How not to start your next ecology or evolution talk (UPDATED)

The beginning of a scientific talk should grab the audience’s attention. Or rather, hold the audience’s attention, since ordinarily you have the audience’s attention when you start talking. How do you do that?

Here are some common pitfalls to avoid, if you’re talking about your ecological or evolutionary research, although some of my advice applies more broadly.

  • Don’t start with an outline of your talk. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are exceptions. Unless your talk has some unusual structure, such that the audience will get confused unless they’re told the structure in advance (e.g., you’ll actually be giving several mini-talks and then tying them together at the end), you probably don’t need an outline slide.
  • Don’t start with a definition. Definitions are dry and technical. Dry, technical material tends to lose the audience even if you’ve convinced them that the material is essential–and if you’re starting with a definition, you haven’t yet convinced the audience of that. Plus, starting with a definition means you’re starting with text rather than a visual, which is deadly unless the text is really engaging. And no, you shouldn’t start with a definition even if the term you’re defining is central to your talk, or is defined in different ways by different people. Just because it’s crucial to define a term at some point doesn’t mean it’s crucial to start by defining the term. And even if you do need to start by defining a term, you don’t have to start by literally putting up a definition and reading it. For instance, when I talk about spatial synchrony of cyclic population dynamics, I start with the broad concept of synchrony. Which I introduce with the story of Huygens’ clocks, before moving on to a little collage of other examples of synchrony (e.g., synchronized swimming, synchronous neuronal firing leading to brain seizures). In other words, not only don’t I start with an unnecessary definition slide, I don’t even start by talking about ecology.*
  • Don’t start with a collage of pretty pictures illustrating “biodiversity”. This has become a visual cliche through overuse.** Seriously, if somebody invented a drinking game for ecology talks, the first rule of the game would be “Speaker begins with a collage of pictures illustrating ‘biodiversity’–Drink.” As noted by a commenter, the evolutionary version of this cliche is a collage of pictures illustrating the phenotypic diversity of the clade you’re studying. Note that it’s great to use pictures to illustrate differences among species in whatever specific bit of biology you’re talking about. By all means use pictures to show the difference between heterstylous and non-heterostylous flowers or whatever. That’s using pictures to convey information. As opposed to using pictures in a cliched way to just say “Hey, there are lots of different-looking species out there, that sure is interesting.”
  • Don’t start with a quote from Darwin about your topic. Another overused cliche.
  • Don’t start with a famous textbook example. Speaking of avoiding cliches…If you’re talking about niche partitioning, don’t just unthinkingly start your talk with that famous diagram of MacArthur’s showing where in the trees different species of warblers forage. If you’re talking about character displacement, don’t start with John Gould’s famous drawing of the bills of different species of Darwin’s finches, or with a picture of benthic and limnetic sticklebacks.** If you’re talking about keystone predation, don’t start with Bob Paine’s famous Pisaster experiment. Etc. Or if you do feel the need to start with a classic example, don’t belabor it. “Classic” isn’t far removed from “cliche”.

So instead of following the example of every other talk you’ve ever seen, get creative! A bit of showmanship in scientific presentations is a good thing. Maybe start with a non-ecological example, as I often do. Maybe start with something interactive (I’ve seen Tony Ives do this). Maybe start with classical Greek poetry (I’ve seen Peter and Rosemary Grant do this). Maybe start with a video (Meg has a bunch of suggestions for you). Maybe start with a good but non-famous example rather than a famous one. Whatever. Just make sure you avoid (i) the same old thing, (ii) pointless things, and (iii) boring things.

UPDATE: See the comments for more suggestions of ecology talk cliches. Like “Graph of Web of Science search, showing increasing number of papers on the topic over time, not corrected for increasing number of papers on all topics”.

p.s. to the easily worried: If you’ve ever given a talk that started in one of the ways I just listed, please don’t think “OMG, I made a horrible blunder, I’m so embarrassed!” It’s not a big deal. As I said, I’ve done these things myself, several times, and so have lots of other ecologists, so you’re in good company. You didn’t make an embarrassing mistake, you just missed an opportunity to make your introductory remarks a bit more engaging.

*This is a specific example of a general method for coming up with a creative way to start your next ecology talk: start with a non-ecological example of whatever concept you’re talking about. For instance, when I talk about my work applying the Price equation to ecology, I start with a pithy quote from physicist Leon Lederman, expressing the hope that one day all the fundamental forces of physics will be unified in a single equation suitable for printing on a t-shirt. Then I note that physicists have yet to achieve Lederman’s dream–but evolutionary biologists have, in the form of the Price equation. I then hold up a t-shirt with the Price equation printed on it (aside: props are another good way to grab and hold the audience’s attention). This analogy helps clarify what the Price equation is and why it’s important or useful. And it holds the audience’s interest, because it’s not the sort of thing one expects to hear at the start of an ecology talk. That’s also why I start my synchrony talk by talking about Huygens’ clocks and synchronized swimming: it’s a way of conveying essential information while holding the audience’s attention with something unexpected.

