Teaching Tips from Seminar

Teaching Tips from Seminar

I've learned that scientists, as a group, give pretty crappy talks. They love data and want to show you all the bits and pieces, even if there's really not time for that. They tell you things they have been working on so long and in such detail that they have forgotten what it's like to be their audience. They just dump information onto the digital page and expect you'll understand it. Instead of understanding in an instant, the audience is bombarded with new information that they need to process very rapidly before the next slide comes up with yet another information dump. This makes seminar a gamble. You spend an hour or more sitting in a dark room hoping to hear something interesting and knowing there is a possibility the best thing you'll get is a lukewarm cup of tea.

Friday's biophysics seminar was presented by Peter Chien of U Mass Amherst. He told us about recent work in his group that completes an 8-year story: they have been chasing down a mechanism for how certain proteins are broken down in Caulobacter crescentus bacteria.

It was excellent.

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Let there (still) be stoning!

Key points for presenters from Lehr's "Let there be stoning!" Ground Water (1985). Emphasis mine. [1]

The problem

  • "Let there be an end to 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 their lack of concern for our desire to benefit from a meeting which we chose to attend."
  • "Failure to spend [your audience's time] wisely and well, failure to educate, entertain, elucidate, enlighten, and most important of all, failure to maintain attention and interest should be punishable by stoning. There is no excuse for such tedium, so why not exact the ultimate penalty?"

His advice

  • "Never subject your audience to poor slides just because they serve as an outline for your talk."
  • "If you need a pointer to indicate an important concept or location on a slide, it is probably too crowded or difficult to comprehend."
  • "If you can't read the print on a slide clearly with the naked eye (reading glasses are permitted) when holding it in your hand, it is inadequate for viewing with a slide projector in any size room with an adequately sized screen."
  • "Never, but never…show a slide and then apologize for it. Don't show it."
  • "Don't be afraid to use no slides."
  • "If you want to use slides, make them good ones."
  • "Don't stay on one slide too long; put blanks between slides if you have a lot to say before the next slide. The old slide is distracting."
  • "When you are giving a paper, you are an actor on a stage…You're an entertainer, an educator; put on a happy face and kick ass—or get off that stage."
  • "Think of the time the audience is collectively giving you. One hundred people times 20 minutes is 33 hours. Don't you owe them a few hours of effort in return?"
  • "Don't get up and do what comes naturally if what comes naturally is a dull, witless, monotonous presentation of unexciting facts. If your work is in fact dull and unexciting, don't burden any audience anywhere with a conference presentation."
  • "I studied astronomy under a dullard and thought it was a dead science. Carl Sagan taught me differently. … Make your subject—no matter how esoteric—live for your audience if only for 20 minutes."

[1]: via Presentation Zen