Thursday, July 24, 2008

5 Steps to a Terrible Conference Talk

Last week I was in sunny Santa Barbara, California enjoying the cool ocean breezes and attending a conference at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics titled "Magnetic Field Generation in Experiments, Geophysics, and Astrophysics". Overall it was a wonderful 5 day conference with speakers covering many aspects of dynamo theory, observations, and experiments. There were talks by many of the biggest names in the field that highlighted some of the on-going work into how nature creates magnetic fields and how those magnetic fields create nature. I found it to be a great broadening experience in that I learned about some of the work going on in pure analytical theory and in earth-based experiments that greatly compliment my own work with simulations. For example, Dan Lathrop and his group at the University of Maryland have a liquid sodium experiment that will be coming online that is a rotating sphere of 3 meters in diameter. There is a French collaboration called VKS that has achieved dynamo action without a seed field, again in a liquid sodium experiment. And there are people from the fusion community that are now looking into dynamo action as a means of stabilizing tokamaks. Overall it was a fascinating conference.

However, as good as it was, there were a few bad talks. I mean really bad talks. As a fine Brition who will remain anonymous told me on a bus after a day with a couple very poor talks "some of those talks were impressively poor". As I was sitting in the conference during one of the talks that I didn't find very good, the idea for this post was born. So here are 5 easy steps to assure yourself an audience that is bored out of it's mind.

Step #1: Fail to Remember Your Audience
So you sit down to start to put together your talk. The first key to make your talk simple insufferable is to prepare your talks at the wrong level. Since this was a talk for fluid dynamicists, that means you need to spend large amount of time explaining basic concepts like "the MHD equations are non-linear". On the other hand, even though everyone in the room will know what advection is, you could spoil your remarks by forgetting that no everyone in the room spends all day working on your specific problem. So either you make everyone in the room bored with something a 1st year graduate student would know, or you totally lose them by diving immediately into 10 slides of extremely complex equations without a hint of motivtion.

Step #2: Use Non-Standard Notation or Parameters
First a word of explanation - in fluid dynamics, we use non-dimensional parameters to measure the relative strengths of different terms in the MHD equations. For example, a Prandtl number gives the ratio of the viscosity of a fluid to it's thermal diffusivity, which basically tells you if a fluid wants to convect heat or simply conduct it. There are hundreds of these "numbers" in fluid dynamics. So when you are planing your talk, be sure to use non-standard parameters like a modified inverse Eckman number. That way no one in the audience will be able to compare your results to their results.

Step #3: Make Bad Plots
There are several ways you can do this. You could have 27 different symbols on the plot each with 4 different colors, making your legend cover more space than the area of the plot. Or you could choose really bad color tables that give you a plot that looks like a baby's diaper. Or you can make perfectly good plots and then have 10 of them per slide, making it totally impossible for the audience to tell which plot they should be looking at.

Step #4: Become Combative When Asked Questions
This one is really quite simple. When someone asks you if your simulation/theory/experiment has a certain major problem, simply become enraged and spout off about how your simulation/theory/experiment has no major flaws whatsoever and is far better than any competing theory. The best people at this also manage to slip in some subtle personal attacks on anyone who disagrees with them.

Step # 5: Don't Time Your Talk
You've got 15 minutes to talk and you have 120 slides, but that doesn't bother you at all. Why? Because all 120 slides are important. You do great research and you deserve to be able to present it all - regaurdless of the time you've been alloted. This one is especially effective if several people with this philosophy can give their talks in a row.

So there you have it - 5 sure fire ways to give a very bad talk.

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