The Best Seminar?

What is the best seminar that you have ever attended? And what made it so good?

I pondered this question after my name appeared on the list of speakers for our internal divisional seminar series this term. I thought that, rather than give another run-of-the-mill progress report, I might have a little fun with the format. And perhaps make a useful point at the same time.

So I gave my talk the title “Mind-blowing work of staggering genius: Probably the best seminar you will ever attend.” It seemed to provoke a deal of interest — a sizeable audience trooped into the lecture theatre at the appointed hour — though, as you will see, one of my colleagues was none too impressed.

If you have 25 minutes to spare, you can watch the (edited) talk here. It features the longest lead-in to a joke that I have ever done — about four minutes forty-five seconds.


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27 Responses to The Best Seminar?

  1. deevybee says:

    Nice stuff, Stephen. When I wrote a blogpost on this topic, I was interested to find several commentators suggested ditching the visual aids altogether.

  2. Stephen says:

    Deevybee: Your format is much quicker to digest than mine — there’s a lesson for me in there somewhere, I think.

    The issue of abandoning visual aids altogether came up in the questions following my seminar. It would be a bold move and is, I think, a much more difficult skill to master. It wouldn’t be appropriate for many talks in any case since a lot of scientists have data that they need to show. The trouble is, it’s so easy to go wrong with PowerPoint.

  3. Steve J says:

    In a nutshell: An enthralling up to date introduction that outlines your labs successes, blended with a refreshed, but ever important talk on presentation skills. Very useful.

    RE: Visual Aids, an UG perspective:

    +ve The novelty value makes the more traditional blackboard and chalk method a popular choice in an institution where for Biochemistry at least, Powerpoint is the default teaching medium in ~95% of cases.

    +ve The pace of the lecture would be restricted, which would prevent people from flying through the presentation at an excessively fast pace, (but unclear/messy handwriting from lecturers writing too fast could also be a problem…). I like to think of 1 slide/min as an absolute maximum pace, only suitable if the slides are pretty sparse and you’re not going to be adding much detail. However, I always try to aim for 2 slides every 3 mins. One of the worst lectures I have had at my time in Imperial was in the 2nd Year with Protein Crystallography lectures given by Dr. Carpenter, who IMHO unsuccessfully attempted to cover 142 detailed slides in 2 hours, without a break. During the second hour many students had gone and the majority of those who had left were quietly chuckling every time she flicked to the next slide, (which seemed to get louder at the end where the pace speeded up exponentially). The last 10-20 slides were not covered at all IIRC. In the Final Year, Prof. Curry taught half as much content in the same timeframe in such a way that I (and most) of the audience could take onboard and understand, which helped me to remember much more the for weeks afterwards (and for the exams too). Less is more.

    +ve It would deter students from arriving at lectures half awake, just to switch on their Dictaphone and glaze over, because they is no immediate pressure to understand what is being taught to them right now, as they can read an online copy of the slides later at their leisure. I despise this approach that some students adopt; personally, I write notes, where you can contextualise where the lecturer is pointing to and take diagrams down off a whiteboard, both of which I would imagine to be impossible with a Dictaphone!

    So in summary, I don’t see Powerpoint being replaced anytime soon, but think lecturers should supplement the material on their slides with more detail/examples, (instead of just reading it out), which black/white-boards are still useful for.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Stephen – very kind. You do realise this will make no difference to the mark you get for your project… 😉

      • Steve J says:

        I started following your blogging last year when it was on Nature Blogs and actively posting on Occam’s Typewriter at the start of this year, so no it’s not just for the project! Think back to the group trip to Diamond in November, how else would I have known the most popular M3D topic?

  4. Arnold says:

    Dear Stephen, please let me put this blog on your radar:

  5. Stephen says:

    You can. Though strictly speaking, I have not used Comic Sans in my presentation… 😉

    I have, however, used a closely related variant and fail to see why some people choose to get excited about this issue. Did it obfuscate or devalue the points I wanted to make? Not a bit, in my not so humble opinion.

