Recycling Talks

You know that sinking feeling. You have a talk, at a conference or another university, coming up in fewer days (possibly even hours) than you feel comfortable with and the temptation is great to dig into the files and simply reuse a previous one perhaps with a modified title. Is this a good idea? In a certain sense yes, you will indeed have a talk that is (one hopes) coherent and thought through. In another sense I would argue it is unwise. Recycled talks, particularly if recycled time and time again, go stale; furthermore they rarely entirely fit different audiences equally well.

As a young postdoc and research fellow newly returned from the US and finding my feet on the UK academic scene, I didn’t appreciate this point. Armed back then with a heavy bundle of overhead transparencies (if you remember these) plus a few interspersed 35mm slides (again practically museum pieces), I travelled the country giving identically the same talk time and time again. I am sure in part this was a confidence issue. I had put a lot of effort into writing this talk, thinking through the logical flow and making sure the talk was of an appropriate length. I had it word perfect, didn’t fall over unpronounceable words or forget my lines in any other way (in other words I had ‘practiced, practiced, practiced‘). If I were to deviate from this tried and tested version I suspected it might all go horribly wrong. So I didn’t. Instead I got bored. I got to the point of losing all interest in my own research because I had heard those same words too often inside my head. The quality of the talk, although so well prepared, was insufficient to make up for the tedium I internally felt. How could I excite an audience when I was myself so unexcited? So I stopped. Rewrote the same material in subtly different ways and learned the lesson that a multiply-given talk is unlikely to be an exciting one.

These days, the world of Powerpoint (alternatively, substitute here whatever non-Microsoft package you favour) makes modifying slides and indeed whole talks an easy task. Instead of having to rewrite or redraw each transparency from scratch when you merely want to change one line, it is so easy to cut and paste diagrams and text from one slide into another. A quick refresh of an old talk so it doesn’t feel stale is now a trivial task. For an old hand like me it is therefore reasonably straightforward (although always time-consuming) to mix and match material from several previous talks to construct a new one. I have several different categories of talks, notably my own (or rather my group’s) science; diversity/Athena Swan/careers and my ‘life story’; and more general ones such as formed the basis for the Sidgwick Lecture I gave a couple of years ago. Additionally, one’s  audience may range from school children to specialists in the field and each audience requires a different angle to be taken. Plenty of scope then to move slides around, make them more or less complex or to find new general images and up to date quotes to spice up the message. Each talk is therefore tailored to the audience (I hope) and suitably reworked to fit my brief and to keep me on my toes.

I think the problem may be more acute for those early career researchers who, like me back with my pile of transparencies so many years ago, have their own results to talk about with no one’s else’s data to insert and interweave. That makes it much harder to chop and change in order to rejuvenate the talk. Nevertheless, I would still recommend trying to find a means of changing things around so that you cannot operate solely on automatic pilot. In general I think it should be possible to find new data from the literature either to reinforce your own findings or to set your own work in a broader context. Or simply to change the order in which different sets of data are presented (subject to logical flow of course) or – if, like me, microscopy is your bent – to  find different images to illustrate a point. And, bearing in mind that audiences differ in their experience and interests, it may also be possible to shift the emphasis between different techniques or the amount of background and literature material that is included. I suppose all I am really saying is that by forcing oneself to look in detail at the talk before each presentation, rather than think ‘have talk, will travel‘, even if all the tweaks are entirely minor, it will still feel fresh and clear in one’s mind.

There is no doubt that preparing a talk is – and should be – always time-consuming. It can feel a drain on limited resources of time and energy as the date approaches.  But the satisfaction one gets from a talk well delivered, a good buzz and a stimulating, possibly even challenging set of questions from the audience can make it all feel worthwhile, however exhausting.

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5 Responses to Recycling Talks

  1. Noel Gray says:

    I love giving talks. I agree though the passion goes if you give the same talk too often. And it is passion that is critical to a good presentation.

  2. Great post as always. As someone who speaks frequently (weekly or more) from a set of talks that I do repeat–I hear what you say about it getting stale. But the secret is not to read from your slides, but speak from your heart and to the audience. My talks have been given many times and I am always honing and adding to them based on audience feedback and questions. So they get much better with repetition actually. But I always take a few minutes to customize for the audience and I have “extra” slides that I can pull out as needed. All of this requires a lot of practice so that speaking is not scary, but envigorating.
    Science trainees do not practice formal speaking enough–they should all form clubs and speak for each other monthly to practice, practice, practice so that job talks and formal talks are not so stiff and scary.

  3. In my experience the outcome of a talk is slightly mysterious and can depend on several factors:
    1. the person giving the talk, their preparation, their mood, how they are treated by the host
    2. the audience, are they keen to listen or have they been dragooned in to attending?
    3. The venue including the facilities, projector etc

    For a while I gave talks to school groups, both in schools and at the University and I was very happy to do this. The talks were about brains and so there were some good stories to tell. The outcome of these talks was quite variable and I find that there is a huge difference in talking to a group who are clearly fired up as compared to a group who either don’t want to or don’t know how to focus on a topic. Schools also vary widely in how they treat you despite the fact that you are often doing them a favour!

  4. Thanks for this, Athene. I am as guilty as anyone of recycling talks (with, as you say “a modified title”). This post is just the prod I need to put a bit more effort into the next one.