I wanted to get my initial report on the Joni Mitchell conference out quickly. But since posting it, more thoughts have bubbled up through my mind. I’m thinking here mostly about how a humanities conference varies from a science one. Now of course this is only anecdote, nothing like a scientific survey: my sample size is one conference (for humanities) and only one field for science (vert palaeo, natch), so we should beware of generalising from these observations.

With that understood …

The Minerva Building of the University of Lincoln, where the main conference sessions took place.

The Minerva Building of the University of Lincoln, where the main conference sessions took place.

The Joni conference had mostly parallel sessions: a pair of panels early in the morning, then a pair in the later morning, then three simultaneous panels in the after-lunch session before dropping down to a single plenary session for the later afternoon. (My talk was in one of the three parallel panels, so less well attended than it might otherwise have been.) I don’t know how common this is in humanities conferences, but it’s never done at SVPCA or ProgPal. SVP, of course, does run parallel sessions — but then that is a very big meeting, with thousands of delegates.

I used the word “panel” in that description, which I’ve not come across in science conferences. It refers to one of a set of parallel sessions. The idea is that all the talks in a panel are on a somewhat related subject, and the panel ends with all the speakers coming back to the front together, for a discussion with the audience and among themselves. This is actually a really nice way to run things — much better than the very nominal Q&As at the end of SVPCA talks. It helps you to develop a sense of who people are, as well as digging deeper into the topics. My sense is that this is pretty typical of humanities conferences.

One less positive difference is that it seems far more acceptable in the humanities to read papers out loud from manuscripts. By no means everyone did this, but quite a few did, and it seemed to be thought normal. This did work out well for me in one respect, though. Because of the parallel panels, I missed a talk I would have liked to have heard, on using Joni’s music in therapeutic contexts. But when I later spoke to the author of that paper, she was able to give me a hardcopy of the talk. (I read it today.)

Did I say “Joni”? One aspect of this conference that corresponded pretty well with my prejudices was a sort of liberal guilt that popped up its head from time to time. Most of the speakers referred to our subject as “Joni” rather than “Mitchell”. In the round-table discussion at the end, someone suggested this implied an unwarranted level of intimacy, and indicated an unconscious sexism on the part of the participants. There was quite a bit of agreement with this, but I don’t buy it. I think we refer to Joni Mitchell as “Joni”, when we don’t refer to Paul Simon as “Paul” for two reasons: one practical, one fundamental. First, because Joni is a rare and distinctive name, whereas Paul could be Paul McCartney; and second because the high level of self-disclosure in Joni’s music creates the impression of intimacy. I don’t think it’s anything to do with her being female and Simon being male.

Similarly, there was some angst about cultural appropriation regarding Joni’s use of jazz idioms, and particularly about her appearance as a black man on the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977):


I can certainly see how that cover makes people uncomfortable in 2015, and I can easily imagine that it would have done even in the very different climate of 1977. On the other hand, it felt a bit strange to be part of a 100% white audience debating this. I’m not sure what conclusion would be appropriate, so I won’t attempt one.

Finally, the demographics of the conference were maybe the biggest surprise. I’m not good at noticing race, so I may have missed someone; but as far as I’m aware there was not a single non-caucasian face at the conference. And perhaps even more surprising, in a conference about a feminist icon[*], although the attendance was about 50-50 men and women, the programme was dominated by male speakers. From a quick scan of the programme, I make it 15 men to 7 women, so more than twice as many.

As with most of what I’ve said here, I have no idea what to make of this. I just offer it up as an observation, and I’ll be glad to know what others make of it all.

[*] Joni Mitchell has explicitly disowned the description “feminist” on more than one occasion; but as a woman who not only held her own in man’s world but by most judgements dominated it, she is certainly an admirable example of practical, if not dogmatic, feminism.


I got back this lunchtime from something a bit different in my academic career. I attended Court and Spark: an International Symposium on Joni Mitchell, hosted by the university of Lincoln and organised by Ruth Charnock.


I went mostly because I love Joni Mitchell’s music. But also partly because, as a scientist, I have a necessarily skewed perspective on scholarship as a whole, and I want to see whether I could go some way to correcting that by immersing myself in the world of the humanities for a day.

