Related topics: Collected Wisdom, doing science

Collected Wisdom on Job Talks – Delivering a Truly Great Research Seminar

By Joshua Tewksbury

This is the third installment of the Collected Wisdom on Job Talks series I have been posting. The first installment is an introduction, and it introduces some key over-arching themes, the second installment focuses on content and preparation. If you are just tuning in, its probably best to start at the first installment and work forward, but in case you have forgotten, this series is called Collected Wisdom because these ideas were put together by soliciting feedback from a wide range of faculty in academic institutions. The majority of folks who participated were professors in ecology, evolutionary biology, or conservation, but I had folks joining in from across the biological sciences. The result is a mash-up of ideas which I organized into major themes. This set of tips focuses on the art of delivery – ho to make the most of all the preparation you have put into a talk. As always, if you want to add to this list, please leave a comment.

1) Stay on Time

  • Stay on time, and under the full amount of time allotted, and make sure to allow time for questions (if it’s a 50 min time slot, aim for 40, so you can treat the seminar as a time for a collegial exchange of ideas rather than just a show about yourself. It shows both confidence and openness.

2) Slow down

  • Speaking faster to say more does not improve a talk. Give yourself time to make points clearly and for the audience to think while you are talking. Leave the slide you are talking about up until you have finished making any points about it. Don’t use notes. At all. This is a Job talk.

3) Connect with individuals

  • Care about your audience. Respect and pay attention to those in front of you. Engage them. You have to do this at two time scales at least. First, get to know your audience before giving the talk and prepare a suitable one. It is deadly to give a seminar full of ecological/neuroscience/molecular jargon to a general biology department (or worse, to a general lay audience). It is also bad to give too general a talk to a specialized audience. Second pay attention to your audience while delivering the talk. Are they engaged? Is it time to do something vaguely outrageous to bring them back into the fold? If done well, it is very effective to engage the audience at a personal level. There are all sorts of ways of doing this. For example, involve someone in the audience as an element of the talk. “Josh, what do you think? Does this graph make sense?” Especially if you’re on a job talk and you’ve had a chance to meet and talk with folks before your seminar – include points raised in those conversations in a causal way, and name them without being overly pandering. connect to your audience. You can also ask the audience questions “Have you all watched the director’s cut of Bladerunner?” (That will get their attention). Make frequent eye contact to see if you are keeping the audience with you. There will always be someone snoozing, so do not freak out, but make an effort to keep them with you.
  • No matter how many people are in the audience, talk to them as if you are in the hallway with a single colleague and are in a conversation.  Positive, intense, focused.   LOOK at people – stare straight at them as you make your points.  Connect!  get out from behind the lectern/podium and move towards the audience.  people will stay awake, and stay involved if you are looking/talking directly at/to them.  This means be prepared and bring your own equipment (see #11).

4) Consider the power of the spoken word, and the power of silence

  • Channel David Attenborough, Oprah, and Carl Sagan. Don’t rush. Emphasize individual words/points. Use silence to allow a visual point, or a spoken point, to sink in. Allow yourself to use a broader vocabulary than is customary in science. Cement your messages with metaphor.

5) Body Language

  • Body language matters – Your physicality should portray confidence and excitement. Staying grounded with both feet on the floor, using good posture, and making gestures that are open and relaxed can communicate this. As an audience member there is nothing worse than feeling nervous for the speaker because they look nervous themselves.

6) Vary your pace, vary your voice and convey excitement

  • You’re not ‘giving a seminar’, you’re not nervous. You’re just talking science with some colleagues, and there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing.
  • Let your voice communicate your excitement about your science. If you don’t care, why should I?
  • Vary from detail to generalization. After a dense part, say something lighter…after a few graphs, have a colored picture of your preparation or of a model or of anatomy… Try to make it fun as well as interesting. Eventually public speaking will be a pleasure for you as well because one can enjoy communicating technical ideas in a clear and effective manner. Your enjoyment will be evident and will help audience enjoyment. And practice a punchy last sentence or two so you don’t end with, “Well I guess that’s all I have to say.”