  6. Arnold says:

    The font sure fooled me.
    People get excited about this for the same reason one chooses to talk about color contrasts: the medium is the message. Fonts, colors, composition all help decide whether the sender can be taken seriously.
    Suppose you were presented with two gifts; one in smart wrapping, the other in some cheap plastic grocery bag, something written in green ink on top… — Well, you get it.

  7. Oh dear. I’m afraid I do use Comic Sans from time to time…

    Following triggered by Stephen’s video and also by Steve J’s comment about lecture styles:

    Like a lot of us older folk in science, I started pre-Powerpoint with slides for research talks, and doing undergrad lectures using overhead projector (OHP) transparencies. My standard method for lectures was to have the bare bones on the transparency in “permanent text” (photocopied diags + main points written in permanent marker). Then as I gave the lecture I would add in “extra” stuff, i.e. more text, annotations to diagrams, other very basic schematic diags/cartoons, in non-permanent OHP pen. This meant that when I needed to get the lecture ready again the next time/the following yr I could simply use a damp tissue to “take off” the add-on scribbles and repeat. I also used to put up slides of scientific images in lectures, again as an extra, or sometimes as “your handout has the schematic but here’s a pic of what it’s a schematic representation of”.

    The other point of this was that was a clear “baseline” (the permanent stuff inc. the diags. which were mostly also in a printed handout), and then there was “the “stuff you get to hear if you show for the lecture” (the bits scribbed on, pix etc).

    Getting back to Comic Sans, in the Powerpoint era I sometimes use this for “add on” notes on PPt slides that animate in, slightly equivalent to the old “scribbling on extra bits as I talk”. The idea is to make them look a little different. Overall, though, I think I do this quite a lot less than I did pre-Powerpoint, partly just because it seems to take longer.

    As a more general point, I think Powerpoint has definitely led a lot of people to overload research talks, and especially undergraduate lectures, with information. Agree completely that “Less is more” when it comes to talks, regardless of whether research seminar or u/grad lecture

  8. Stephen says:

    OK let me deal with the font issue. Arnold and I have briefly discussed this on twitter. To clarify my position — I agree with Arnold that Comic Sans is over-used and often inappropriately used. Immediately after my talk a colleague described me (jokingly) as a Comic Sans criminal. If you follow the link you will see some explanation of the origins of this font and suggestions — or rather standing orders — of when it should be used. The advice is mostly sensible but the tone is just a shade too authoritarian for my liking. Why is it that the self-appointed font police have no sense of fun?

    In my particular case, although Comic Sans appeared nowhere in the first ten or so slides that were devoted to my science, having switched the tone and purpose of my presentation — to be about presentation rather than science — I opted for a mock blackboard background, the idea being that I was setting myself up as a teacher and the audience as my class. The choice of font, in fact called “Chalkboard” (though it resembles Comic Sans), seemed to me to fit that motif rather well. There was a sense of fun permeating through the message that I was trying to put across — that helped (I hope) to lighten the tone of the presentation and ease the transmission of my (relatively serious) point.

    So I’d like to call upon the font police to look before they leap. 😉

    As for the points about PowerPoint raised by Steve J and Austin, I wholly agree too. It is a great tool but all too often abused to the detriment of the learning experience. You can see how it happens – lecturers are often pushed for time and the easiest thing is to slap down the facts you want to get across and then talk through them. I’ve sinned myself in this regard – but it took me a while to learn the error.

    I used to do chalk and talk but I simply found the pace too slow. That method is very good for mathematical derivations since it forces the lecturer to go at a pace that the students can keep up with. However, I switched to PowerPoint because (a) it was physically less demanding and (b) it enabled be to put the basics in the slides and gave me time to be more discursive on points related to the core material. However, the tendency to inflate slides, to just add another couple of points, it tremendously great. I am now trying to whittle down the slides I use for teaching, to do as Austin does and leave gaps that I will fill in verbally (or via questions to the class during the lecture). The tough bit of this technique is that you really have to be on top of the material for it to work well.

  9. Jonathan says:

    I’ll try to watch the rest later, but eight minutes in one thing has struck me: the ‘turn’ is at about five minutes, but three minutes later you’re still giving descriptions of what you’re heading towards. Rather than, you know, getting on with it. The hard-nosed TV producer in me would, I hope, draw a big line through that part of the script.

