Short Seminar Skillz

October 7, 2007

I have recently been helping one of my trainees with a short seminar presentation, and last week I was at a subfield conference that featured many short seminars delivered by trainees and PIs. Here are some of my thoughts concerning the proper design and delivery of a short seminar (15-20 minutes). Some of these ideas are also applicable to long seminars.

(1) It is much harder to deliver an effective 15-20 minute “short” seminar than it is a 45-60 minute “long” one. With a short seminar there is simply no room for error, no opportunity to recover from a mistake, no leeway for poor time management. In a typical long seminar, you can invite the audience to chime in with questions as they arise, and thus any confusion you sow can be dispelled in real time. In a typical short seminar, no questions are entertained until the end, and any confusion cannot be dispelled until after the seminar is over.

A long seminar can be constructed in independent modules, so that if you go slower than expected, you can simply cut out one or more modules of information, and the seminar is still a coherent whole. A short seminar delivered by a trainee is typically a single module, although PIs with advanced short seminar skillz can deliver two modules, if at least one of them is very schematic and light on data.

(2) However much data you think you should present in a short seminar, you are almost certainly mistaken. Inexperienced or poorly trained presenters always include way too much data. The question to ask yourself is, how much data can you expect a person not already familiar with to digest in 15-20 minutes? Here’s a hint: It’s not the amount of data in a Journal of Neuroscience paper with 10 figures and 5 supplemental figures.

Even someone with a quicker than average mind can only process in 15-20 minutes the quantity of data that would typically be presented in two or three typical Journal of Neuroscience multipanel figures. If you try to make ten different points, your audience will remember none of them. If you try to make two or three points, there is a chance your audience will remember one or two.

(3) There is no such thing as too much background and context. If you don’t provide at the beginning of the talk a sufficiently rich theoretical context for the data, your audience will not be able to follow your explanation of your data because it will not fit into any conceptual framework in their minds. Give them this conceptual framework. And if you don’t provide a sufficiently rich motivational context–i.e., why your audience should care about what you are saying–your audience is not going to emotionally engage and make an effort to listen to you.

Of course, you should be sensitive to what background and context your audience can be expected to already possess. If you are speaking at the Society for Nephrology meeting, you probably don’t have to explain what a glomerulus is or convince them that its study is important for understanding kidney function. However, the downsides of providing insufficient background and context far outweigh the risk of insulting your audience’s intelligence.

(4) The overall structure of a short seminar should be like two pyramids tip-to-tip: start very broad with background and context, narrow in gradually to the specific questions you address experimentally, and then broaden back out at the end to the implications of your experimental results to the big picture. In a short seminar, you can only enact this structure once; in a long seminar, you can repeat it two or three times.

(5) However, fast you naturally talk, it is almost certainly too fast for a seminar (short or long). It is counterproductive to try to cram more information into a talk by speaking quickly. Talk very slowly and enunciate clearly; your audience will thank you, especially those who are not native English speakers. Any idea you want the audience to remember needs to be repeated at least twice, and preferably more. Repeat conclusions and assumptions that flow from what you have already said as part of your transitions into what you are going to say next. If you do this smoothly, by the end of the talk you will have repeated your key points quite a few times, yet you will not sound repetitive.

(6) Each slide should have only as much data as would go into a single panel of a multi-panel figure. For bar and line graphs, use color to distinguish experimental groups, not hatching, shades of gray, symbol shapes, or line dot-dashes. Don’t use colors that look like an infant’s Playskool toys. There should be no extraneous information on a slide; if you don’t explicitly refer to it, it shouldn’t be there. Use animation only very rarely, and only if necessary to make a point. (I once attended a talk on circadian rhythms, and every slide had a little clock at the top left of each slide with animated hands whirling around. Do I need to explain how stupefyingly horrible and distracting that was? Let’s put it this way, I don’t even remember who gave the talk or what it was about, but I can still picture the infernal whirling clocks.)

State each slide’s essential point in large text at the top. Use only a single sans serif typeface for all the slides in your talk, and make sure all text and labels are plenty big. Myriad and Syntax are good humanist sans serif typefaces, while Arial and Helvetica are too “cold”; no Times New Roman nor, for the sake of all that is good in the world, comic sans. Use a pure white background and black text for all slides, not a dark background and light text. Gradient background are just a distraction. Use all-text slides *very* sparingly, and only use bullet points; no full sentences or paragraphs.