My own talk was on “Musical progress and emotional stasis from Blue (1971) to Hejira (1976)”. I’ve posted the abstract and the slides on my publications list, and you can get a broad sense of what was in it from this blog-post about Hejira which talks a lot about Blue. (The talk was inspired by that blog-post, but it had a lot of new material as well.) I plan to write it up as a paper when I get a moment.

I was up in session 3, after lunch, so I’d had a couple of sessions to get used to how things were done. As far as I can tell, it seemed to go over pretty well, and there was some good discussion afterwards.

So how does a humanities conference stack up against a science one?

They were much less different than I’d imagined they would be. The main difference is that talks are called “papers”. As in “Did you hear the paper about X?”, or “I gave a paper on Y”. There was perhaps a little more time dedicated to discussion than at SVP or SVPCA.

Because I didn’t know how to dress, I erred on the side of conservative. As a result, I was the only man in the building wearing a tie, and was consequently the most overdressed person present — something that has never happened to me before, and likely never will again. (I typically wear a tie two or three times a year.)

All in all I had a great time. I’m currently in the process of trying to get my eldest son to appreciate Joni (he’s more of a prog-metal fan, which I can respect); against that backdrop, it was great to be surrounded be people who get it, who know all the repertoire, and who recognise allusions dropped into conversation. Also: beers with fellow-travellers between the main conference and the Maka Maron interview event in the evening; wine reception afterwards; Chinese food after that; after-party when we couldn’t eat any more food. (It was nice being invited along to that, given that I’d never met any of the people before yesterday, and only even exchanged email with one of them.)

I’d had to get up 4:45 in the morning to drive up to Lincoln in time for the conference, so all in all it was a long day. But well worth doing.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

When Susie Maidment presented her in-progress research at SVP in Berlin last week, someone came in late, missed her “no tweeting, please” request, and posted a screenshot of the new work (since deleted).

On the back of that, Susie started an interesting thread in which it became apparent that people have very different assumptions. She, and Marc Jones, and others, were assuming that if you don’t tell people it’s OK to tweet, then they’ll know not to. Meanwhile, I, and Björn Brembs, and others were assuming the opposite: unless someone says not to tweet, you’re good to go.

Obviously this state of affairs is a recipe for disaster.  We’re all going to find ourselves giving presentations where we assume the audience will be doing one thing, but at least some audience members are assuming the other.

So the first thing to say is that we should be explicit about our expectations. My talk at SVPCA this year contained this slide:


I’m going to get into the habit of including something like this every time. Similarly, people who don’t want material from their talks appearing on Twitter should say so.

The second thing is that conferences should state their default policies (always of course allowing individual authors to override them). Someone at, say, SVP, should know from the registration material either that it’s OK to tweet unless told not to, or that it’s not OK to tweet unless told that it is. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that different conferences would lean in different directions on this.

The third thing is in the absence of other guidance, it’s better not to tweet. I feel a bit uncomfortable about this because it goes against my pro-open tendencies, but it’s a matter of failing safe. If I want you to tweet my talk but but I forget to say so and there is no conference-wide policy (or the conference policy is No Tweeting), then you won’t tweet it, and that is a missed opportunity –but I’ll live. But if Susie doesn’t want you to tweet but forgets to say so, and you do, then she will be unhappier. (For example, in the present case, Susie is hoping for a media splash, which could be diluted if knowledge of the new finding is already leaking out.

To summarise:

  • Individual presenters should say what they want.
  • The conference should provide a default policy
  • If the absence of both, fail safe by not tweeting.

That’s what I think, anyway. What do you think?

Gender balance at SVPCA

September 17, 2014

I’ve always thought of SVPCA as a pretty well gender-balanced conference: if not 50-50 men and women, then no more than 60-40 slanted towards men. So imagine my surprise when I ran the actual numbers.

1. Delegates. I went through the delegate list at the back of the abstracts book, counting the men and women. Those I knew, or whose name made it obvious, I noted down; the half-dozen that I couldn’t easily categorise, I have successfully stalked on the Internet. So I now know that there were 39 women and 79 men — so that women made up 33% of the delegates, almost exactly one third.

