Seminars that Bomb

It’s a strange thing how giving essentially the same talk at different venues/to different audiences can lead to such variable responses. The reasons for this are many and complex, and not always under one’s control; sometimes it is far from clear why a talk has failed to stir interest. As a young researcher that may be troubling, but my experience over the years tells me that often, although not invariably, it isn’t the fault of the work or the delivery, so much as a mismatch between expectations of the speaker and the audience. In other words, the work that so excites the person giving the talk isn’t in line with either what the audience was hoping for or in some sense needed.

Last week I went to Birmingham to talk to the Physical Sciences of Imaging in the Biological Sciences Doctoral Training Centre – the PSIBS DTC for short.  My talk – on environmental scanning electron microscopy (ESEM)   applied to various biological systems – I have given to different audiences over the years, suitably modified as I attempt to predict what emphasis and range of problems will prove most interesting to each. Sometimes I talk about ESEM applied to different systems of more interest to pure physicists, such as colloids, polymers and clays, whereas last week I covered mammalian cells, bacteria, onions and carrots. My totally un-statistically significant conclusion is that talking about ESEM is not a talk that ever is terribly well received by the average physicist, although I am frequently asked to give seminars to them. It is as if they know they ought to be interested, but somehow they really aren’t. It’s too easy to spot the audiences with a significant number of people who have been either corralled into turning up (perhaps it’s a 3 line whip for students) or who feel they have to turn up out of guilt, but who make no attempt not to let their eyes slowly close and sneak a quiet nap. I’m afraid that was my experience when I gave a talk to the whole of my very own Cavendish Laboratory some years ago. Clearly a substantial number felt they should come and see what it was I actually do, and yet electron microscopy just turned out not to be their thing after all. I did take note of the non-trivial number who dozed off.

The talk last week felt utterly different. Perhaps it was in part because my travel had been so disrupted I arrived with about 5 minutes to spare, instead of the hour there should have been. This meant I was whisked straight into the lecture theatre, projector cable plugged in and off I went. No time for nerves (yes even professors can suffer from these). No time to compose myself and recall any carefully prepared opening lines  – often a useful ploy, so that you know you have the first few sentences under your belt while you gauge the acoustics of the auditorium, where best to position yourself between lectern/computer and screen and get a feel for the distribution of the audience so that you can focus your eyes at the right level: we all know the front few rows of a large auditorium will invariably be empty, but just how many rows varies. But I think the difference that I felt this time was simply that the audience genuinely wanted to listen, and they paid me the courtesy of not going to sleep but nodding sagely at frequent intervals, always good for the confidence, and came up with a wealth of questions at the end.

I had a very stimulating day visiting the PSIBD DTC overall. It is a wonderful mix of disciplines – from Psychology to Physics, from Chemistry to Cancer Sciences – and approaches, and the idea that each PhD project has to have 3 supervisors from 3 different departments means that each project genuinely is multidisciplinary.  The students I spoke to had very positive feelings about the coherence of the whole programme, and the wealth of opportunities they were offered. Having a cohort, growing year on year, of students who mingle constantly, pick each other’s brains and learn to teach and share their skills appears to be working really well as a strategy here, facilitated by having a communal area where they all hang out.  And, unlike physicists pure and simple, this audience clearly appreciated why I was doing what I do with ESEM, and the wide range of samples we’ve attempted to look at, albeit with greater or lesser success.

But, to return to the question of why talks sometimes fall incredibly flat and other times get a surprisingly enthusiastic reception, there are clearly undercurrents one doesn’t know about that can affect the reception. I do not consider myself witty, but sometimes one finds early on in the talk some flippant remark catches someone’s fancy and there is an audible snigger, snort of amusement or other cue which tends to make later remarks also come across as entertaining – a version of Matthew’s Principle I suppose. If this doesn’t happen within the first 10 minutes or so I don’t think it ever will. Yet I have never been able to lay my finger on why it happens one day and not another. I don’t insert deliberate jokes into my talks, and I’d never make a charismatic after dinner speaker, but sometimes it appears that people are willing to be amused and other times they aren’t. Confidence has something to do with it – one can toss offhand remarks off with more abandon if feeling on top of things than if one’s knees are shaking, but that cannot be the whole story.