(7) Use the laser pointer very sparingly, and only when necessary. A well-designed slide should not require much pointing, as the information should naturally flow from top-left to bottom-right. DO NOT WAVE THE LASER POINTER AROUND LIKE A MANIAC! Try to look at the audience, not the screen. If you are in a multi-talk session, try to insist that you use your own laptop rather than any integrated system; this greatly reduces the risk of problems with advancing slides.

(8) The question-and-answer period at the end is as much dominance-submission theater as it is an opportunity for clarifying and amplifying points made in your talk. You must make sure that you appear the dominant authority and the questioners appear submissive to your authority. This requires both deep knowledge and practice at expressing your knowledge with a demeanor of absolute confidence.

If a question is framed in a way that explicitly or implicitly calls into doubt any aspect of your interpretations, feel free to appropriately reframe the question before answering it. If you are not clear on what a question is really getting at, request clarification before answering. If you still only have a vague idea of the question, you should say, “I think what you’re asking is blah, blah, blah”, and then answer that question. If after requesting clarification you still have absolutely no clue what the question is, simply state, “I’m sorry but still don’t understand your question, why don’t you ask me afterwards”, and move on. It is very annoying to an audience to sit there while a speaker answers a question that the audience knows wasn’t asked.

(9) In terms of general verbal demeanor, DO NOT APOLOGIZE OR BE SELF-DEPRECATING UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, EVEN IN AN ATTEMPT AT HUMOR. Recite your experimental findings in the present tense as if they are simply facts about the world. “As you can see here, animals with knock-out of the bibbly-gibbly gene exhibit a severe deficit in gabbly-babbly behavior.” Don’t use phrases like, “we observe(d)”, “we see/saw”, “we were able to show”, “we find/found” etc.

In the introduction of the the talk, don’t say things like, “I am going to try to convince you of…”, “I want to describe our efforts to…”, or “I’m going to present evidence in support of our hypothesis that…” Say things like “We have tested the hypothesis that…” or “We have developed a new technique for…” In the conclusion of your talk, recite your main conclusions simply and directly. Don’t say things like, “I hope I have convinced you…”

(10) Ultimately, your audience is going to remember a lot more about *how* you gave your talk than *what* you said. If they really become interested in your science, then they will look up your papers, e-mail you to discuss things further, etc. So the most important thing is to come across as very smooth, adept, and authoritative. *You* are the expert on what you are talking about, and *you* are in the naturally dominant position in the speaker/audience relationship. You should exploit that dominance to create a powerful impression in the minds of your audience. These are the people who review your papers and grants, decide whether to give you jobs, promotion, and tenure, invite seminar speakers to their departments and to present at conferences, and vote on officer and committee positions in scientific societies.

12 Responses to “Short Seminar Skillz”

  1. Bill Says:

    You must make sure that you appear the dominant authority and the questioners appear submissive to your authority.

    If you’re relying on appeal to illusory authority then your science is probably shite. What matters is whether you have a decent answer, not how the question is phrased. And this:

    Ultimately, your audience is going to remember a lot more about *how* you gave your talk than *what* you said.

    is nonsense too. No one cares about you — they probably mostly care about the free donuts, but if they are there out of interest then what they want is useful information. If your data are crap, *that’s* what they’ll remember.

    These are the people who review your papers and grants, decide whether to give you jobs, promotion, and tenure blah blah blah

    … and if they were routinely such self-important wankers as to see the whole thing as “dominance theatre” or some such wibble, scientific progress would have long since ground to a halt. Fortunately most scientists are interested in science, not theatrics.


  2. physioprof Says:

    “Fortunately most scientists are interested in science, not theatrics.”

    It is only to your own detriment not to take a broader view of what science involves. BTW, WTF is “wibble”?


  3. writedit Says:

    I have 2 wibblers at my house, Thomas Aquinas & Nina. In our case, wibble = wiggle (tail nubs) + nibble (love nibble, of course). No idea about other usage of the term, which I thought originated in Sunny Va with the appearance of the wibblers at our shelter.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    Bill, as a long term student of behavior including the human variety, I think PhysioProf has some good points. Much as with “The Prince” the value here is not necessarily in taking the specifics and the possibly extreme representation too much to heart. Rather it is in trying to understand the principles at stake here.