**I’ve done this. We’re all sinners.

26 thoughts on “How not to start your next ecology or evolution talk (UPDATED)

  1. The opening slides in my first departmental seminar after starting here were scientific turn-offs and -ons.

    The scientific turn-offs included “Starting a paper with “Ever since Darwin (1859)…”, and a figure illustrating “The increasing number of articles that mention each year since Web of Science started counting”. If that figure is not weighted by the total number of articles published each year, do not show it to me.

    The scientific turn-ons are not suitable for a family blog like this.

      • Not perfect, but ISI InCites Essential Science Indicators – Indicators – Citation Trends gives total papers in “Environment/Ecology” in 5 year chunks from 2004-2008 to 2010-2014. I eyeballed a linear model that seems to fit good enough: number of paper p in year yr, p[yr] = 20744 + (yr-2004)*2468. So p[2004]=20,744 and p[2014]=45,424.

        Caveats: I have no idea what is “Environment/Ecology” and I didn’t fit this model at all rigorously.

  2. I do number 3 and kinda do 4 ironically (I joke that as an evolutionary biologist, I am contractually obligated to show a picture of Darwin). I think after this post, I’m also going to do the first slide ironically. (We are all hipster at heart.)

    • A while back I tried to start a #hipsterscience hashtag with tweets like “I still use SAS, but I do it ironically.”

      Since writing this post, I’ve been thinking about starting a talk with a slide headlined “SHOW ALL THE CLICHES”, consisting of a biodiversity collage plus a quote from Darwin, plus that drawing of Darwin’s finches, plus MacArthur’s warbler foraging diagram, etc., all superimposed.

  3. Dammit, I should’ve found a way to work this into this post:

    “You gotta learn your cliches. You’re gonna have to study them. You’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: ‘Life on earth is incredibly diverse…’.”

  4. Reminds me of cliches I can’t stand in comparative biomechanics, like starting off a talk/paper on the scaling of bones with that picture of bird bones from Galilei 1638 and then moving on to explain geometric/elastic similarity, yada yada… We could just insert same 5 minute intro into every talk and same 2 pages into every paper if our creativity well has run so dry.

  5. I’d add two caveats to the advice “No Darwin Quotes”:

    1. Darwin wrote about a HUGE variety of topics and many of his insights are still relevant and not at all well appreciated by ecologists. So if it’s a relevant quote, and not one of the over-used ones (see below), I’d say go ahead and use it. Ecology has been criticised in the past for not having enough of a sense of its own history and constantly re-inventing the same ideas. Perhaps anchoring our ideas into the past by using such quotes is one way to avoid this?

    2. The most over-used Darwin quote is the “tangled bank” paragraph from Origin. Clearly it’s a cliche to use it in a professional talk. But it’s a very useful way of introducing ideas about ecological interactions to a non-specialist audience. I do quite a lot of talks to interested groups such as natural history and gardening societies, etc. Using that quote at the beginning sets a historical context for what’s about to come, indicating that there is an intellectual history to these ideas, which I think is no bad thing.

  6. When my talks were focused on the impact of selective predation on parasitism, I used a candy bar wrapper to introduce the topic. People seemed to really like it, perhaps because a candy bar is an unlikely place to find an excellent description of the healthy herds hypothesis. I shared that slide with various people over the years who wanted to use it in their talks.

  7. I’ll start my comment with a definition:

    noun informal
    a person who follows the latest trends and fashions, especially those regarded as being outside the cultural mainstream.

    These are fine suggestions, but is the mainstream so bad? I don’t mind being reminded that the speaker is working on an intimately familiar/classic/cliche problem or using a familiar/classic/cliche approach, as long as things get more interesting and specific a few slides in. The talks that bother me are the ones that seem pointlessly esoteric.

    I once started a 25-min talk at a huge conference, probably 50% ecologists, with the exact line, “Our aim in this study is to understand the factors maintaining the coexistence of [big group of related things].” The non-ecologist session chair told me afterward that I never said why the study was important or what the big picture was.

    For what it’s worth, I got my not-too-shabby job with some awfully cliche slides, too!

    • “but is the mainstream so bad?”

      As I said in the post, no, I don’t think it’s a big deal if you start your talk in a familiar way. As you say, plenty of people do this (as I said in the post, I’ve done it myself), and it’s not as if they don’t get jobs or upset entire audiences or whatever. And if some people find your first slide boring, well, at worst they’ll probably just tune out for a minute and tune back in when the next slide comes up. But in many cases I don’t think it’s that difficult to come up with a more interesting intro, even if your broad topic is a widely-familiar one. So why not give it a shot?

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