5 ways to screw up your talk

November 10, 2007

ra-ra-ra.jpgSo, bubby, you’ve been tagged to give a seminar. How often do colleagues turn their undivided attention for one hour to your view of the world? What an opportunity to talk about your work and polish your personal brand!What can you do to impress your audience and leave them wanting more?

Well, it’s Friday night, a martini awaits, so I’m turning this one over to Dr. Mephisto… Read the rest of this entry »


5 essentials for that committee meeting

October 4, 2007


Congratulations. You now have five academics that have agreed to mentor you as work toward your degree. Although not usually the most socially adept barnacles on the rock, academics expect to occasionally find themselves dragged from their lab benches, their desks, and their comfy “thinking-chairs”, to work with you, as a group, to advise you on your path. Here are a few tips to make the meeting go smoothly.

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How to lecture: two beginner’s mistakes

March 5, 2007

We continue our exploration of Ira Glass’s excellent broadcasting podcast, adapted for science graduate students by placing it on a piece of wood and banging a few nails through it.

1) Learn from the experts, don’t mimic them. All of us go through an acolyte stage. It is perfectly OK to steal, err, sample from folks you admire. But you are ultimately creating your own style and approach in the way you write, lecture, and do science. If your colleagues recognize your behavior as an imitation of professor X, or, worse yet, do imitations of you imitating professor X, you need to back off a bit.

2) Don’t be a narcissist. Show some empathy. Don’t talk down to your audience, draw them in. (Corollary: You have to be really talented to lecture like an asshole.) When I was a beginning lecturer, my wife kindly assented to sit in the back of the classroom. Note that this was the second time I had taught Principles of Ecology and I thought I was getting reasonably good at it (I wasn’t). I caught up with her at the end of class and we walked back to my office. Eager for feedback I asked “Well, how did I do?” and then braced myself for the effusive torrent of praise to come.

“Not bad, I guess.” she said. “But do you have to lecture like you have a stick up your butt?”.

So we end today’s post with that simple bit of wisdom, courtesy of Zeladoniac:  Don’t lecture like you have a stick up your butt.

Why a lecture is not a manuscript read aloud

March 3, 2007

Have you ever listened to a lecture that was read from a manuscript? Even a beautifully written text can somehow fall flat when read from a podium. Why is that? Ira Glass, of This American Life, gives us a clue in the first segment of this remarkable podcast. We’ll be spending some time this week with Glass, as his tips for beginning podcasters resonate far wider.

The upshot: public lectures are structured differently from writing. In a public lecture, your audience can’t zoom forward or back through the text. They are living, with you, in the moment. Public lectures are intimate conversations writ large. So even scientific lectures have a large component of storytelling. And a story is made up of two parts.

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Al Gore: Quality = content * design

March 2, 2007


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. Read the rest of this entry »

5 steps to writing your talk (a graphic designer’s perspective)

February 17, 2007

Graphic design

When you craft a lecture you are trying to convey a series of facts and relationships in a compelling, memorable way. This goal is shared by a variety of creative enterprises, not least of which is graphic design. Since one basic theme of creativity is to steal liberally from other disciplines, let’s spend a moment thinking about the craft of graphic design.

Start with Alex White’s The elements of graphic design. I’m enough of a bibliophile to rationalize that one good idea make’s a book worthwhile. The image above is a recreation of one of White’s first of many good ideas. It captures the essence of what we try to do when we lecture: avoid the twin evils of

slide after slide of bullet points, monotonous delivery, and simple recapitulation of the readings,


distracting goo-gah graphics, frenetic buzzing around on stage, frequent attempts at bad humor.

In short, we are trying to achieve balance. Here are Alex White’s five steps toward good design, and my adaptations toward the craft of giving a good talk: Read the rest of this entry »

5 things an academic can learn from Steven Colbert

January 19, 2007

1) Smart is sexy.

2) Words rule.

3) A large chunk of your classroom doesn’t believe (2).

4) Humor is a way to work on the folks from (3).

5) TV ain’t all bad.

Congrats to Colbert on his 200th show this week. This is The Word that started it all.