In my ESA talk, I threw in a couple of pictures of my 18 month old son as a joke. It got a nice laugh from the audience. I often do this sort of thing. It’s purely showmanship–the only function is to make the talk more entertaining and engaging than it otherwise would have been.
I sometimes hear this sort of showmanship bemoaned or derided. There’s a view that only the substance of your science should matter, and that showmanship is a triumph of style over substance. That if you’re telling jokes, or adopting a lively, energetic style, or whatever, you’re just a salesperson, not a scientist. I’ve even heard the view expressed that flashy salespeople get faculty jobs at the expense of “real” scientists.
I disagree, at least mostly. When I sprinkle jokes into my talks, it’s not to hide lack of substance. When I’m writing a talk, I don’t think “Boy, this talk stinks, I’d better throw in some jokes so that no one notices the crappy science.” In fact, it’s just the opposite–the jokes help me convey the substance. Because an entertained audience is an engaged audience. I want my audience alert and listening closely, not bored and drifting off. A bored audience is not going to absorb whatever substantive point I’m trying to convey. And no, good scientific content in and of itself will not necessarily keep an audience engaged.
If you feel differently, let me ask you this: don’t you do lots of things to keep your audience engaged? Don’t you structure your talk in a logical order, so that it “tells a story”? Don’t you include pretty pictures of your study organisms and field sites? Don’t you use figures rather than tables whenever possible? Don’t you try not to speak in a monotone? Don’t you look around the room rather than reading from your notes? Because strictly speaking, none of those things has anything to do with the substantive content of your talk either.
Look, good public speaking is difficult, and for a lot of people it doesn’t come easily. In other words, it’s just like lots of other useful skills. So if it doesn’t come easily to you, I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to practice and get better at it if you don’t want your career options in science to be severely limited (it’s not just academics who need to be able to get up in front of an audience and communicate science). The good news is that you can get better. I can name multiple top ecologists and evolutionary biologists who’ve learned to overcome stage fright, shyness, and other obstacles to become very good public speakers. Don’t resent good public speakers as “showmen”–learn from them.
Can showmanship be taken too far? Sure. Like Evgeny Morozov, I’m very uncomfortable with many TED talks, which really do use style as a substitute for substance. And even in longer-form talks, too many jokes or anecdotes or whatever can get distracting. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible to give a terrifically engaging talk without a single joke. But in contexts like departmental seminars, conference talks, job seminars, and undergraduate lectures, too little showmanship is much more common than too much, in my experience.
And there are contexts in which quite a lot of showmanship can be just fine, or even great.
Ed Burger Colin Adams* is a mathematics professor at my undergraduate college. Sadly, I never had a class with him, though I saw him lecture once. He often dresses up in costume and lectures in the guise of an alter ego: “Mel Slugbate, insurance salesman”! I relate this not to encourage you to deliver lectures in costume, but just to encourage you to get comfortable with some modest level of showmanship. Your audience will thank you for it–and will pay better attention.
*Thanks to a commenter for correcting my embarrassingly-bad memory on which amazing Williams College math prof lectures as “Mel Slugbate”. Rest of the paragraph edited accordingly.