11 February 2006

The Zen of Presentations, Part 3: Can you do it on the radio?

Late last year, science lost a real treasure: Ted Bullock died at the age of 90. He was a neurobiologist of the first water. I somewhat selfishly took it upon myself to write a short obituary for the International Society for Neuroethology, for which Ted was the founding president. I was fortunate enough to meet Ted several times. In some ways, the first meeting was the most memorable. He came to the University of Victoria to give the last seminar of the academic year, at the invitation of Dorothy Paul, my Ph.D. supervisor. There were many remarkable things about his visit. For instance, when I had just driven him to campus from the airport, he walked into Dorothy's neurobiology class just as some undergraduate students got some microelectrodes into slug brains and were recordings neurons' action potentials. After giving Dorothy a brief hug, Ted immediately doffed his coat, and grabbed a chair to sit and work with the students and talk about the recordings they were getting.

When Dorothy asked if he had any slides so that she might load up a slide carousel, Ted said he didn't have any. He said that the clearer the story was in his head, the fewer slides he needed. No slides was his definition of "nirvana."

The seminar he gave was extraordinary. I think it's still the only academic seminar I've seen where the speaker got up, talked for about 50 minutes or so, without a single slide, a single overhead, without writing a single word on a blackboard. Yet it was absolutely clear, and you never lost sight of the story he was telling. As Dorothy would later put it, "Even the plant physiologists were enthralled." (She wasn't implying that plant physiologists are a hard to please lot, but Ted was talking about neurobiology, which is rather off the beaten path for plant researchers.)

I saw Ted give talks at other meetings. A couple of other times, including the last time I saw him, at Western Nerve Net a couple of years ago, he presented it without slides, but those were much shorter talks.

I think anyone giving a talk should be ready to give a talk using the "Bullock method": be able to do the whole thing without slides.

Having said that, I have a confession to make: I've never had the guts to do an academic talk without some sort of slides. In fact, I put a lot of thought and effort into my slides. For my SICB talk in Janaury, I had started working on my PowerPoint files in mid-November. But I would like to think that I could have given the talk on the radio, if I had to, and it would hopefully be understandable. I always aspire to have the story so clear in my head that I could go right to zero slides.

There's another reason to aspire to be able to give a talk without visual aids. There are two types of speakers: those who have had slide or visual aide disasters and those who haven't had one yet. Not only does preparing give a talk on the radio force you to really think about what you're saying, it gives you valuable insurance.

While I was at the SICB meeting, there were several student paper competitions. I was in the audience for one, in which the speaker was going along reasonably well. He tried to show a video -- and froze the computer instead. Completely. During a juried presentation competition. He ultimately finished the talk, but the long pause while he tried to get the computer going was agonizing. You pretty have to think that cost him any chance he had in the competition.

My other favourite disaster story was at a Western Nerve Net meeting, where the first speaker for the regular presentations was an undergraduate giving her first talk. She was already nervous. And the slide carousel got upended, and put all her slides in a jumble.

Heck, my own seminar for my own job talk was almost derailed for lack of a cable to connect my computer to a projection system. Though because I am gutless, I was steadily filling a carousel with 35 mm film slides rather than "going Bullock" at the last second.

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