    Science is a human endeavor conducted by humans who, despite their intellect, have many typical failings. Scientists are indeed affected, dramatically so in many cases, by things other than the shining purity of data and logic. Is this really news to you? Presentation and salesmanship work. Confidence works. and yes, alpha-male type dominance behavior works.

    One larger point that ticks me off, again as a behaviorist at heart, is that people get their hackles up so far when you identify their behavior or the influences on their behavior. I don’t get this. Take bias in assessing other people. Experimental psych types do, or should, take the fact that individuals are laden with biases as a central fact of human behavior. White males of likely otherwise neutral intent go ballistic over on Zuska and other places because their own biases are brought to their attention. Older scientists, again, of otherwise decent intent go ballistic when I start piercing the bias against young and transitioning investigators and they are forced to confront the fact of their own bias. The response in these cases? A schoolyard reply “No, YOU’re the biased one”….

    what i’m getting around to is that the fact that Physioprof may approach his seminar preparation by getting ready to “dominate” the audience does not indicate that his data are crap. it is not an either/or. it is a recognition that no matter what the quality of your data, there are other factors that influence the take-away impression on the part of the audience.


  5. […] 12th, 2007 A commenter to my tutorial on Short Seminar Skillz characterized my suggestions as “wibble”, complained that “[i]f you’re relying […]


  6. writedit Says:

    Yesterday & today I had the pleasure of hearing 3 genuninely outstanding scientific presentations at our local celebration of science: Carol Greider, PhD (Lasker last year – Nobel next year?) on Telomerase & the Consequences of Telomere Dysfunction; Laura Glimcher, MD on Transforming T Helper Cells: T-bet and Beyond (something like that – focus on T-bet); and none other than – thanks to our prescient SVC – Mario Capecchi, PhD on Modeling Human Disease in the Mouse: From Cancer to Neuropsychiatric Disorders (including the fabulous ongoing work on an OCD mouse model).

    Of course the science was blow the audience away quality. The presentations were clean, elegant, logical, collegial, free of any hint of arrogance, and full of natural curiosity & excitement about the discovery process itself. All postdocs and grad students involved were fully and warmly and enthusiastically acknowledged as the data were presented (not just the thanks to the team slide at the end, though those appeared as well). Publications were not cited or touted – in fact, you would not think these people had made the remarkable discoveries they have. They reached their “punch lines” matter of factly, with emphasis placed on how underlying theories evolved & how much remains to be done. I was riveted throughout each talk, and not because of the marquee names. None of these people wanted me to remember them personally but rather the work, which was the star at each session. I would have been just as engrossed if they had been junior faculty telling the same meaningful stories in a meaningful manner.


  7. writedit Says:

    And before PhysioProf jumps in to say the talks I heard were not the type of here are my new data seminar shorts to which he refers and were not given by scientists seeking to establish their unproven line of research (versus presenting accepted bodies of work), yes, I know the two are quite different. Dr. Capecchi was turned down by the NIH on the grounds his proposal to disable mammalian genes was “too speculative.” But, reflecting on this thread as I attended the star sessions these past two days, I mentally urged the up & coming researchers to similarly lay out their discovery process with clarity & logic, recognizing the new kids would require more robust defense (sans a defensive manner) to prove their material was worth our time & attention.


  8. drugmonkey Says:

    writedit do keep in mind that PhysioProf was directing comment at the trainee and possibly jr fac level. for sure the rules change for Nobel-level reputations!

    of course when the default assumption about your science is that it was because of your brilliance and hard work supported by a bunch of peons you can afford to be self-deprecating. when the default assumption is a skepticism that you are sufficiently “independent”, well, you don’t want to be crediting all of your senior collaborators at your own expense. and I doubt PP was suggesting not to credit your own lab members.


  9. physioprof Says:

    “I doubt PP was suggesting not to credit your own lab members.”

    Absolutely. In fact, if you are a PI, it is absolutely essential that you amply credit the trainees who worked on the projects you talk about. I usually show pictures of them. This makes it clear that you are the “grand patron” confident in your own powers and not afraid of being overshadowed by your trainees. Failing to give ample credit to your trainees makes you look like a credit-greedy weakling.

    Another thing PIs can do when giving a platform presentation at a meeting relates to whether your trainees have poster presentations. If so, you should definitely advertise your trainees’ posters during your talk. In fact, you can leverage off this to pack more information into your talk, by giving a briefer and broader overview of those areas of your research program that are well-covered in the posters, and just tell the audience to go look at the posters if they want more details.

