Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Please don't make me read my email during your presentation
When I go to a conference, I typically find the "hallway track" to be most rewarding: technical conversations with colleagues whom I don't often get to see. This is something that I can't get from reading the papers in the conference proceedings.
Nonetheless, I also look forward to attending the technical sessions. Oftentimes the presentation offers a different spin on the material than the paper does. The authors have had more time to think about their approach and how to explain it, or the time constraints may force them to focus on the most important and high-level ideas. (A presentation cannot and should not try to convey all the detail that a technical paper does.)
Unfortunately, I am sometimes disappointed by the quality of the conference talk, and I end up zoning out, looking over the program to decide what talks to attend next, or even -- and I shudder to admit it -- reading my email, since my inbox always get out of control while I am traveling. But, I would much rather be paying attention to a talk that conveys insight in an engaging way!
(The audience's first responsibility is to the speaker. An audience member who gets distracted gets less from the talk, too. Even watching a bad talk can give value if you devote your full attention to it. But if you lose the thread, it's very hard to regain it, and then the audience member has an even better incentive to stay distracted. If the beginning of the talk is good or even mediocre, then this negative spiral never occurs.)
I am perplexed by why people don't spend more time preparing and giving excellent talks at conferences. The rules for doing so are relatively simple, and are well-explained in a variety of locations, including my own article about giving a technical talk.
There's no question that it takes significant time to produce a quality talk. For example, you have to think deeply about how to present the material, which is different than the best way to present it in a paper (though this increases your impact). Additionally, you have to do multiple practice talks (many more than you think you need!) to hone how you present your message. But, the results are well worth the effort. The effort is small compared to the amount of time spent on the research and on writing the paper. You are likely to understand your own work better after preparing a good talk. And, you have the attention of a lot of smart, interested people who want to hear about your work and may make their impression of you and your work based on your talk.
So, work hard on your talks. Audiences will be grateful, and it will also pay off in other ways.