Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

How NOT to Give a Talk

lectureI think we can all agree that giving talks about your research is pretty darn important in science. Given how important it is, and how often we do it, it is surprising when you witness someone giving a bad talk.  I had a prior post about some specific things to do/not to do when giving a talk (express yourself). Today, I saw a stunningly bad talk, and I wanted to give some tips on what not to do when giving a talk.

1. Paragraphs. Do not write out long paragraphs on your slide and then read the paragraphs to the audience. I find this is the most common slide format faux pas for WMs over 65 years of age. I am not sure why they think this is a good way to display their information of what they want to say. In general, say what you want to say, show what you want to show, but don’t show what you want to say.

2. Turning your back on the audience. I know that this seems silly to have to say, but you shouldn’t not face the audience. You should speak to the audience and make eye contact. even in a really big room, you should try to make eye contact with people you can see.

3. Don’t make racist or sexist remarks. Do I really have to say this? Apparently, I do. Don’t make jokes about having sex. Don’t make jokes about erections. Why do I have to say this?

4. Do you really have to name drop? How many Nobel Laureates’ names do you drop in one talk? I typically don’t mention any, but if you are working on something related to something Nobel-worthy, you should describe it. But, if you are just friends with some smart dudes, we don’t need to know about it.

So, my thought/comment question for tonight: If you see a talk that has #3, what do you do? The others are annoying, but #3 is potentially damaging. should I mention to my colleagues that I, and many other women, were annoyed by the talk? We were more than annoyed, many of us walked out after the 3rd inappropriate reference. So, what should we do? Post or comment here. (To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.)

Comments on: "How NOT to Give a Talk" (4)

  1. I’ve been thinking about this all morning. I am not sure what one can do. Sure, you could mention it to your colleagues, but even then what can they do? One might hope that nobody knew ahead of time this speaker would be close to that offensive. You can’t have a blanket policy of not inviting speakers who are too old, and I don’t think there are many cases where you know in advance someone is going to be that bad.

    I suppose a department could adopt a policy that says “only speakers someone can vouch for can be invited”, and vouching requires that you know they can give a good talk. But then that limits you on speakers and might reinforce an old-boys-network of speakers.

    And it’s hard to imagine any retroactive enforcement on a speaker. If, say, you have a Nobel Laureate speaker, then that person is going to get more invitations to speak elsewhere no matter what you do. Sure, they’re not going to get invited back to your department, but was that likely anyway?

    I don’t know, I hope other commenters have useful ideas.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that we cannot know who will be terrible before we invite them. On the other hand, we should respond when something happens. I am sorry to report that the male colleagues in my department were mostly in the “it’s just a joke” camp. This prompted several of the women faculty to issue a statement. It went out tomorrow. To what effect? Unknown. Personally, I am going to write a letter to the lecturer. We all get criticism.

      About your good-ole-boys network problem. We certainly have that, as well. I once wanted to invite an African American woman speaker to a seminar series, and was asked, “Well, is she a good speaker? We only want really good speakers.” Although from my experience, most of the speakers were just so-so, I wondered if he asked our male colleagues if their suggestions were “good speakers.” I was pre-tenure, but I still pushed it. I mean, there are only 50 African American women in this field – do you think she became a professor by being a bad speaker?

      • I am sorry to hear that there were any colleagues who were in the “just a joke” camp. Kudos to those of you who issued a statement, well done. If you do see any effect or get any further feedback (pro or con), I would be curious to read a blog entry about it!

        Good luck with the letter to the lecturer. It would be wonderful if you can make a difference this way. I am not sure that it will work but it’s good to give the speaker a chance to change.

        Yeah, I remember Female Science Professor writing about those sorts of questions in regards to faculty candidates a few years back. She reported that questions were raised about “was this really her original idea or her advisor’s idea?” but only for women candidates. FSP responded with a large-font NO to her colleagues. Ah ha, found it!

  2. I once went to a talk on spontaneous symmetry breaking in biology. In introducing his topic, the speaker gave as his example of symmetry breaking that should be familiar to anyone that one testicle always hangs a little lower than the other. At the time I thought it was very poor attempt at humor. He was a youngish post-doc. But now that I am older I see it as part of a pattern of “my peeps” being completely unaware of other’s feelings. Part of the culture is to only look at the science, not the personalities, which I think has led us to accept some very strange behavior indeed.

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