This all means, for the inexperienced student/postdoc/lecturer, that seminars (let alone large conference talks) can be unnerving. That is why our group insists on each student giving a talk essentially each year of their PhD. In some ways talking to the people you typically encounter on a Friday evening down the pub can be more daunting than talking to a bunch of complete strangers, not least because you know they’ll tease you mercilessly if you trip over words such as ‘phenomenological’ (a word I equally have trouble spelling) anisotropic or campylobacter, but also because there may be an innate sense of competition amongst peers. Basic skills need to be mastered though: projecting your voice; actually looking at the audience at least occasionally, rather than staring at your feet or the screen throughout; ensuring the font is legible and that the diagrams are large enough to convey their basic message (ideally factoring in the fact that there may be people who are red-green colour blind present); and checking that there is a logical progression of ideas from beginning to end. Of course the timing must be appropriate. I well remember a talk I gave as a youngish postdoc in the USA in which, being so very excited about the fact my experiments were actually working, I rambled on for an hour and a half. They were very kind to me, but it was singularly ill-judged and inappropriate, and I hope I have never kept such bad time since. Seminars take practice. One may not always find an audience who are as thrilled by your research as you are, or who are in the mood to be amused, but it is unforgivable to commit basic errors of timing, legibility or coherence.



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4 Responses to Seminars that Bomb

  1. Kristian Müller-Nedebock says:

    The differing reactions of audiences are a mystery. The phenomenon is also noticeable during undergraduate teaching. Due to the size of a certain class, I taught exactly the same lecture three times on a day, each session resulting in a completely different atmosphere in each group, without many correlations as to the specific group or the number of my repetition. The only conclusion I could ever reach is that restlessness is a pre-lunch phenomenon.

    • ricardipus says:

      I’ve had a similar experience delivering the same seminar to groups of students from different colleges. They were all in roughly equivalent programs, at very similar institutions. What was uproariously funny (ok, mildly amusing) to one class elicited no more than metaphorical cricket-chirping from another. I have no idea why, and as Athene says, it’s a bit un-nerving.

      Ah well, I’m sure* that they all learned lots, anyway.

      *not really

  2. Mike White says:

    This is all so true. I have exactly the same experience of talks that bomb and at other times they seem to inspire interest and sometimes amusement. One reason as you say is that it depends in how I feel. Inserting a new video or slide which I haven’t used before can make the whole talk feel fresh and exciting. On the other hand the first time I go through a whole new project it usually doesn’t work well until the second or third time because I have to be clear on what I really want to say. Using a slide or slides from someone else doesn’t work properly until I’ve adapted them. For me nerves caused by being unclear about the content are very bad but usually nerves are a good thing. Sometimes I consciously make myself nervous because I know the talk becomes more animated and enthusiastic!
    I’m interested in the idea that you need to get some amusement early in the talk. I’d never thought about it like that but I think you are right that sometimes its unpredictable. A couple of years ago I gave a talk to a Proteomics meeting and used a quip that I’ve used before and since. (All i said was that HeLa cells might as well of come from Mars, they are so messed up) For some reason on this one occasion it was greeted with great hilarity and I’ve even heard myself quoted since!
    I guess we all strive to get it right all the time, but for most of us that will never happen.

  3. Diana Garnham says:

    You are so right about this. Like others, I probably blame myself most of the time. I have noticed my talks are usually better when (a) they are before lunch (b) I have fewer slides and (c) I have had a profile of the audience in advance which gives me a chance to alter the balance of content and ensure that any language, jargon or acronyms will be understood (there must be some research somewhere that can link the number of acronyms and slides to the boredom levels?).

    But I have been very surprised in some recent talks to science undergraduates that have been scarily without audience participation – this was never my experience when I was in a more campaigning environment and generally talking to humanities or social science students. Paying audiences seem to be more appreciative and nothing much beats the engagement of the Women’s Institute (who all probably choose to be there). But my worst is still the time when a group on the front row went to sleep and I was passed a note saying they were the honorary officers of the Narcolepsy Association.