It’s fine to read your talk (if that’s what works for you)

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a remote seminar by Ambika Kamath in my department’s EEB seminar series. It was an unusual talk: Ambika read it word-for-word from a script. But unusual in a good way. It was a very good script, and Ambika read it very well, which made it a very good talk.

The usual advice to seminar speakers is “don’t read your talk”. I’ve given that advice myself to graduate students in years past. But having seen Ambika read her talk, I’ve changed my mind. I think it’s fine to read your talk, if that works for you.

It’s worth saying a bit more about what “works for you” means. It doesn’t just mean “I prefer to read my talks.” Because if you read your talk badly–in a monotone, for instance, or if you keep losing your place–then I don’t think reading your talk actually works. I’ve heard that the late Bill Hamilton used to read his talks–with his back to the audience and mumbling. That’s a bad way to give a talk. It’s bad even if other ways of giving talks would’ve worked even worse for him. If you need to give talks on your work, but no way of giving talks works for you, well, try your best to improve. Try new things until you find a way of giving talks that works for you.

I think this is a specific illustration of a broader point.

There are many things that scientists do that can be done in various ways. Do them in whatever way works for you. Sometimes I think we forget this, because most people do thing X in the same way (or mistakenly think that most people do thing X in the same way). I think grad students in particular tend to forget this. When you’re first learning “how things are done” in science, it’s especially easy to assume that there is just one way in which things are done, and that your job is to learn it. Heck, it’s especially easy to just do things as (most) others do without even thinking about whether there are other options. And when you’re first learning “how things are done”, it’s especially easy to worry that any other way of doing things must be wrong somehow, or would meet with disapproval from others. When in fact it would be fine and would meet with widespread (if not unanimous) approval.* Finally, I think these days, many of us pay more attention to the indirect “spillover” consequences of our actions than we used to. Which I think is a good thing on balance. But the downside is that sometimes we overestimate how likely it is that certain actions will impose some substantial and avoidable “spillover” cost on others. So we rule out some options for ourselves for no good reason.

So here are some other examples of things that can be done in a wider range of ways than many scientists seem to realize:

The obligatory caveat here is that there sometimes are limits as to how much, or in what ways, you can deviate from the most common way of doing X without paying some significant cost. Sometimes there are good reasons for those limits. There are good reasons why you shouldn’t mumble your talk, for instance. Sometimes there are debatable or context-dependent reasons for those limits. For instance, there are reasons for the convention to write scientific papers in a dry style, with an Introduction-Methods-Results-Discussion structure. But there are also good reasons to deviate from that convention in some circumstances. Sometimes there are bad reasons for those limits, and in a better world those limits wouldn’t exist. And it can sometimes be hard to tell exactly where the limits are, because the limits are fuzzy, or because people disagree on where the limits are.

One way to deal with not knowing where the limits are is to experiment. Deliberately do things a little differently than other people do them, or than you have done them in the past, and see what happens! Even the worst-case outcome probably isn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things, and isn’t nearly as bad as you fear it will be. Fuzziness of the boundary between good and bad ways of doing X, or disagreement about where the boundary is, often is a signal that the downside consequences of pushing the boundaries a bit aren’t too serious. This old post from Meghan and I discusses how to figure out what works for you, and how to identify and deal with real or perceived limits on doing things your own way. The discussion is focused on choosing the time(s) of day at which you work, but I think it generalizes.

tl;dr: If Michael Stipe sometimes needed to read the lyrics of his own songs during live performances, it’s fine for you to read your talk if that’s what works for you.

*There aren’t many things in science, or life, for which there’s literally unanimous approval! There are people who don’t like puppies.

**Now they’ve mostly stopped, of course.

***You can dance. You can dance. Everybody look at your hands.

10 thoughts on “It’s fine to read your talk (if that’s what works for you)

  1. Jeremy, this is brilliant. (Especially the Safety Dance reference.)

    When “The Scientist’s Guide to Writing” went through peer review at the Princeton Press, one reviewer really didn’t like that it often fails to tell you the Right Way to Write. Just as one example, it doesn’t recommend one way to get past writer’s block – it lists about 10 ways and invites people to try them and see what works best for them. That reviewer didn’t want a toolbox; they wanted to be handed a #2 Phillips-head screwdriver. I stuck to my guns (mixed metaphor alert) because at least in writing, a toolbox you can pick from is way better than a set of Revealed Truths.

