefully] I’ve been just sitting through the wrong presentations). Yet this is also the same group that includes such crazy things as polyglyphanodonts and modern taxa that do some seriously crazy stuff. My friend got the impression that the reason scientists who work on such groups tend to avoid trying to present their research in a way that seems sensational or exciting, because in their mind that would make them no better than the people who study dinosaurs or elpistostegalians or glamorous mammals groups like carnivorans or primates who “sex up” their discoveries to make them more popular. Of course, that isn’t the case. If you can’t even convince us why you think your group of study is important, how are you going to convince us?

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Good point anonymous. Ironically, it may be that the good availability of multiple high-quality specimens hurts these groups, as it makes them susceptible to statistical approach that may make good science but don’t necessarily make interesting talks.

  9. LeeB Says:

    Very good comments.
    And regarding sloths, even if they are only stinking mammals it doesn’t mean they are totally uninteresting.
    Some grew to elephant size and others weighing about a tonne dug burrows that are two metres in diameter and can be sixty metres long.
    These may be the largest burrowing animals ever; unless of course therizinosaurs burrowed ;-) .

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    I didn’t know that about the burrowing! But, yes, generally I consider sloths among the most interesting mammals.

  11. eotyrannus Says:

    Mike.. I thought you read Tet Zoo? Ha ha.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    I read bits of Tet Zoo, but honestly the pace that you keep up is too much for me even to read — how you write it, I can’t imagine.

  13. […] we’re going to be cohabitating for a week [at this palaeo conference — Ed.]. Feel free to broaden my musical […]

  14. Fantastic advice, I’ll definitely be referring back to this for a talk I’m doing in the near future. cheers!

  15. BenB Says:

    “I consider sloths among the most interesting mammals” i.e. “I consider sloths boring.”

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