Paul Edwards: “How to give an academic talk”

My colleague Paul Edwards has been giving talks about how to give talks for over a decade now. There’s a good reason he’s asked so often to do it: he has very sound advice, and he’s given it a lot of thought. He also has created a detailed advice handout, now in version 4. Of course, I don’t agree with everything he recommends, but I do think he’s right on the money on almost everything. And if train yourself to use his advice, and practice, you’ll get good enough that you can make your own judgments about what works best for you and your personality.
But, for god’s sake, work on your presentation skills and practice. Effective communication to an audience is not an in-born skill for most people.
Edwards on How to Give an Academic Talk

Simple schematic for a good talk

My colleague John King sent me the diagram below. It is an easy-to-remember schematic for how to organize a talk. Start with some context (we often say “the motivation”), drilling down until you get to your specific problem, then describe in detail your contribution in solving this problem. Finish by heading back up to the surface: return to the context, reminding your audience of the connection between your problem and the broader context, this time adding the implications of what you have discovered for the broader context. This would naturally lead into a description of your ongoing research programme on this topic, if you have one. (I advocate *against* a “future work” slide unless you are actually committed too, and probably already engaged in, the future work.)

I like this, but, at least for a seminar talk (50-80 minutes rather than the 12-18 typical at many conferences), I would precede the big donut with a smaller semi-donut, which is the left half of the big donut in miniature. That is, spend the first minute (and maybe one slide) quickly setting the scene (the context), then briefly but clearly introduce the problem you tackle, state your results (without demonstrating or supporting them, then sum up your contribution. After that brief intro, get with the more detailed context – contribution – context program.
This is very similar to the classic storytelling exposition I’ve elsewhere advocated. As in a typical (not post-modern) novel or movie, immediately set the scene, identify the protagonist and the conflict he or she faces. In stories the resolution (results) often aren’t broadcast up front (though they may be foreshadowed), to build suspense. Sometimes that kind of suspense-building works in a scholarly talk, but often giving a sneak peak at the results is helpful / necessary in motivating the audience to be interested in what comes.

Communicating, not presenting

I gave a “skills workshop” today to our students. I was asked to give a session on presentations. I told them the assignment had it wrong. We need to learn to become better communicators, and stop worry so much about presenting.
The take-home points were two: To communicate better, focus on story telling, and on story perceiving (or the application of standard human cognitive principles the way in which you tell the story). The focus on applying cognitive principles to design is fairly conventional these days, but I think the value of using a story telling approach is overlooked. I don’t mean litter a presentation with personal anecdotes, but to consciously develop and design the entire presentation as a single story, following classic story structure and tropes.
I prepared a handout summarizing the points I made during the session, and adding some additional tips, citations to further reading, and an example of how I develop my stories (before I even open my slide software), following the method described by Cliff Atkinson. (Having a take-away handout is one strong recommendation for an effective presentation.)
I’m also putting up my slides, though the way I use slides to illustrate my talks, the slides are useless without the speaker notes, and even then they are not very effective as a PDF file. They do demonstrate my commitment to using media to illustrate and emphasize and stimulate, rather than as set of on-screen lecture notes. (I only checked the screen momentarily during the talk, to verify synchronization.)
(My bad: The images are all either Creative Commons licensed photos from Flickr, or shots found via Google Images on the open web, but I was behind in my preparation and I neglected to write down sources. Usually I try to be better about giving attribution.)

Online great lectures

In this post about learning to become a great lecturer, Zaid Alsagoff posts a long list of online lectures that he thinks are outstanding, many by luminaries. He also provides an extensive list of links to online lecture resources, for many universities.
Somewhat surprisingly, his own article, for someone pursuing a PhD and wanting to “rid the world of crappy lectures”, is pretty dreadful. But this extensive link collection is useful.

Making presentations (not Powerpoint shows)

The Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list sent out YAPPB (yet another PowerPoint bashing) today, but this is one of those I think makes some good constructive points about good presentation (whether for business or teaching or youth group programs, etc.), not just “don’t use PowerPoint”. (Mailing list items are not posted to the blog for a week or two, but see the link to Kaminski’s lecture below if you are looking for this before early- or mid-February 2008).
The one sentence message: Slides are excellent for certain types of visual aids, but they alone are not an effective oral presentation (and too heavy reliance on them, for things they are not suited for, is the road to a bad presentation).
The essay is referenced by Tomorrow’s Professor as being from a book by Laurie Richlin, but apparently she borrowed it wholesale (with attribution) from an outlined lecture by Stephen Kaminski. The lecture outline has more detail and more constructive bits of advice, so I recommend reading it and reviewing it from time to time. (Kaminski links to another useful lecture of his, “Some Tips for Using Visual Aids“.
One very nice point about relying too heavily on a single, flat, static visual medium: “Presenters fail to establish ethos, their most powerful appeal.”

Ethos is the personal appeal of the speaker. It is classified by Aristotle as an “artistic proof” that the speaker fashions in his presentation. It involves both verbal and nonverbal elements of the message and must be carefully managed for a presentation to succeed. With PowerPoint™, however, many of the elements that establish ethos are blunted or negated. Speakers don’t look at the audience and the audience doesn’t look at the speaker. The subtle nonverbal cues are lost such as eye contact, posture, etc. Presentations tend to be read off the slide or handouts, flattening delivery.

Constructive advice: use multiple aides to demonstrate and illustrate: people, objects, models, figurative representations, maps, charts and graphs, spreadsheets, web pages, animations…

Let there be stoning

Dr. Jay H. Lehr published “Let There Be Stoning” in 1985 (Ground Water, 23(2):162-165). It’s a strongly worded critique of “incredibly boring speakers”:

“They are not sophisticated, erudite scientists speaking above our intellectual capability; they are arrogant, thoughtless individuals who insult our very presence by the lack of concern for our desire to benefit from a meeting which we choose to attend.”

Much of what he writes has been written many times since, and some things I don’t find convincing. But in addition to his passion, he does make a number of good points. For example,

“Be intimate with your audience. Make them feel that you are there because you care about informing each and every one of them; no matter if there are 40 or 400, be intimate.”

“Never subject your audience to poor slides just because they serve as an outline of your talk.”

“Never, but never (remember stoning) show a slide and then apologize for it. Don’t show it.”

Nobody ever complains that a talk was “too funny”.

Neurobiologist Zen Faulkes writes about the use of humor in scientific presentations. He suggests that Robin Williams should be an inspiration to presenters of sober, thoughtful scientific research.
Mork and Mindy
Faulkes writes:

Enthusiasm is contagious…you have to find passion, energy, that personal connection to the material.

Preparation alone doesn’t get you to that [Robin Williams] level of…”legalized insanity”…trust your creative impulses and not censor.

You have to learn your lines….[then] an interesting thing happens. You start to play with them, because you reach the point where you know them so well. You can veer off, try something a little different, and not lose the plot because you have rehearsed. One reason so many talks are so stilted…is not that people rehearse too much — talks are stilted because people don’t rehearse enough.

Don’t just tell a joke just to make a joke. Tell a joke to make a point.