Official conference photo, SVPCA 2014, York, UK.

Official conference photo, SVPCA 2014, York, UK.

2. Presentations. There were a total of 50 presentations in the three days of SVPCA: 18 on days 1 and 3, and 14 on day 2, which had a poster session in place of the final session of four talks. I counted the presenters (which were usually, but not always, the lead authors). Here’s how the number of talks by women broke down:

Day one: 2 of 18
Day two: 8 of 14
Day three: 3 of 18

In total, this gives us 13 of 50 talks by women, or 26%.

3. Presenter:delegate ratios. Since 37 of the 79 attending men gave talks, that’s 47% of them; but only 13 of the 39 attending women gave talks, which is 33%. On other words, a man attending SVPCA was 40% more likely to give a talk than a woman.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. I was shocked when I found that only one ninth of the first day’s talks were by women. It’s a statistical oddity that women actually dominated day two, but day three was nearly as unbalanced as day one.

Since SVPCA accepts pretty much every submitted talk, the conference itself can’t be blamed for the imbalance. (At least, not unless you think the organisers should turn down talks by men just because they’re men, leaving blank spots in the program.) It seems that the imbalance more likely reflects that of the field in general. Maybe more disturbing is that the proportion of women giving talks was rather less than the proportion attending (26% vs. 33%) which suggests that perhaps women feel more confident about attending than about presenting.

It would be interesting to know how these numbers compare with SVP’s.

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)]

As recently noted, it was my pleasure and privilege on 25 June to give a talk at the ESOF2014 conference in Copenhagen (the EuroScience Open Forum). My talk was one of four, followed by a panel discussion, in a session on the subject “Should science always be open?“.


I had just ten minutes to lay out the background and the problem, so it was perhaps a bit rushed. But you can judge for yourself, because the whole session was recorded on video. The image is not the greatest (it’s hard to make out the slides) and the audio is also not all it could be (the crowd noise is rather loud). But it’s not too bad, and I’ve embedded it below. (I hope the conference organisers will eventually put out a better version, cleaned up by video professionals.)

Subbiah Arunachalam (from Arun, Chennai, India) asked me whether the full text of the talk was available — the echoey audio is difficult for non-native English speakers. It wasn’t but I’ve sinced typed out a transcript of what I said (editing only to remove “er”s and “um”s), and that is below. Finally, you may wish to follow the slides rather than the video: if so, they’re available in PowerPoint format and as a PDF.


It’s very gracious of you all to hold this conference in English; I deeply appreciate it.

“Should science always be open?” is our question, and I’d like to open with one of the greatest scientists there’s ever been, Isaac Newton, who humility didn’t come naturally to. But he did manage to say this brilliant humble thing: “If I have seen further, it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

And the reason I love this quote is not just because it’s insightful in itself, but because he stole it from something John of Salisbury said right back in 1159. “Bernard of Chartres used to say that we were like dwarfs seated on the shoulders of giants. If we see more and further than they, it is not due to our own clear eyes or tall bodies, but because we are raised on high and upborne by their gigantic bigness.”

Well, so Newton — I say he stole this quote, but of course he did more than that: he improved it. The original is long-winded, it goes around the houses. But Newton took that, and from that he made something better and more memorable. So in doing that, he was in fact standing on the shoulders of giants, and seeing further.

And this is consistently where progress comes from. It’s very rare that someone who’s locked in a room on his own thinking about something will have great insights. It’s always about free exchange of ideas. And we see this happening in lots of different fields.

Over the last ten or fifteen years, enormous advances in the kinds of things computers working in networks can do. And that’s come from the culture of openness in APIs and protocols, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, where these things are designed.

Going back further and in a completely different field, the Impressionist painters of Paris lived in a community where they were constantly — not exactly working together, but certainly nicking each other’s ideas, improving each other’s techniques, feeding back into this developing sense of what could be done. Resulting in this fantastic art.

And looking back yet further, Florence in the Renaissance was a seat of all sorts of advances in the arts and the sciences. And again, because of this culture of many minds working together, and yielding insights and creativity that would not have been possible with any one of them alone.

