April 04, 2012

On Academic Talks: Memory and Fear

Attention conservation notice: 2000 words of advice to larval academics, based on mere guesswork and ill-assimilated psychology.

It being the season for job-interview talks, student exam presentations, etc., the problems novices have with giving them are much on my mind. And since I find myself composing the same e-mail of advice over and over, why not write it out once and for all?

Once you understand the purpose of academic talks, it becomes clear that the two fundamental obstacles to giving good talks are memory and fear.

The point of academic talk is to try to persuade your audience to agree with you about your research. This means that you need to raise a structure of argument in their minds, in less than an hour, using just your voice, your slides, and your body-language. Your audience, for its part, has no tools available to it but its ears, eyes, and mind. (Their phones do not, in this respect, help.)

This is a crazy way of trying to convey the intricacies of a complex argument. Without external aids like writing and reading, the mind of the East African Plains Ape has little ability to grasp, and more importantly to remember, new information. (The great psychologist George Miller estimated the number of pieces of information we can hold in short-term memory as "the magical number seven, plus or minus two", but this may if anything be an over-estimate.) Keeping in mind all the details of an academic argument would certainly exceed that slight capacity*. When you over-load your audience, they get confused and cranky, and they will either tune you out or avenge themselves on the obvious source of their discomfort, namely you.

Therefore, do not overload your audience, and do not even try to convey all the intricacies of a complex academic argument in your talk. The proper goal of an academic talk is to convey a reasonably persuasive sketch of your argument, so that your audience are better informed about the subject, get why they should care, and are usefully oriented to what you wrote if and when they decide to read your paper. In many ways a talk is really an extended oral abstract for your paper. (This is more effective if those who are interested can read your paper, at an open pre-print archive or at least on your website.) Success in this means keeping your audience's load low, and there are two big ways to do that: make it easier for them to remember what matters, and reduce what they have to remember.

People can remember things more easily if they have a scheme they can relate them to, which helps them appreciate their relevance. Your audience will come to the talk with various schemata; use them.

You can and should also help your audience build new schemata.

As for limiting the information the audience needs to remember, the main rule is to ask yourself "Do they need to know this to follow the argument?" and "Will they need to remember this later?" If they do not need to know it even for a moment, cut it. (Showing or telling them details, followed by "don't worry about the details", does not work.) If they will need to remember it later, emphasize it, and remind them when you need it.

To answer "Do they need to know this?" and "Will they have to recall this?", you need to be intimately familiar with the logic of your own talk. The ideal of such familiarity is to have that logic committed to memory — the logic, not some exact set of words. When you really understand it, when you grasp all the logical connections and see why everything that's necessary is needed, the argument can "carry you along" through the presentation, letting you compose appropriate words as you go, without rote memorization. This has many advantages, not least the ability to field questions.

As a corollary to limiting what the audience needs to remember, if you are using slides, their text should be (1) prompts for your exposition and your audience's memory, or (2) things which are just too hard to say, like equations**. (Do not, whatever you do, read aloud the text of your slides.) But whether spoken or on the slide, cut your talk down to the essentials. This requires you to know what is essential.

"But the lovely, no the divine, details!" you protest. "All those fine points I checked, all the intricate work I did, all the alternatives I ruled out? When do I get to talk about them?" To which there are several responses.

  1. The point of the talk is not to please you, by reminding yourself of what a badass you are, but to tell your audience something useful and interesting. (Note to graduate students: It is important that you internalize that you are, in fact, a badass, but it is also important that then you move on. Needing to have your ego stroked by random academics listening to talks is a sign that you have not yet reached this stage.) Unless something matters to your actual message, it really doesn't belong in the main body of the talk.
  2. You can stick an arbitrary amount of detail in the "I'm glad you asked that" slides, which go after the one which says "Thank you for your attention! Any questions?".
  3. You also can and should put all these details in your paper, and the people who really care, to whom it really matters, will go read your paper. Once again, think of an academic talk as an extended oral abstract.

To sum up on memory, then: successful academic talks persuade your audience of your argument. To do this, and not instead alienate your audience, you have to work with their capacities and prior knowledge, and not against them. Negatively, this means limiting the amount of information you expect them to retain. Positively, you need to use, and make, schemata which help them see the relevance of particulars. You can still give an awful talk this way (maybe your argument is incredibly bad), but you can hardly give a good talk without it.

The major consideration in crafting the content of your talk is your audience's memory. The major consideration for the delivery of the talk is your fear. (Your own memory is not so great, but you have of course internalized the schema for your own talk, and so you can re-generate it as you go, using your slides as prompts.) Public speaking, especially about something important to you, and to an audience whose opinion matters to you, is intimidating to many people. Fear makes you a worse public speaker; you mumble, you forget your place in the argument, you can't think on your feet, you project insecurity (possibly by over-compensating), etc. You do not need to become a great, fearless public speaker; you do need to be adequate at it. The three major routes to doing this, in my experience, are desensitization, dissociation, and deliberate acts.

Desensitization is simple: the more you do it, and emerge unscathed, the less fearful you will be. Practice giving your talks to safe but critical audiences. ("But critical" is key: you need them to tell you honestly what wasn't working well. [Something can always be done better.]) If you can't get a safe-but-critical audience, get an audience you don't care about (e.g., some random conference), and practice on them. Remind yourself, too, that while your talk may be a big deal for you, it's rarely a big deal for your audience.

Dissociation is about embracing being a performer on a stage: the audience's idea of you is already a fictional character, so play a character. It can, once again, be very liberating to separate the persona you're adopting for the talk from the person you actually are. If that seems unethical, go read The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. An old-fashioned insistence that what really matters are the ideas, and not their merely human vessel, can also be helpful here.

Finally, deliberate actions are partly about communicating better, and partly about a fake-it-till-you-make-it assumption of confidence. (Some of these are culture-bound, so adjust as need be.) Project your voice to be heard through the room. (Don't be ashamed to use a microphone if need be.) Look at your audience (not your shoes or the screen), letting your eyes rove over them to gauge their facial expressions; don't be afraid to maintain eye contact, but keep moving on. Maintain a nearly-conversational speed of talking; avoid long pauses. When fielding questions, don't defer to senior people or impose on your juniors; re-phrase the question before answering, to make sure everyone gets it, and to give yourself time to think about your reply. And for the sake of all that's holy, speak to the audience, not to a screen.

At the outset, I said that the two great obstacles to giving a good talk are memory and fear. The converse is that if you truly understand your own argument, and you truly believe in it, you can convey it in a way which works with your audience's memory, and overcome your own fear. The sheer mechanics of presentation will come with practice, and you will have something worth presenting.

Further reading:

*: Some branches of the humanities and the social sciences have the horrible custom of reading an academic paper out loud, apparently on the theory that this way none of the details get glossed over. The only useful advice which can be given about this is "Don't!". Academic prose has many virtues, but it is simply not designed for oral communication. Moreover, all of your audience consists of people who are very good at reading such prose, and can certainly do so at least as fast as you can recite it. Having people recite their papers, or even prepared remarks written in the style of a paper, does nothing except waste an hour in the life of the speaker and the audience — and none of us has hours to waste. ^

**: As a further corollary, and particularly important in statistics, big tables of numbers (e.g., regression coefficients) are pointless; and here "big" means "larger than 2x2". ^

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