    This discussion leads us to another aspect of designing a talk. Depending on the stage of your career, the purpose of the talk can be very different.

    (1) Grad student/junior post-doc: You are hewing closely to your data. No one knows who you are and has no reason to trust you or grant you the benefit of the doubt. Thus, you must stay close to the raw data, explain your controls and other experimental details, etc. You will get questions from your audience about things like the concentration of potassium in your internal electrode solution. You better be prepared to answer them. And any sorts of grandiose conceptual schemes you try to present will be ignored.

    (2) Senior post-doc/job talk: Here, you are trying to convince people *both* that you have command of the experimental details of your research *and* that you have enough of a broader vision to lead a vibrant research program as a PI. This is tricky, and perhaps I will post a detailed analysis of job talks in the future. You will need to be able to field questions both about the nitty-gritty experimental details of what you present–mostly because faculty are trying to figure out what experimental techniques the applicant actually has command of and can implement in her brand new lab, and which were actually performed via collaboration–and how your research fits into a broader vision of your field. Detailed explication of experimental controls is still integral to your presentation.

    (3) Junior PI: Here, you are mostly trying to convince people that you have some trainees in your lab and that experiments are occurring and producing results. You also need to convince people that you are successfully expanding your conceptual scope beyond nitty-gritty experimental details and focusing on the really big picture. At this stage, it can come across as a good thing if you field a question about how much sodium is in a buffer by stating that the questioner would have to ask the trainee who performed the experiment about that. Nevertheless, it is still good to describe experimental design in reasonable detail, including some discussion of controls.

    (4) Late-stage pre-tenure PI: At this stage, you are really now trying to convince audiences of your breadth of vision and the growing scope and size of your research program. Your slides and presentation style are getting further from the nitty-gritty primary data, and more focused on the conceptual framework. Because you now have at least some reputation for being a solid PI, audiences will give you the benefit of the doubt about experimental design, such as controls and interpretation.

    You can successfully field questions like, “How do you know that and not is what is really going on in your experiments?” as follows: “We have performed a complex series of control experiments that rule that possibility out. Since those experiments aren’t otherwise particularly interesting, why don’t we discuss it afterwards if you are interested?” Senior post-docs and junior PIs can’t usually get away with that.

    If you have multiple research programs going on in your lab, it is important to present work from more than one of them. You have the time to do this, because your scientific stature at thus point in your career permits you to explain the science more conceptually, yet still be convincing. And this helps demonstrate to your audience–some of whom will be writing tenure letters for you–that you do, indeed, have a broad vision and expansive scope of science and will be a major contributor to your field.

    If you have more research programs than you have time to talk about, it is useful to somehow allude to the existence of these other research programs even if you don’t described them. This can further impress the audience with the vast scope of your vision. Ways to do this include when mentioning the people in your lab, or in the very beginning of your talk you can state the science of your lab as broadly as possible and then say, “Today I’m going to tell you about a subset of what is going on in my lab”.

    (5) Tenured PI: At this stage of your career, you can do things like openly embrace controversy with your peers–which you need to be more circumspect about pre-tenure, take a very conceptual and speculative approach–so long as it is interesting and provocative, and talk a little more sweepingly about the historical currents in your field and how your research has both responded to and guided those currents. But you really can’t just give a retrospective about your own life in science.

    (6) Nobel laureate: At this point, your talks will be all you, all the time. How did you end up doing the things you did? How did your research come to so decisively dominate the course of an entire field? You can show pictures of your dog or cat. You can show pictures of each of your many trainees who have gone on to become leaders of their subfields and members of the National Academy of Sciences. You’re a Nobel laureate; you can do whatever you want.


  10. […] there is need for further examination of this topic. Here I am lifting up out of the comments to this post my response to DrugMonkey’s correct conclusion that I was directing my advice there to […]


  11. […] to focus on just one substantial paper’s worth of data for a job talk. As I pointed out here, in a 15-20 minute short seminar, you can really only present two or three multi-panel figures […]


  12. Alethea Says:

    “At this stage, it can come across as a good thing if you field a question about how much sodium is in a buffer by stating that the questioner would have to ask the trainee who performed the experiment about that.”

    Fantastic. I’ll keep it in mind. (Not ironic.)


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