And this is because of network effects; or Metcalfe’s Law expresses this by saying that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes in that network. So in terms of scientific reasearch, what that means is that if you have a corpus of published research output, of papers, then the value of that goes — it doesn’t just increase with the number of papers, it goes up with the square of the number of papers. Because the value isn’t so much in the individual bits of research, but in the connections between them. That’s where great ideas come from. One researcher will read one paper from here and one from here, and see where the connection or the contradiction is; and from that comes the new idea.

So it’s very important to increase the size of the network of what’s available. And that’s why we have a very natural tendency, I think among scientists particularly, but I think we can say researchers in other areas as well, have a natural tendency to share.

Now until recently, the big difficulty we’ve had with sharing has been logistical. It was just difficult to make and distribute copies of pieces of research. So this [picture of a printing press] is how we made copies, this [picture of stacks of paper] was what we stored them on, and this was how we transmitted them from one researcher to another.

And they were not the most efficient means, or at least not as efficient as what we now have available. And because of that, and because of the importance of communication and the links between research, I would argue that maybe the most important invention of the last hundred years is the Internet in general and the World Wide Web in particular. And the purpose of the Web, as it was initially articulated in the first public post that Tim Berners-Lee made in 1991 — he explained not just what the Web was but what it was for, and he said: “The project started with the philosophy that much academic information should be freely available to anyone. It aims to allow information sharing within internationally dispersed teams, and the dissemination of information by support groups.”

So that’s what the Web is for; and here’s why it’s important. I’m quoting here from Cameron Neylon, who’s great at this kind of thing. And again it comes down to connections, and I’m just going to read out loud from his blog: “Like all developments of new communication networks, SMS, fixed telephones, the telegraph, the railways, and writing itself, the internet doesn’t just change how well we can do things, it qualitatively changes what we can do.” And then later on in the same post: “At network scale the system ensures that resources get used in unexpected ways. At scale you can have serendipity by design, not by blind luck.”

Now that’s a paradox; it’s almost a contradiction, isn’t it? Serendipity by definition is what you get by blind luck. But the point is, when you have enough connections — enough papers floating around the same open ecosystem — all the collisions happening between them, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get interesting things coming out. And that’s what we’re aiming towards.

And of course it’s never been more important, with health crises, new diseases, the diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics, the difficulties of feeding a world of many billions of people, and the results of climate change. It’s not as though we’re short of significant problems to deal with.

So I love this Jon Foley quote. He said, “Your job” — as a researcher — “Your job is not to get tenure! Your job is to change the world”. Tenure is a means to an end, it’s not what you’re there for.

So this is the importance of publishing. Of course the word “publish” comes from the same root as the word “public”: to publish a piece of research means to make that piece of research public. And the purpose of publishing is to open research up to the world, and so open up the world itself.

And that’s why it’s so tragic when we run into this [picture of a paywalled paper]. I think we’ve all seen this at various times. You go to read a piece of research that’s valuable, that’s relevant to either the research you’re doing, or the job you’re doing in your company, or whatever it might be. And you run into this paywall. Thirty five dollars and 95 cents to read this paper. It’s a disaster. Because what’s happened is we’ve got a whole industry whose existence is to make things public, and who because of accidents of history have found themselves doing the exact opposite. Now no-one goes into publishing with the intent of doing this. But this is the unfortunate outcome.

So what we end up with is a situation where we’re re-imposing on the research community barriers that were necessarily imposed by the inadequate technology of 20 or 30 years ago, but which we’ve now transcended in technological terms but we’re still strugging with for, frankly, commercial reasons. This is why we’re struggling with this.

And I don’t like to be critical, but I think we have to just face the fact that there is a real problem when organisations, for many years have been making extremely high profits — these [36%, 32%, 34%, 42%] are the profit margins of the “big four” academic publishers which together hugely dominate the scholarly publishing market — and as you can see they’re in the range 32% to 42% of revenue, is sheer profit. So every time your university library spends a dollar on subscriptions, 40% of that goes straight out of the system to nowhere.

