New kind of talks at the 2013 ESA meeting

This is interesting: the Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting is going to include “Ignite” sessions. These are 1 hour sessions comprised of 5-minute talks on a common theme. Each talk has to have exactly 20 slides, which advance automatically every 15 seconds. There’s no time for questions after each talk. Instead, there’s a space nearby where presenters will gather after the session to interact with session attendees. For more on Ignite talks, including videos of them, go here.

I first heard of these talks from Rees Kassen, who gave such a talk at a global leadership conference in China a couple of years ago. As Rees put it to me, the idea of Ignite talks is basically to avoid “death by PowerPoint”. And although typical science conference talks aren’t nearly as deadly as, say, typical business presentations, I can certainly see a place for Ignite talks at the ESA meeting.

Obviously, Ignite talks are totally different from regular ESA talks. All you have time to do in an Ignite talk is give people the essence of one idea, and it has to be an idea that you can get across in a compelling way with slides that can be digested visually in 15 seconds each. That doesn’t mean you can’t have any data slides at all, but they’d have to be single-panel and instantly interpretable. And while I do think you want to coordinate your words and your slides to some extent–I don’t think you’d just want to talk for five minutes while random pretty pictures scrolled by behind you–there’s no way you can say one 15-second sentence about each slide. And while you obviously can’t go into any depth or technical detail on anything, I do think you need to somehow avoid being totally superficial. I think five minutes of empty platitudes illustrated by pretty pictures of your study organism would fall flat. One way to think of an Ignite talk is as an “elevator pitch”, designed to encourage people to come talk to you afterwards (the post-session interaction between speakers and audience is a key part of the whole “Ignite” idea).

In a way, I think these Ignite talks are to regular talks as Nature and Science papers are to regular papers.* For both, I think you need a single big, interesting idea, presented in a really incisive way that gets to the heart of the matter. Although I could also see using Ignite talks in other ways, for instance to announce to the world that you’re forming a working group or something and are looking for data sources and collaborators.

Scheduling of Ignite sessions is TBD, depending on the level of interest (note that you can give a regular talk in addition to an Ignite talk). Here’s my suggestion: put them on Monday morning! (unless the ESA is going to implement my suggestion to start the regular talks on Monday morning) I could see a few Ignite sessions being a really fun way to kick off the meeting.

To gauge interest, the ESA has put out a call for proposals for Ignite sessions. So you can’t just sign up to do an Ignite talk yourself–you need to come up with a topic, write a short proposal, and line up 8-10 speakers, much as with symposium proposals. Deadline for proposals is November 29.

Hmm, what to propose?…

*Or at least, how Nature and Science papers used to be to regular papers. Nature and Science papers used to be very different than regular papers–they told simple, clear-cut, and above all incisive stories. Nowadays, they often just function as extended abstracts for dozens of pages of online supplementary material. This is not an improvement. Yes, I am old and grouchy–so what?! Get off my lawn!

14 thoughts on “New kind of talks at the 2013 ESA meeting

  1. “These are 1 hour sessions comprised of 5-minute talks on a common theme. Each talk has to have exactly 20 slides, which advance automatically every 15 seconds. There’s no time for questions after each talk.”

    I have a better idea–just pack everybody into the largest room at the venue, and give each speaker a megaphone and 3 minutes to broadcast as many numbers from their study as possible.

    That is without question the stupidest concept I have ever heard of in regards to presenting scientific information to anyone, anywhere.

    • C’mon Jim, surely that’s a little strong! Yes, it’s a terrible way of trying to get across what you would ordinarily try to get across in an ESA talk–but that’s like saying that a car is terrible at space travel. I think the speakers who are successful at this will broadcast few if any numbers. The goal isn’t for you to make a robust case for some conclusion, or to convey some large amount of quantitative information. The goal is just to get an idea out there that people will want to come talk to you about afterwards. Now, I suppose you could argue that we already have a way to do that, known as “posters”. But I don’t think it’s the stupidest science communication idea ever!

      • About the only positive thing I can say is that kudos should often be given to those who try new things. However, ideas for such things should at least be reasonable. Fifteen seconds per slide, give me a break–it takes five to ten seconds just to read the axes. It’s one thing to say “you’ve got 5 minutes to get one or two main points across to the audience, do it however you think best” and another to have a timer throwing up a new slide every 15 seconds. But whatever, I’m not in charge.

      • Maybe check out some of the videos–the ESA proposal call site I linked to has links to some that they say are good. I still think you’re thinking of them too much as “really short conventional talks”, when in fact I think they ideally will be something qualitatively different.

      • One could incorporate limited data by using two or three slides with very similar content. Maybe one slide has the graph axes and no data, then on the next one the data points pop up, then your model fits plop on top and you explain why you think its important and why the audience should talk to you about the details afterwards.

      • Clever idea, although it smacks a bit of trying to “game” the format. If you find yourself coming up with clever ideas like this, it may mean you’re trying too hard to make your Ignite talk resemble a really short ESA talk.

        Not that I think it’s at all easy to do these Ignite talks well. I think it’s really hard, and not just because I’ve never done one before and so have never had a chance to practice. Yesterday I was kind of psyched to do one, seemed like it could be a fun challenge. But now I’m hesitant. I think Ignite talks work best for conveying big or otherwise striking ideas on which you want feedback or discussion, not conventional talk topics like “effect of anthropogenic factor X on study species Y”. And not only do you need the right sort of idea to talk about, you need to rope in 8-10 other people with related ideas. I’ll keep thinking about it, but right now I don’t have many ideas for what I’d talk about (maybe “why blogging is awesome”?) or how my talk would fit into a larger session (maybe “the future of science communication”?). So now doing one is seeming less like a fun challenge and more like work.

      • I think you’re right–I was too over the top on this. There should be experimentation on these kinds of things or progress is never made. If this doesn’t go so well, then try to modify it some way to make it better. Having said that, I’d not box in the procedure as tightly as they did.

  2. I think these ignite talks are an AWESOME idea. Call me weird, but I really like poster sessions because of the (1) the elevator talk type pitch you might give to draw some one in and (2) you actually get to meet people! Shake their hand, and look them in the eye. Sadly posters do not feel as important as “talks”. So the ignite approach brings some important elements together. Plus I like to see the typical talk format flipped (when are people going to start making their talks more interactive with the audience, huh?). And seriously people, 15 seconds per slide: RISE TO THE CHALLENGE!

  3. I think we should organize one on how ecologists use blogs. I can envision people discussing how they use blogs
    – in their current research
    – for literature updates/reviews
    – to explore ideas and controversial topics
    – for broader communication
    This could serve as a platform for thinking about how blogs serve ecological research. It also plays into the “shaping the future” component of the meeting theme.

    I would definitely want to participate in this session and I’d even be happy to be involved in organizing it. Any takers?

  4. This format would be perfect for a humor session – 5 minutes of one-liners! Why not an hour of jokes with axes and pictures. This assumes that scientists have a sense of humor, which is sometimes a dangerous assumption. Heck, even the economists have a humor session ( and their models don’t even work!

    • I know of a couple of people who’ve done joke posters or talks at the ESA before–and not with any prior announcement, either! People had to show up to the talk or poster to discover that it was a joke. If I recall correctly, my good friend Dan Bolnick did a joke poster at the ESA many years ago. And I’ve heard that many years ago somebody did a joke talk on “Arboreal sprint failure in Anolis lizards”, which was about lizards sometimes falling out of trees.

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