Over on the Oikos blog, Jeremy Fox shared some interesting thoughts on whether or not a talk should be tweetable. He did not think they should be because he likes to give dense talks that are very rewarding to those that can follow them.
I’m guessing that would be far fewer people than he imagines. Our minds wander during talks, so an effective talk needs to constantly give us a helping hand so we can get back to following it after our thoughts stray. This is hard to do in a dense talk.
Information communicated in a talk is similar to that in a paper in many ways. Both start with a scientific question and some background information. Both tell you something about how the researcher did the work, the methods section. Both have some results that address the main question. Both summarize those results and reiterate how they address the main question. Both usually point out what remains to be done, or what problems arose.
But how talks and papers go about those tasks is very different. A talk needs to tell a story the way we tell stories, with a puzzle, a build-up, a struggle, a solution, a conclusion. It will not have all the details, though it will have a few figures. The figures should be simple and clear. I do not like the recent trend of putting four or five different graphs all on the same slide. One is plenty.
Do I think a great talk should be tweetable? Yes, I do. Maybe 5 tweets will capture the essence of it. Here are the tweets I could write from a great talk I heard yesterday by Lauryn Benedict at Northern Colorado University, on canyon wren song and territoriality at the Animal Behavior meetings.
Tweet 1, 132 characters. Within species, lower pitched songs indicate larger body size. A bird may lower its song to scare an intruder, said Lauryn Benedict.
Tweet 2, 138 characters. Canyon wren males are threatened by playing a recording of a different male. Do they respond by lowering their song, or adding low sounds?
Tweet 3, 140 characters. 13 recordings 1 hour before & after a 1 minute intruder’s song found resident males lowered their song & added a harsh, low note at the end.
Tweet 4, 136 characters. To compensate for the increased cost of low songs, the male canyon wrens decreased both the duration and syllable number of their songs.
Tweet 5, 137 characters. This canyon wren study lends support to Morton’s motivation structure hypothesis, published in American Naturalist 111: 855-869, in 1977.
Was it a challenge to write those tweets? Yes. I did them from my notes, taking care on the counts. Could I have done as good a job tweeting completely live? Maybe, or I could have taken 5 minutes right after the talk and done it.
The thing about learning is that active learning is the best. If you are thinking about how to tweet a talk you are engaging with the material, thinking about it, actively sorting the details from the core information. You will remember the talk better. You will notice the weaknesses, or the truly creative areas. For you, the talk will have been more worthwhile.
Will someone else, your peeps, get anything out of your tweets? Maybe. Notice I tried to make each tweet stand somewhat alone by mentioning the species or the author, though I could not say we were at the Animal Behavior meetings with each one, or give Lauryn’s name repeatedly.
The main point is that a talk should be tweetable and actually thinking about how you would tweet a talk can help your focus, your understanding, and your retention. A talk should also be exciting, tell a story without giving away the fun at the beginning with a boring old outline. And please, please, do not use a laser pointer. When you stir the slides with a bead of light, we watch the migraine-inducing dot and forget about the talk. We are like cats.