Monday, December 2, 2013

I have no idea what you are talking about

Sometimes when I am at a conference or in a seminar I find that I have absolutely no idea what the speaker is talking about. It is not just that I don't understand the finer technical details. I struggle to see the context, motivation, and background. The words are just jargon and the pictures are just wiggles and the equations random symbols. What is being measured or what is being calculated? Why? Is there a simple physical picture here? How is this related to other work?

A senior experimental colleague I spoke to encouraged me to post this. He thought that his similar befuddlement was because he wasn't a theorist.
There are three audiences for this message.

1. Me. I need to work harder at making my talks accessible and clear.

2. Other speakers. You need to work harder at making your talks accessible and clear.

3. Students. If you are also struggling don't assume that you are stupid and don't belong in science. It is probably because the speaker is doing a poor job. Don't be discouraged. Don't give up on going to talks. Have the courage to ask "stupid" questions.


  1. I quite like the seminar advice from Wilkins' web page, perhaps linked from one of your previous posts, which more or less says (probably not remembering it quite accurately): First, tell them what you will tell them. Then, tell them what you are telling them. Finally, tell them what you have told them.

  2. And even better advice...

  3. Hi Vipin and Peter,

    Thanks for the comments.
    Indeed, Wilkins was my mentor as a postdoc.
    The only problem with this advice is that some speakers think this means telling us some highly technical and specialised point that is lost on most of the audience.
    That is where David Mermin's article recommended by Peter comes in. His goal is incredibly modest. Just help the audience understand why you were motivated to do the research at all.
    Both resources I have highlighted on the blog before.
    But, we need to all keep working on this.

  4. You may have seen this already. Still, it is true and funny: