Friday, September 9, 2016

Talk advice, especially for the inexperienced

There is nothing new in this post. But the issue  keeps coming up.
I have written many posts about this before.
My last one was Advice to undergrads giving research talks.
Perhaps the following basic point gets lost in all the suggestions.

Keep it simple.
In almost every situation, most of your audience knows very little about your specific research topic. In some cases, they know virtually nothing about your actual research field.

Thus, you need to cut out almost all the technical details and give plenty of background and motivation.

But again, you need to realistic. Don't kid yourself that in 5 minutes you are going to teach them Density Functional Theory or Two-dimensional NMR spectroscopy.

Have modest goals.
Teach the audience some interesting science.
Convince them that your topic/field is interesting and important.
Show them you have achieved something concrete and interesting.
Don't bore people.

But perhaps, these are ambitious goals because most talks I hear don't achieve them!


  1. Not meant as criticism, but I prefer level-based advice to directional advice. Over and over I have heard to keep talks simple and that most talks are too complicated. Being relatively conscientious, I follow that advice a little more each time I hear it. Unfortunately, it's 99% of the advice I hear, and I worry that it has driven my style to be *too* simple. My dissertation committee's major criticism of my defense was that it was too simple. I wish more advice in the world was given in a way that articulated how far was too far. Directional advice is less helpful than level-based advice. It is less complicated, though.

    I wish I had the time to better articulate my thoughts, but I hope I have conveyed the idea. Perhaps the issue of conscientious people taking directional advice too far is not important, but it's something that deeply and fundamentally worries me. Directional thinking, which is inherently binary in nature, I believe is related to the roots of many political disagreements. But that is a topic for another time.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful and helpful comment.

    I think you are correct. The reason that most advice is more directional than level based is it is much harder.

    Let me take up your challenge and try and give a few small concrete suggestions.

    In a theory talk zero (0) equations is bad.
    For most audiences, I would suggest 3-6 might be appropriate.

    In an experimental talk, zero (0) schematics of experimental data is a bad idea. Maybe 1-3 is appropriate.

    Some of the "how to give a good talk" articles I link to in my earlier post to make specific suggestions.

    I welcome comments from other readers.

  3. I think the most important level advice is to know your audience. If you are speaking to a department's condensed matter theory seminar, it is more acceptable to include more technical details (including equations), which the audience may need. In a full department colloquium, the most important part is to describe the problem and why it is interesting; the exact details of your contribution are often less important. The problem, which Ross has described very well, is that in any of these fora, too often the speaker assumes a facility with a particular theoretical machinery that most of the audience simply does not have. This, again, is a "know your audience" issue. Personally, I am very proud when I can give a theoretical talk that contains zero equations, but it is an unusual subject that permits sufficient explanation without the aid of equations. Whenever equations are on slides, though, they need to be up long enough to be explained and understood.

    I think the issue begins for graduate students because they come in knowing (next to) nothing about their research topic, and are confronted with papers by seemingly hundreds of people who all know the material extremely well. Those papers assume that the reader knows things, so the student believes that a) they should already know those things, too, and b) they can also assume that other educated physicists know them. A terrible talk ensues.

    1. Thanks of the helpful comment.

      I agree "know your audience" is the first step. Yet, it is amazing and distressing how often that either gets ignored or people seem to be oblivious to it.

      Your second paragraph has important new insights for me. Thanks.