Friday, July 25, 2008

5 Steps to a Really Bad 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 (shown on right) 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 magnetic 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 Briton who will remain anonymous told me on a bus after a day with a couple very rough 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 that your audience will be bored out of their minds.

Step #1: Fail to Target Your Audience
So you sit down to start to put together your talk. The first key to make your talk simply insufferable is to prepare your talk at the wrong level. Since this particular conference was 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 not everyone in the room spends all day working on your specific problem. So either you make everyone 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 motivation.

Step #2: Use Non-Standard Notation or Parameters
Every field has it's own set of parameters. In cosmology, for example, they are things like Omega_matter or sigma_8. In fluid dynamics, we use non-dimensional parameters to measure the relative strengths of different terms in the MHD equations. For example, the Prandtl number gives the ratio of the viscosity of a fluid to it's thermal diffusivity, which basically tells you whether a fluid wants to convect heat or simply conduct it. There are hundreds of these "numbers" in fluid dynamics but about 10 or so that everybody uses. 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 with 8 different colors of each symbol, making your legend cover more space than the actual plot. Or you could choose a really bad color table that gives 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 simulation/theory/experiment. The true masters at this also manage to slip in some subtle personal attacks on anyone who disagrees with them.

Step # 5: Don't Time Your Talk
So you've prepared you talk and you're all ready to go. 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 -regardless of the time you've been allotted. This step is especially effective if several people with this philosophy give their talks in a row or if you are speaking last in a session.

I promise you that if you incorporate even one of these steps into your talk, people will notice. If you manage to get all 5 then congratulations and/or condolences will be in order.


  1. "California enjoying the cool ocean breezes"

    Yes, sourthern Califprnia is great.

    "I promise you that if you incorporate even one of these steps into your talk, people will notice."

    Yes, it is amazing how bad some talks can be.

    After attending some talks I wonder how these people can write research articles that actually make it into journals.

  2. It's easy to write articles that make it into journals, because if a journal article gets long-winded, boring, or badly written, there's no social pressure to just walk out on it. (I admit, sometimes social pressure seems to be the only thing containing the massive outward force of all that "hot air." This can be readily observed by the conference supernova (or more commonly a simple attendee outgassing) forming a post-talk nebula (in which most of the attendees eject themselves from the conference room and try to recover from the overly nebulous feeling from enduring the talk) occurring just after the end of any of the more "inflated" talks.)


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