Thursday, November 17, 2016

On Academic Talks

I am beginning to suspect that most academics do not want to be heard. This is a paradox, given the number and regularity of academic talks. Indeed, some experts estimate that at least eighty thousand academic talks occur at any given moment, and that some three quarters of these are designed to fill up a time slot during the week which simply must be filled, lest we begin to think about what we used to do before meetings were invented. Most of the remainder are to distract the attendees from distressing events such as grant rejections, increases in conference fees, or foreign armies parachuting onto campus. Academic talks, like most variations of committee work, are becoming a polite form of debauch.

No matter. Regardless of how many talks they give, I still think these students, these professors, these men and women, do not want to be heard. Which is too bad. A talk, for me at least, is a chance to see, hear, and possibly smell the person behind the research. A talk injects red-blooded humanity into an enterprise which would rapidly become sterile without it. Journal articles and book chapters at best radiate a kind of cool elegance. Academic writing only tells me about what they think; I want to know more about what they feel. Where their passions lie. And when someone is talking to me in the same room they can't help but show some of those emotions, giving me a sense of why they are doing what they do in the first place.

Yet some of them would deny me even that pleasure. They talk to their laptop, or to the slides, but not to me. They use small font I can't read; complicated diagrams I can't follow; color schemes and animations that are in bad taste. I would be willing to forgive most of this if I could actually hear what they were saying. Usually I can't.

That has led me to outline six simple ways to improve a talk, any of which can be used profitably:

1. Suspense! If it is to have any worth at all, if it is to function as a stimulant and not a narcotic, a talk needs to have that essential ingredient of any effective story, which is suspense. When hearing a good story, the listener always wants to know what happens next: Who is this character, and what are his motivations? Why is there a note on the table and what does it say? What's the deal with those last two or three pages at the end of a book that are intentionally blank? So it is with good talks.

2. Dress well! A well-dressed speaker is a confident speaker, and a confident speaker is an engaging speaker. When in doubt, follow these "quick tips" on how to dress:

  • For Men:
    • Right way: Sport coat, open collar dress shirt, loafers, good pair of jeans.
    • Wrong way: Graphic tee with the words, "Legalize It."
  • For Ladies:
    • Right way: Pantsuit
    • Wrong way: Jeggings

3. Take notes! To be specific, have a friend take notes about you during your talk. Ideally, this should be a friend who is "brutally honest," also known as "being insufferable and pretentious when pointing out your flaws, and having it hurt even more because, deep down, you know he's right." Some people also refer to this person as "Dan."* No matter how much it hurts, remember that if you want to improve, you need to learn how to take criticism graciously! Also remember that when it's all over you can cut "Dan" out of your life completely.

4. Practice! The speaker putting together his slides at the last minute is guaranteed to embarrass himself and waste the audience's time. Since one of the major goals in life is to not be that one person everybody hates, avoid this by having your slides ready days in advance and doing at least two or three run-throughs ahead of time - preferably, in front of a live audience that includes Dan.

5. Eye contact! Try making eye contact with different people during your talk, but be careful of making eye contact for too little or too long. When in doubt, consult the following chart to make sure you hit the "sweet spot":

  • 1-2 seconds: Too little!
  • 2-5 seconds: Just right!
  • 5-10 seconds: Too much!
  • 10-15 seconds: Restraining order!
  • More than 15 seconds: This might be normal for, say, a serial killer

6. Lastly, find speakers you admire - and then imitate them. Really. Nothing helps your style more. Note their posture, the cadence of their voice, the way they carry themselves. Some rely more on humor, others have more of a quiet confidence; some tell stories that move the talk along, others tell you the point of the talk right away and never let you lose focus of it. But they all keep you wanting to know what happens next. They keep you in suspense.

Do not mistake this as recommending the substitution of humor for substance, of histrionics for actual thought. (The results are usually awful.) All I ask is that a speaker think about how he would want to be talked to, and then think about how seriously he has to prepare to meet that standard. Only then he begins to realize the gravity of his situation, no matter how small the talk or how low the stakes. In fact the stakes, when he thinks about it, are quite high. A typical one-hour talk attended by twenty of his colleagues can be either satisfyingly filled or grossly wasted, and a few simple calculations reveals a spread of forty attention-hours - a tremendous responsibility - all hinging on one man's decision about whether he actually wants to tell something and be heard. His choice is one between a successful talk and a crashing bore.

Now, I've witnessed more crashing bores than I would like to remember, and I've delivered more than I would like to admit. The fact is that there are far, far too many, and each one inflicts a serious loss on the audience - the loss of an hour they won't get back. (Were we not so complacent about what to expect out of a talk, we might feel more indignation.) Would they have wasted that hour anyway? Maybe. But a bad talk guarantees it.

*I specifically refer here to my labmate.