    I note this not as a criticism. Well, it is, but you’re man enough both to take it and to know that there’s a fair chance I’m talking bollocks. Rather, I’d like to draw attention to how hard it is to write and perform narrative shifts and links. We agonise over the precise form of words with which we deliver information, but often the linking thoughts that shift our attention from one place to another are even more important for the audience following the story, and even harder to craft.

    It’s a key moment in the talk. But it’s a moment, not a section.

    I’ll crawl back into my edit suite now…

    [oh, re: fonts. I hate Comic Sans because (a.) it’s a rubbish font, and (b.) it’s often used for distinctly patronising reasons, or because it’s ‘easy to read’ (which it empirically isn’t). Deliberately ironic use of a better-designed-but-intended-for-similar-purposes font is a good gag, not a typographic travesty. Sheesh.]

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Jonathan – I appreciate the input. I’m sure you’re right, but the talk was largely unscripted. I’d been mulling it over in my head for a couple of weeks beforehand and then pulled the slides together (from previous talks) the day before. The only bit where I’d really thought about the words was the turning point that you refer to — maybe that’s why I dwelt on it so long. For sure it could have been done more crisply. In fact, I have edited the first segment to reduce the length of time talking about science (the audience in the lecture theatre would have been more tolerant of this than people on YouTube), but even that segment is still too long.

      But point taken: if I’d had more time, it all would have been shorter and better! 😉

  10. @stephenemoss says:

    One of the problems with science communication is the vast numbers of acronyms we use, but this is the first time I’ve seen “OMG” and “WTF” on a slide. I presume you were referring to Ocular Myasthenia Gravis, and Wild Type Females.

    • Stephen says:

      OMG! WTF are you talking about? Ocular whatsit…?

      • Ah yes…our beloved acronyms… I used to do a spoof seminar years back sending up cell/mol biol acronyms and kinase-obsessives (and to some extent the way such talks were delivered). Bit out of date now, but the acronyms included:

        – WMD (topical at the time!)
        – FCUK
        – SNAK / SNAKK / SNAKKK (a kinase cascade – obesity was the other pretend theme of the talk, BTW)

        PS Last time we were discussing acronyms I remember Kristi predicting that there must be “real” WTF and OMG acronyms in science. Has anyone actually run across any?

        • Stephen says:

          No but a student I was assessing last week had come across a gene that was part of the operon for fucose metabolism that is called fucK.
          And he didn’t notice….!

  11. Pierre says:

    Dear Stephen,

    This video was really nice. Thanks for this!
    Could you put your slides available online (aside the video itself)?

    I’d like to share with you some interesting ressources regarding presentation and seminar:
    – an article from Byte Size Biology “What I learned from teaching a seminar class”
    – an amazing book written by Garr Reynolds “Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery”
    – an article from The Scientist “Pimp your PowerPoint”
    – some pieces of advice by Seth Godin “Really bad powerpoint and how to avoid it”

    Hope it helps.

  12. Svetlana Pertsovich says:

    It is not good.

  13. Stephen says:

    Comic Sans strikes back…:

    Warning – only watch if you have a sense of humour.

  14. Abby says:

    Most of your comments/opinions are very well-taken, and I will enthusiastically share them with the incoming graduate class at our university, whom I will be coaching on scientific presentations.

    Regarding your comment about the difficulties of embedding videos in presentations – switch to Keynote! Videos are neatly embedded (as are all other media) and transfer seamlessly between computers (Macs, that is), and rarely if ever cause difficulties. Immunofluorescence, which is a major component of my work, is really not a problem if images are scaled properly to use the full dynamic range of the projector, colors are used consistently, and a simple, clear key is used on each slide.

  15. rpg says:

    Less is more, except on Linux where it isn’t even a symlink

    Oh, for immunofluorescence: not only is it difficult to get good contrast with red & green, but also it’s a bitch for deuteranopes. See

    Sure, show a red-green merge, but also, always show individual black & white images of the single colour captures. These days, the colours tend to be false anyway.

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