As academics we go to a lot of seminars. And in those seminars we can get a lot done. The most obvious thing we can accomplish is to learn something of what the speaker is trying to convey. But many of us relish the dim quiet of a seminar room for other reasons. It allows the mind to settle a bit, free of phones and email. It allows us to open the blank page of our notebook (an almost erotic experience for an academic) ready to scribble some thoughts down. Sometimes, inevitably, we even close our eyes for a few minutes…
This is much harder to do when the speaker goes out of his way to keep you eyes riveted to the screen by modulating his voice, pacing his presentation, and showing gorgeous, apt, visuals.
Which is to say, I just saw Al Gore’s global warming presentation. Live. A few rows back from the stage. In a rocking sports arena more than half filled with 9000 cheering undergrads along with a few professors and local dignitaries. As good as the movie An Inconvenient Truth is, the talk in its entirety, live, with audience reaction, is pretty damn special. Gore’s talk is so successful because, if I may stretch a metaphor, it is a perfect storm of compelling content presented with drama, humor, and passion.
Damn, it was fun.
Which leads to a fourth thing one can do at a seminar: learn by example what makes a presentation great. What does the speaker do to hold your interest after that first 5 minutes (the point many undergraduates and older professors start to tune out)? How does she straddle the line between monotony and over-indulgence? So much of public speaking is an art, but you learn an art by studying the basic rules, watching the masters, stealing liberally from their best bits, and practicing in front of live audiences until you find what works for you.
Gore’s talk is so compelling because he brings passion to the subject, he’s practiced this particular talk since the mid 70′s, and because he unashamedly sought help, from an outfit called Duarte Design. They helped in a number of ways. Duarte Design brought their technical skill to the table toward producing some of the graphics. But the rise of software like Keynote and the availability of images from the net (and your digital camera) is quickly closing the gap between you and a professional graphic artist.
Duarte Design saw their chief role as helping Gore make a complex scientific topic accessible. They played the role of the informed student, stopping Gore whenever something he said didn’t quite make sense: finding the little pieces of jargon and the assumed connections that not everybody shares. They then worked with him to patch these gaps, often through the perfect graphical metaphor (e.g., always save the frog!).
In short, they helped Al become a better teacher by helping him understand his audience.
Graduate students, by their very nature, are closer to their audience than most professors. Your shared empathy and experience with undergrads gives you an edge. You know better than most what connections need to be made, what gaps have to be jumped, what is hard, and what is easier.
Which is why graduate students are often great teachers.
And which is why folks who teach undergraduates and thus empathize with the audience, know which bits are tougher to understand, and value the perfect metaphor, are also the folks that give kick-ass research seminars.
Because the perfect seminar is great content, presented with empathy, clarity, and passion.
Update 3March07: Zeladoniac has another view of the Gore Lecture, with a surprise ending!