Monday, March 9, 2015

The art and discipline of a good colloquium

There is a helpful and challenging article The Physics of Physics Colloquia by James Kakalios on The Back Page of the APS News. It is based around old notes Suggestions for giving talks by Robert Geroch.

Both Kakalios and Geroch are worth reading in full, but here are a few random things that stood out to me. [Things I need to keep working on].

"What is the key take-away point that you want to impress on everyone when they leave your talk?"

Divide the talk up, centred around 3 or 4 key messages.

"Figures are easier to understand than words."

"You have been staring at these data and plots for years, but many in the audience have not."

Don't include more than five non-trivial equations.

"It is almost always a disaster to run over time".

Much of this may seem "common sense". However, as management guru Steven Covey said, "Common sense is not common practise." Preparing and giving a good talk requires a lot of discipline, particularly with regard to cutting out material.


  1. I have recently hosted a large number of faculty candidates in our department. Quite a few asked how long their seminar should be. My answer is: "Think of the last time a speaker finished early and you were disappointed. Now think of the last time a speaker ran over time and your were pleased." A shorter talk with time for real questions and discussions is always better than a longer talk with a perfunctory (or no) time for Q&A, especially if the talk is aimed at a broad audience.

    1. David,

      Thanks for the helpful comment.
      I think this is particularly important for job candidates. I have seen too many faculty candidates "rule themselves out" with a bad talk.

      Going overtime and cutting short discussion may irritate some faculty, making them unsympathetic to the hire.

      I also think it is a worry to be hiring someone to teach who can't yet clearly communicate what they are on about in 40 minutes or so.