What if you gave a talk and everyone came, but no one remembered it even as they left the room? What if they did not remember what the main problem was, how you approached it, or what you discovered? What if this is true even for the 15 minute talks that fit close to the time span psychologists say we can actually pay attention?
One of the problems is that a good talk is not organized anything like a good paper. A good talk is like a good piece of journalism, with a hook at the beginning and a clear problem. A good talk is not a list, does not plow through an outline like a series of boot camp exercises. A good talk has a story. A good talk flows and captivates. You can tell your friends about a good talk just the way you can repeat the plot of a good book, or a movie you saw recently. You want to be the person at a meeting who gives great talks. You want your students to give great talks.
I heard several great talks at the Society for the Study of Evolution meeting last month at Snowbird. I also heard terrible talks. Before you get too depressed about this, I have one caveat. The people very close to the subject can get a lot out of a talk that is not great. They provide their own context and plug your pieces into the story they already know. So if you have interesting data and careful analyses, some of the audience will benefit, those closest to you. But don’t you also want to reach the rest of us?
One of the talks at Evolution was so great that it had my mind churning and puzzling. Even a month later, I could remember not only the story line and main points, but also many of the details. This great talk inspired me to head back to the room and entirely revamp my own talk because I could see even better how to make my talk into a story. Because this is so important, I’ll continue this topic on several entries. Here is just the beginning.
Michael Donoghue gave a stunning talk on the plant shrub genus Viburnum. Can you imagine being fascinated by a shrub? Mike gave a tiny bit of a history, and showed an old phylogeny to set the stage. Then he dug into the problem. It all began on Mt. Kinabulu in Borneo with a single specimen of Viburnum clemensiae in seed, no other plants found. This is just what happened to Mary Clemens in 1933. She found a single plant, in fruit, no flowers. This is the mystery, the problem, the hook. Of course the bigger questions have to do with Viburnum systematics and the origin of the genus but beginning with this story keeps our attention.
I’ll save more on the Viburnum story and how to structure a talk for a later entry. I’m going to test exactly how pervasive this problem is. I am headed to another meeting in a week, of the Animal Behavior Society. I’m going to go to talks and rate them for how well the presenters told a story. Then I’m going to dash out and try to interview 5 people to find out what they remembered from the talk. I’ll report back.