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.
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)]