Academic talks: beyond reason.

Apr 30, 2012

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From Three-toed sloth. Worth reading in its entirety. Few will listen. (And as for the written word, my favourite aphorism is from David Hubel : “Reading most papers today is like eating sawdust.”)

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.

Post by Jonathan Rees

Clinical academic and skin watcher at the University of Edinburgh

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