And it’s not surprising that these companies are hanging on desperately to the business model that allows them to do that.

Now the problem we have in advocating for open access is that when we stand against publishers who have an existing very profitable business model, they can complain to governments and say, “Look, we have a market that’s economically significant, it’s worth somewhere in the region of 10-15 billion US dollars a year.” And they will say to governments, “You shouldn’t do anything that might damage this.” And that sounds effective. And we struggle to argue against that because we’re talking about an opportunity cost, which is so much harder to measure.

You know, I can stand here — as I have done — and wave my hands around, and talk about innovation and opportunity, and networks and connections, but it’s very hard to quantify in a way that can be persuasive to people in a numeric way. Say, they have a 15 billion dollar business, we’re talking about saving three trillion’s worth of economic value (and I pulled that number out of thin air). So I would love, if we can, when we get to the discussions, to brainstorm some way to quantify the opportunity cost of not being open. But this is what it looks like [picture of flooding due to climate change]. Economically I don’t know what it’s worth. But in terms of the world we live in, it’s just essential.

So we’ve got to remember the mission that we’re on. We’re not just trying to save costs by going to open access publishing. We’re trying to transform what research is, and what it’s for.

So should science always be open? Of course, the name of the session should have been “Of course science should always be open”.

Belated update (24 September 2015)

I should have noted this long before, but the live-drawn poster that summarised all the talks in the session was scanned, and is available on the Zenodo respository. Here is the direct link to the JPEG (12912 by 3455 pixels).

My present Twitter avatar is based on the caricature of me in this poster.


You may know that the inaugral TetZooCon is set to take place next Saturday (12 July) at the London Wetland Centre. It’s an informal convention that’s condensed around occasional SV-POW!sketeer Darren Naish’s absurdly informative blog Tetrapod Zoology, and features a day of talks, a palaeoart workshop and a quiz. At £40 for the day, it’s a bit of a bargain.

Among the speakers is my own good self, and I will be talking about why giraffes are rubbish.

Taylor and Wedel 2013a: Figure 3. Necks of long-necked sauropods, to scale. Diplodocus, modified from elements in Hatcher (1901, plate 3), represents a “typical” long-necked sauropod, familiar from many mounted skeletons in museums. Puertasaurus, Sauroposeidon, Mamenchisaurus and Supersaurus modified from Scott Hartman’s reconstructions of Futalognkosaurus, Cedarosaurus, Mamenchisaurus and Supersaurus respectively. Alternating pink and blue bars are one meter in width. Inset shows Fig. 1 to the same scale.

Taylor and Wedel 2013a: Figure 3. Necks of long-necked sauropods, to scale. Diplodocus, modified from elements in Hatcher (1901, plate 3), represents a “typical” long-necked sauropod, familiar from many mounted skeletons in museums. Puertasaurus, Sauroposeidon, Mamenchisaurus and Supersaurus modified from Scott Hartman’s reconstructions of Futalognkosaurus, Cedarosaurus, Mamenchisaurus and Supersaurus respectively. Alternating pink and blue bars are one meter in width. Inset shows Fig. 1 to the same scale.

If that sounds like your idea of a good time, then you need to move fast! Booking closes at 4pm this evening. Better get on it now!


As the conference season heaves into view again, I thought it was worth gathering all four parts of the old Tutorial 16 (“giving good talks”) into one place, so it’s easy to link to. So here they are:

  • Part 1: Planning: finding a narrative
    • Make us care about your project.
    • Tell us a story.
    • You won’t be able to talk about everything you’ve done this year.
    • Omit much that is relevant.
    • Pick a single narrative.
    • Ruthlessly prune.
    • Find a structure that begins at the beginning, tells a single coherent story from beginning to end, and then stops.
  • Part 2: The slides: presenting your information to be understood
    • Make yourself understood.
    • The slides for a conference talk are science, not art.
    • Don’t “frame” your content.
    • Whatever you’re showing us, let us see it.
    • Use as little text as possible.
    • Use big fonts.
    • Use high contrast between the text and background.
    • No vertical writing.
    • Avoid elaborate fonts.
    • Pick a single font.
    • Stick to standard fonts.
    • You might want to avoid Ariel.
    • Do not use MS Comic Sans Serif.
    • Use a consistent colour palette.
    • Avoid putting important information at the bottom.
    • Avoid hatching.
    • Skip the fancy slide transitions.
    • Draw highlighting marks on your slides.
    • Show us specimens!
  • Part 3: Rehearsal: honing the story and how it’s told
    • Fit into the time.
    • Become fluent in delivery.
    • Maintain flow and momentum.
    • Decide what to cut.
    • Get feedback.
  • Part 4: Delivery: telling the story
    • Speak up!
    • Slow down!
    • Don’t panic!

