Rethinking Scientific Talks

I’ve seen many a scientific talk, ranging from the truely inspiring, to the incredibly painful. I’ve also given many a scientific talk, ranging mostly to the incredibly painful end of the spectrum. Stuck in back of my head when I’m giving a not so good talk, there has always been a little devil saying “Come on, Dave, there has got to be a better way to give a talk!” Well usually I just ignore that little devil (“see him again on the forth of July”) but today watching a colloquium by Richard Anderson inspired me to think some crazy thoughts. Not because of the style of Richards talk, but instead because Richard is involved in a host of collaborative technology and its use in education, including the very cool Classroom presenter which I highly recommend for tablet based teaching.
Okay, so let me dream up a new way to give a scientific talk. First of all, I think we should take a lesson from Stephen Hawking. No, not a lesson in general relativity (allthough I’m quite certain that would be a great lesson, or at least a very hard lesson), but I mean I am totally jealous of Hawking’s speaking abilities. Why? Because he gets to write his talk before hand, plug it into his hand dandy speech synthesizer (“This synthesiser is by far the best I have heard, because it varies the intonation, and doesn’t speak like a Dalek. The only trouble is that it gives me an American accent.”), and then lets it rip. He just gets to sit back and enjoy his talk. Now I don’t think this is where I want scientific talks to be going totally. I don’t want prerecorded audio/video to be the only medium available for a talk. I mean sure, it is great to have resources like talks at the KITP, but I think scientific talks serve a broader goal than just the discinimation of a non-interactive lecture. But, let’s face it, giving a talk is hard. I mean live television, for example, is hard. But actors get to do multiple takes. They get to slowly think out the plan of their talk in advance and then don’t suffer from execution problems since they get to correct their mistakes. Certainly good speakers are the ones who can execute on demand, but isn’t there some way that we can use technology in an inovative manner to help bad speakers like me?
Deep breath. Okay so what am I advocating. First of all I want better presentation software. This software should allow me to prerecord parts of my talk. I should be able to then play this back at my own pace, stoping the prerecorded parts when I need to, jumping to parts which I’ve also recorded which explain tangential thoughts, as well as the ability for me to give a normal talk at any point AND I want this normal part of the talk to be recorded for posteriety so that I can use it if need be when I want to. I want giving a scientific talk to be more like being a music producer who can also sing their own song. I want my good explanations to be repeated and my bad ones to be easily thrown away. One inspiration for this is a talk which Manny Knill gives on fault-tolerance. As far as I can tell he has a big pdf file with all of the details of his work and he can easily move hyperlink style through the different relevant bits of information. This allows for a level of customization which the standard linear powerpoint doesn’t make natural (allthough I’m guessing there is a way to get powerpoint to imitate this, I just haven’t tried this or seen many people use it.)
Second I want vast communication to be occuring while I give a talk. One of the beauties of classroom presenter is that students can write on their tablet PCs and then send you up what they are writing. And its been my experience that the best talks are the talks where a great questioner is in the audience (for example any talk with Dorit Aharonov in the audience is destined to be a better talk!) Now the danger with allowing communication between the audience memebers during a talk is that they will be distracting. So first of all I think the in audience communication should not be point to point between audience members, but on a shared medium. Of great importance in this setup is people expressing questions or points they do not understand during a talk. I mean I can’t recall how many times I’ve given a talk and wondered how lost everyone is. With real time feedback it should be possible for talks to be adjusted on the fly to meet the demands of the audience. Further I think it can also help in that with a wide spectrum of viewers, some of the more informed viewers can actually help avert bad questions, which is probably almost as important as having a good questioner in the audience.
Okay, well the technology for carrying out talks like that I describe above is probably workable today. I think we lecture in particular styles because they have worked in the past, but I also think that we could probably use technology to allow us to give talks in an even more coherent and fullfilling manner. Well maybe I’m just dreaming, but someday, someday, I hope to give a heck of a talk that isn’t just me fumbling around with the laser pointer and mumbling something about hidden subgroups.

3 Replies to “Rethinking Scientific Talks”

  1. I just had a vision of Britney Spears lip syncing a guest lecture talk on semiconductors. I do like the recent idea of saving audio and recorded slide pacing with the presentation. Take it one step further, and include tablet drawings in real-time, and it’d be great.

  2. If there is one thing I’d like, it would be more quotes printed on the slides. Most of the audience can read a lot faster than the speaker can speak, and will comprehend faster that way.

  3. Dave,
    This is thought-provoking. I’ve been thinking more about papers, but improving any form of scientific communication is a worthy goal. A couple of briefly stated questions (some directly relevant to things you said, others just inspired-by).
    1. Why do we give talks, anyway? Specifically, what does a talk do that a paper — or some other static text — doesn’t do? [N.B. I know talks are worthwhile. I just want to dissect out what makes ’em uniquely valuable.]
    2. Why don’t we just deliver pre-recorded talks? Would that be as effective? I don’t think so, but I want to know why.
    3. I really like the Manny-inspired idea of nonlinear Powerpoint. Imposing linear structure on sets of slides is just dumb. However, I think pre-recorded chunks of audio would be counterproductive — you might as well do the whole thing in video, which I don’t think would work well. Can you convince me otherwise?
    4. The communication you describe could be really powerful! How do we prevent shared-medium communication from getting distracting, though? If Dorit is effectively writing on the shared blackboard while you’re talking, wouldn’t that be distracting for you and the audience?

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