Talking the Talk

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

July 08, 2013

As a tenured professor in the sciences, I give quite a few talks every year in various settings and to various types of audiences. Most of those presentations are about some aspect of my research, and I quite like giving these talks. In some ways, it's not so different from teaching.

When preparing a talk, it is important to know something about your audience: What are your listeners likely to know about your topic, if anything? Are they in the audience because they want to be, or because they have to be?

You typically know the answer to such questions for the courses you teach, and you can make some good guesses for a research talk delivered at a conference. But the nature of the audience may be more difficult to gauge when giving talks in other settings, so it helps to learn a bit in advance about who will be attending.

The audience is an important element of a talk, and not only for the obvious reasons. Audiences can also influence a talk that is in progress by how they respond to it—or how you, the speaker, perceive they are responding (assuming that you notice your audience). Even people who are interested in your topic and who are voluntarily attending will behave in different ways during a talk. When you look out at an audience while you are speaking, you are likely to see someone fiddling with their phone, someone dozing off, someone chatting to the person next to them, someone doodling, and some people apparently giving you their full attention (with varying facial expressions that may be impossible to interpret)—just like what you see when teaching a large class.

What do you do with that information?

I have a friend whose talk went off the rails because he looked out at the audience and became distraught at the sight of a famous scientist looking (apparently) bored or disapproving. I advised my friend to stop looking closely at his audience. Making eye contact can be a good thing, but not if you become unhinged at what you see. Perhaps you can find another way—after, not during, your talk—to determine if you are in fact boring and need to alter the content or style of your talks.

Do you care if people fiddle with their phones (silently) during your talk? Most of time I don't mind, although recently, while giving an invited talk at a conference, I noticed that the person who had organized the session and who had invited me to speak was texting during my entire presentation. I noticed that because he was sitting at a table next to the podium at which I was standing, so I could see his screen (and moving fingers) as I spoke. If I had seen someone in the audience texting, I would not have been disturbed since I could pretend that they were sending out excited tweets about my talk ("Transformative talk by FSP right now in room C634!"). It was less easy to delude myself when the texter was sitting next to the podium playing with his phone during my talk. I assumed the worst, and I was annoyed.

How do you feel about people sleeping during your talk (or during your lecture in a class)? Are you insulted, nonplussed, sympathetic, ambivalent, or unconcerned? Do your feelings depend on whether the person is very old or very young, sitting in the front or the back, snoring or quiet, jerking her head around or completely still? I don't mind sleepers and don't take it personally, although when giving a talk at another university I have appreciated it when my host has warned me in advance that "Professor X always sits in the front and falls asleep during talks."

Some members of the audience may actually be listening to your talk. In fact, most probably are listening for most of your talk. Or, at least, that is what I like to think. Some of your listeners may even interrupt you with questions, depending on the setting. Whether interruptions occur seems to be a function of the culture of the setting; in some places it is expected and frequent, in other places it never happens and would be a bit shocking.

I like questions during my talks, and I always hope for some good ones at the end. Good and reasonably polite questions and comments are always preferable to bizarre and rude ones, but of course we all have our own definition of what we consider rude. I don't mind an aggressive question that is substantive ("Why did you assume X? Did you consider the effect of Z?"), but I am less excited about comments like "I would have done that in a totally different way" or "What a waste of time!" (In a recent poll on my blog, 75 percent of more than 280 people who participated indicated that they had been on the receiving end of a rude question or comment in a talk.)

Even if your content and delivery are excellent and your audience is receptive, it is fascinating how many ancillary things can go wrong in a talk. Most of the following examples have happened during one of my talks:

  • There can be a fire alarm (real or false), a tornado warning, or a power outage.
  • You can trip on something during your talk, or walk into a chair or table.
  • Technology can fail: projection equipment, microphones, computers and software, cables, laser pointers.
  • The advertisement for your talk can list the wrong date, time, and room.
  • The person introducing you may make mistakes or say things that you don't like (for example, in the context of a research talk, I am not fond of being introduced as my husband's wife).
  • Someone in the audience may become ill. You may become ill.
  • You may eat too many cookies and drink too much coffee just before your talk (some places serve sugary, caffeine-laden snacks), rendering you hyper until about halfway through your talk, when your energy level plummets.
  • There may be loud sounds that drown you out: construction work, tuba practice, a dance class, or a screaming baby (never mind about cellphones ringing).

The best thing to do, of course, is to stay calm and talk through the interruption if at all possible—that is, keep talking during a projection failure but not during a fire or a heart attack.

Research talks are a major feature of academic life, and it is therefore important to learn how to be a good speaker as well as a good audience member. Now that more and more talks are recorded, we may eventually each get to put together an "outtakes" video of special moments from our talks. The very idea gives me pause, but it would serve as a useful reminder that giving talks can be an adventure, and we should try to roll with it and enjoy the experience.

Female Science Professor is the pseudonym of a professor in the physical sciences at a large research university who blogs under that moniker and writes monthly for our Catalyst column.