Also, some addenda written later:

  • Addendum 1: give a talk that holds attention!
    • Love your taxon.
    • Show us pictures of your taxon.
    • Engage with the audience.
    • Tell a story.
    • Talks are not papers.
  • Addendum 2: giving talks: what to leave out
    • Don’t start by saying the title.
    • Don’t introduce yourself.
    • Don’t reiterate your conclusions at the end.
    • Don’t say “thanks for listening”.
    • Don’t read the acknowledgements out loud.
    • Don’t say “I’ll be happy to take questions”.
  • Addendum 3: giving talks: some more positive thoughts
    • Offer lots of jump-back-on points.
    • Anticipate possible objections and meet them in advance.
    • Do the work to make it worth the audience’s while.
    • Efficiently introduce a taxon and make it interesting before launching into details.


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.

The best part of a month ago, we posted the first two articles in a series of four on giving good talks: part 1 on planning, and part 2 on preparing the actual slides.  Then we got distracted and posted a whole sequence of articles on Open Access ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6]).  If that seems like an intimidating sequence to catch up, you should just read the last one, which shows that the money Elsevier alone takes out of academia is enough to fund every research article in every field in the world as open access at PLoS ONE’s rate.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

If you followed the advice in the first part of this series, your talk has a clear story that it means to tell, and your slides illustrate the story with maximum clarity.  As you’ve been assembling the slides, you’ve also been figuring out what you want to actually say.  So are you ready to give the talk now?

Not if you want it to be the best it can be.  And why wouldn’t you?

A few years ago, when I was still a student, I was talking with a well established and respected professional about preparing talks.  He was very casual about it.  “That’s one of the big differences between an old pro and a student”, he told me.  “Students take a long time over preparing their talks, but the pros just throw it together on the plane on the way over.”  I nodded and smiled politely; and said to myself, “so that’s why students’ talks are usually better.”

So why do you need to rehearse your talk?

1. Fitting into the time

One of the most unprofessional things you can do is run over your time-slot.  If you do this, then you’d better hope you have a good session moderator, who will cut you off dead.  The alternative is that all the people who are scheduled to follow you in that session will hate you forever, for eating into their time.

You also don’t want to fall short of filling your time — it’s rarer, but I’ve seen it done that someone gives a talk that takes maybe eleven minutes, and then has to squirm at the podium taking a sequence of increasingly irrelevant questions for nine minutes.

You want to aim to come in about a minute before the end of your slot, maybe two minutes max.  That allows time for a couple of questions; or in emergencies, allows you a little bit of slop, in case you misjudge your pace.

With experience it becomes possible to estimate roughly how long your talk is going to take just from the slides.  But you never really know until you actually give it.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a grad student giving your first talk, an established researcher, or an emeritus professor: be a pro, rehearse your talk, and hit your mark.

2. Becoming fluent in delivery

A simple one.  You don’t want to be one of those speakers who keeps having to stop and think “Now what was I going to say next?” or “Why did I put that slide in again?”  You want to talk clearly, confidently and fluently.  How does that happen?  Practice!

3. Maintaining flow and momentum

This isn’t the same thing as mere fluency.  That’s about how you speak, but this is about what you’re going to say.  You already know the Big Picture of the story you’re going to tell from way back in the planning stage, and you know much of the detail because it’s in the slides.  But you will never know how well it works until you actually give the talk.  In my experience there is always something that needs changing to keep the story moving, and to keep it engaging.