7) Recognize that many people do not hear as well as you

  • A significant number of older people hear poorly, and many speakers’ voices tend to disappear toward the end of sentences. They have a nice strong voice, but in mid sentence it goes into a gravely lower register and fades as perhaps they are running out of breath. The sentence ends like a casual parenthetical whisper that can’t be heard. Try to catch yourself doing that and develop a more consistent audible tone to the end of the sentence. Keep your voice up all the way through. Pause and take a breath instead of squeezing more out.
  • Many people in your audience will not be native English speakers. Try to use simple, widely understood words, allusions, and humor rather than local idioms, however trendy. Talks have an implied formality. Consider that you are on show and are the leader of an intellectual experience.
  • Your talk is accessible only if it can be heard and understood.  In each room, try to estimate how loudly you need to speak to reach the back row.  If you are not confident of being heard, use the microphone when available.  The microphone helps only if you remain near it and speak towards it.  Experiment a bit before the talk starts.

8) Don’t apologize or complain; make statements, and work with your slides

  • Avoid being self-deprecating. Don’t put yourself down (saying things like “I know this pattern isn’t strong but…” or using too many caveats like “This may mean”). Be confident (without being annoyingly cocky). Never apologize for anything in a job talk.
  • Try very hard to make statements about what you see rather than say them as questions (because your voice goes up at the end of a question, reducing its impact).
  • Do not try to impress how much you did or how hard it was– try instead to communicate the really cool science and ideas.
  • Explain all things on all slides — never say that we should ignore things (that just means you were too lazy to pull them out)

9) Start and end strong

  • Consider starting, or ending, your talk extemporaneously with the lights up. Force the audience to look at you, and to follow your words. It takes a bit of guts, but it also connects the audience to you, instead of to your images.
  • Know your introduction cold. If you mumble through the first few minutes, you’re toast. When you begin, start at a place that will peak the curiosity of the whole room. When I begin my talks about the evolution of spice in chilies, for example, I often start with

    “In 1928, Alin Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh, took a look at plants, and the animals that eat them, and said “All the good foods that an animal likes have the wrong sort of swallow and too many spikes.” Roughly translated; plants go to great lengths to defend their valuable resources from unwanted consumption. …”

    By starting far from the center of your story, and in a somewhat whimsical place that most of the audience knows well from their childhood, I can catch the audience off guard, wake them up, and give them a reason to expect something a little different. There are many ways to do this, and the “best” way depends on your speaking style, and your topic.

  • The same advice goes for your conclusion. Know it cold. It is often best to end on a serious note, to leave the audience with the key questions and conclusions, and the conclusion is a great place to use metaphor in a talk – it sticks better in people’s minds. However you do it, you should also be able to end your seminar gracefully. ’That’s all folks’ is great for Bugs Bunny, but not for a seminar.

10) In the question and answer session

  • Don’t interrupt questioners.
  • For aggressive questions, always answer the substance, never answer the tone.
  • Don’t make your answer to a question too long.

11) Make peace with the pointer(s) – point it, don’t circle or draw with it.

  • Use the pointer to indicate the data you are describing. Move it slowly to guide movement of the eyes to exactly what you are now talking about.
  • Don’t wave it rapidly or in circles to call attention to an area. The observer gets dizzy and can’t see through all the visual interference you are creating. I just close my eyes when that happens. Point and hold.
  • Always bring your own pointer to a job talk

12) Always prepare for the unexpected

  • Try your talk on different platforms (PC, Mac) and projectors. Prepare for something to fail (e.g., an embedded movie). Bring a backup of your talk on a flash drive, and put a copy on the web where you can retrieve it anywhere that there’s web access. Shit happens.
  • Bring a second laser pointer to every talk. Laser pointer batteries run down often in a lecture. The batteries have very little capacity. You can see the pointer light better than the audience. If the light starts looking dim to you, the audience will not see it; switch to an old fashioned stick or pull out your other pointer.
  • Bring your own USB remote, so you can walk around the room.
  • Assume your computer will die en-route, so always carry backups (jump drive, CD) of your presentation and have a copy on the web that you can access from anywhere, if needed.
  • Check your images on a data-projector, not just on your computer. Data projectors often alter colors and brightness.
  • If you have multimedia (sound, video), check, practice, verify, have alternate solutions. Even if problems that arise are not your fault, some will see them as your fault. If problems do arise (with any part of your talk) never apologize. Just move on. Never point out misspellings that you suddenly see during your presentation. Stiff upper lip. Fix the error immediately afterwards.
  • Show up early to test your setup. Remind your host about knowing how to access technical help, in the event of a glitch.
  • If you are going to a meeting and need to upload your presentation onto a session computer, check for Mac-PC incompatibility, preferably before you go. Have a .pdf version as a backup — that should work on any computer, but you’ll lose any animations.

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