Thursday, September 17, 2009

Giving a Bad Talk at a Scientific Conference

Here are some tips to give a really bad talk at a scientific meeting. The more tips you follow, the more likely you are to be memorably awful.

These are all based on talks I have witnessed.

1. Come with a retinue of students of the same ethnic background, assert a proof for a famous unsolved problem, give a proof for completely elementary simple cases and omit the proof of the main result, assert your results have been overlooked by those of a different ethnic background, insult established scientists who have recently made progress on similar problems, and have your students cheer wildly when you are done. Extra points if your talk is in "call and response" format.

2. Speak so softly that even with a microphone you are completely inaudible.

3. Speak rapidly with an extremely strong accent, and have your slides full of incomprehensible sentences that look like they were drawn randomly from a bag of scrabble tiles.

4. Sigh frequently during your talk, as if giving it is the most boring thing you can possibly imagine, and you can't wait for the damn thing to be over.

5. Give your talk by writing with a marker on overhead transparencies, and when you run out of transparencies, lick off one of the ones you already used. While it is still wet, put the slide, wet side down, on the projector so the ink mixes with your saliva and spreads all over the glass plate of the overhead.

6. Begin by insulting the organizers. State that you are so important, they should have found a larger room for you to speak in. Say that everyone else is stupid. Do not give any details, simply refer the audience to your web page.

7. Consistently point at the screen of your computer with your finger, as if you are convinced that by doing so the audience will magically see what you are pointing at on the screen of the projector.

8. Give results in your talk that are identical to those of the previous speaker. When you are questioned about it, deny that the results are the same.

I'm sure these helpful tips will create a memorable experience for you and your audience.


Michael J. Swart said...

Oh Boy!
If I'm right in assuming these tips come from experience, then you have my deepest sympathy. Some of those examples must have been truly painful experiences.

Jeffo said...

There's a great sub-genre of awful conference talks -- talks given by highly respected, yet rather senile experts. Their awfulness derives directly from the enabling of the audience. I once saw such a speaker go a half hour over his 20-minute time slot, much of it spent staring at the blackboard trying to arrange his thoughts. We gave him a standing ovation anyway!

Unknown said...

I've been witness to the half hour long, "These are all the people who've failed to grasp my genius, and this is why they suck" version of the talk.

Of course, Michael Jordan's hall of fame acceptance speech was a variation of this, so it's apparently not just scientists.

Anonymous said...

Okay, are we (did we) have a bad day....

fudo said...

Well, I can recognize some of these...
I hope you enjoyed the conference anyway!

CrystalCowboy said...

Put a transparency on the overhead projector. Walk around in front of the projector to your favourite spot, momentarily blocking the projection in the process. Repeat for each transparency. At some point in the talk, drop all of your transparencies on the floor.

D. Swart said...

Call and response? How did that work? (asked not rhetorically)

Is Cab Calloway - The Hi De Ho Man exempt?

Anonymous said...

Wow, some of these sound truly memorable.

I've seen the sighing thing before, and it seemed borne from lack of self-confidence. Like, "I know you guys are bored, I'm sorry, this really should've been better", even though we were all perfectly engaged. I agree that it's an awful way to give a talk.

Mark said...

Our professor took his class to York University, Toronto, for a short symposium. Gosh! We met all those famous scientists--what a treat. Some were excellent speakers. My favorite was the guy who rocked back and forth as he spoke, so that our professor rocked in phase, making the motions of reeling in a big fish. The guy whose co-author prepared the slides, while he prepared the verbiage (which had nothing to do with the slides) was pretty interesting. The last speaker managed to elicit barnyard noises from the audience.

Anonymous said...

Here are some more ways of giving a bad talk that I've experienced at conferences:

1. Cram your every slide with sentences and equations, or 37x20 tables of numbers with 5 decimal places. Speed-talk through these slides.

2. Don't even bother preparing slides. Just open your paper (in MSWord or Acrobat) and start reading in a slow, dreary voice. Make sure to linger on those high-quality figures you created in Microsoft Paint.

3. Be angry, very, very angry, with someone else in your field, and make your audience think that your life's work is to outdo them and make their research obsolete.

gingerbaker said...

I daydream of centering a sniper scope reticule on the forehead of the guy whose presentation devolves to long quotes or statements on his slides, and who then reads them verbatim.