Tutorial 39: how not to conclude a talk or paper

March 19, 2021

“And in conclusion, this new fossil/analysis shows that Lineageomorpha was more [here fill in the blank]:

  • diverse
  • morphologically varied
  • widely distributed geographically
  • widely distributed stratigraphically

…than previously appreciated.” 

Yes, congratulations, you’ve correctly identified that time moves forward linearly and that information accumulates. New fossils that make a group less diverse, varied, or widely distributed–now that’s a real trick.

Okay, that was snarky to the point of being mean, and here I must clarify that (1) I haven’t been to a conference in more than a year, so hopefully no-one thinks I’m picking on them, which is good, because (2) I myself have ended talks this way, so I’m really sniping at Old Matt.

And, yeah, new fossils are nice. But for new fossils or new analyses to expand what we know is expected. It’s almost the null hypothesis for science communication–if something doesn’t expand what we know, why are we talking about it? So that find X or analysis Y takes our knowledge beyond what was “previously appreciated” is good, but it’s not a particularly interesting thing to say out loud, and it’s a really weak conclusion.

(Some cases where just being new is enough: being surprisingly new, big expansions [like hypothetically finding a tyrannosaur in Argentina], and new world records.)

Don’t be Old Matt. Find at least one thing to say about your topic that is more interesting or consequential than the utterly pedestrian observation that it added information that was not “previously appreciated”. The audience already suspected that before you began, or they wouldn’t be here.

I showed this post to Mike before I published it, and he said, “What first made you want to work on this project? That’s your punchline: the thing that was cool enough that you decided to invest months of effort into it.” Yes! Don’t just tell the audience that new information exists, tell them why it is awesome.

2 Responses to “Tutorial 39: how not to conclude a talk or paper”

  1. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    This goes for paper titles as well. I’m especially annoyed when the talking point is that the distribution is greater in a completely subjective sense. Like “Latest Jurassic tyrannosauroid discovered so far” or “First dromaeosaurid from southern Wyoming.”

  2. […] On Saturday I gave her a good soak in some warm distilled water and scrubbed her shell with a toothbrush. She shined up beautifully. I should have tried shooting a video, because the keratinous scutes on her shell are a bit translucent, and when full sunlight hits them they take on a depth and luster that I had not previously appreciated (heh). […]

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