It may be that I start talking about the perforated anterior centroparapophyseal laminae of Giraffatitan without having said what a centroparapophyseal lamina is.  I need another slide showing what this is.

Or it may be that some slides I have later in my talk need to be pulled up closer to the front, because they lay out background information.

Or, conversely, I have a sequence of slides near the start of the talk that don’t really follow from what preceded them or lead into what follows; but they make sense when I shift them further back in the talk.

It’s amazing how often it is that you only find these problems by actually running the talk.  No amount of paging through the slides and frowning thoughtfully will reveal these structural gaffes.  You need to actually use the slides, in the context of giving a talk, to see where the structure is off.

In fact, it can be useful to think in terms of building two talks. When you make the slides, you’re really piling up raw material, which will hopefully be close to everything you’ll end up needing, but will almost certainly not be an exact fit. It’s often necessary to rebuild the talk to some extent during rehearsal, as you learn by experience what you don’t need, what you do, and what order it should come in.  The talk you end up with, even if it uses nearly all the same material, can be different in fundamental ways from the one you started with.

4. Deciding what to cut

This is a special case of  maintaining flow, but I want to treat is separately because it’s so painful to do.

I hate cutting slides that I have expended valuable effort on.  But I end up doing it in nearly every talk that I give.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the slides: they just don’t fit the flow of the talk.  Maybe they’re off on a tangent that isn’t in the direction you need to go; sometimes they are just redundant.

In my last talk, I had a sequence of slides showing that the sequence of cervicals in the AMNH Camarasaurus specimens were not complete or articulated or even necessarily each from a single animal.  They were beautiful slides, including cleaned up plates from Osborn and Mook 1921, the single greatest ever publication on sauropods.  But when I ran the talk, it was apparent that they just weren’t necessary.  They followed slides when I showed that the necks of Giraffatitan HMN SII, Apatosaurus louisae CM 3018 and and Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis CCG V 20401 were incomplete, disarticulated or distorted.  If I’d then gone on to do the same for Camarasaurus, the audience would have been saying “All right, we get it already, can we move on now?”

So I cut the slides.  It hurt to do it.  But it made a better talk.

Pro tip: it’s easier to make too many slides, and decide what to cut after a rehearsal run or two, than to make too few slides, come in short, and have to pad things out. And when you cut slides, don’t actually delete them out of the presentation file. Move them to the very end, after your conclusion and acknowledgment slides. That serves two purposes: first, those slides are still around in case you decide later you need them back in the talk (because you ditched something else, for example), and second, it’s worth leaving them even in the final version, because they might come in handy during the post-talk Q&A. Sometimes you only have room to discuss n points in the talk, and if point n+1 is covered in a post-conclusion slide and someone in the audience fortuitously sets you up to talk about that with their question, you can sneak a little more presenting into the Q&A time (don’t force it though).

5. Getting feedback

So far I’ve not said who to rehearse your talk to.  For much of what I’ve discussed above, it suffices to run it on your own, with only a stopwatch for company.  That can help you with timing, fluency and flow.

But it’s not really a talk until you give it to someone.  So I strongly encourage you to find a victim, and deliver the talk exactly as you will at the conference.  Get your victim to make notes as you speak, then go through them afterwards.  (Do not stop to discuss as you’re giving the talk: not only will it mess up the timings, it will break the flow that you’re trying to understand.)

There are plenty of reasons to do this.

  • The pace of your delivery will be different when you are talking to a real human being.
  • Speaking with an audience will show you whether you truly know the material well enough to cruise confidently through it.
  • Someone who is new to the material will spot flaws that you have become overfamiliar with and can’t see any more.
  • Someone who doesn’t know the material as well as you do will go “huh?” when you suddenly start talking about centroparapophyseal laminae without so much as a by-your-leave.

In a completely ideal world, you’d run the talk on your own, then with a fellow expert in your own field, and finally with an intelligent layman — either someone who works in a different subfield, or perhaps a different field altogether.  That’s how you discover whether you’ve included the right background information for non-specialists to follow your argument.

Do all this, make the relevant tweaks to your slides, and you will — finally! — be ready to actually deliver the talk at the conference.  We’ll discuss that next time.