    So, strong endorse from me. Yes, there are things most people do, for good reason, like IMRaD. But there are lots of ways that people find their own way to science. (https://youtu.be/MpYqxQImaN8)

    • “I stuck to my guns (mixed metaphor alert)”

      Trying to figure a way not to mix that metaphor. I stuck to my toolbox? I stuck to my armory? 🙂

      I’ll see your video link and raise you:

  2. This is really interesting. I wonder about a meta point – should we be giving talks at all, or at least at the frequency we are? Should we consider long lists of invited or contributed talks as a necessary thing for jobs/encourage graduate students to give talks reasonably often etc?

    I tend to think yes, but some of this was also me being told as a student, “get more talks on your CV for job reasons.” I think there are also good intrinsic reasons for encouraging talks, but I know that what we gain from giving (and listening) to them is far from uniform, and I imagine there are many who really dislike the experience etc.

    • I do think talks are good, and that the practice of giving talks is worthwhile. I think a seminar series is (one) good way for an academic department to have a collective intellectual and social life. But having said that, the practice of giving and listening to talks isn’t one you *have* to participate in. I know of a quite prominent evolutionary biologist who declines all seminar invitations (not sure if he’s always done so). And you can of course choose not to attend your department’s seminar series, though I do think for most people this would be a bad choice.

      Re: giving talks to improve your chances of getting a faculty job: I don’t know that “number of invited talks you’ve given” is all *that* important to the outcome of most faculty searches. It’s just one aspect of your cv among many others. Having said that, personally, I wouldn’t recommend turning down opportunities to give talks as a faculty job seeker just because you dislike giving talks. Not so much because you need to have lots of invited talks on your cv in order to get hired (though it can’t hurt, and probably helps a bit…), but because you need practice giving talks in order to give a good talk. And there are some aspects of an invited seminar that you can’t really practice except by giving one. You can’t fully mimic the experience of an invited seminar by giving talks to your own lab group or department. Now, maybe you’re one of those rare people who doesn’t like giving talks, but also doesn’t need much practice to give a good job talk when the time comes. If you’re one of those rare people, sure, do what works for you. Only give the talks you absolutely have to give–the job talks. You’d just better hope that you’re not mistaken about whether you’re one of those rare people who can give a good talk without much practice.

    • p.s. to my previous reply: I know of another prominent evolutionary biologist (not the one referred to in my previous comment) who has pretty serious stage fright. I don’t know this person well at all, but this person obviously has a strong reason to avoid giving talks, and it’s my understanding that this person turns down most seminar invitations. But yet, I’ve seen this person give a very good in-person talk to a large audience. So this is someone who figured out an approach that works for them.

      I guess the broader point here is that “what works for you” might often be some sort of mixture of strategies. Some combination of playing to your own current strengths and catering to your own current preferences (e.g., avoiding giving invited seminars), and finding ways to do a good-enough job when you have to do something you’d rather not do (e.g., finding ways to give a good talk on those occasions when you can’t avoid giving one).

      The other thought I have, that’s specific to giving in-person talks, is that *lots* of people don’t like giving them and get nervous about them. Even professionally well-established academics who’ve given many talks. But yet, they all manage to give perfectly good talks. I think many grad students have the mistaken impression that profs don’t get nervous about giving talks, and that you can’t give a good talk if you’re nervous. What I tell grad students is, it’s not about not being nervous. It’s about what you *do* about being nervous–how you deal with, or channel, that nervous energy. Maybe you deal with your nerves by writing a really good script and reading it with good inflection. Maybe you deal with your nerves by writing a really good script and memorizing it so well that you can’t possibly forget it on the day (that was my own strategy until pretty recently). Maybe you deal with your nerves by meditating for a few minutes before your talk. Maybe you deal with your nerves by imagining the audience naked. Maybe you channel your nervous energy by developing a physically-active speaking style that gives your energy an outlet–walk around the stage, gesture with your arms, etc. Maybe you just learn from experience that, although you feel nervous before you start speaking, you’re fine once you start speaking because speaking takes you out of yourself. Maybe you take an improvisational theater class, and that makes you more confident about speaking in front of an audience. Etc. Lots of people don’t like giving talks, and so collectively, they’ve come up with lots of ways to overcome that. Don’t pigeonhole yourself as the kind of person who can’t give talks. There is no such kind of person. You can find a way of giving talks that works for you.

  3. Re Profs being nervous. We had a prof in one of my grad departments who often showed up on Tue and Thurs with small band-aids on his face from razor cuts. Those were lecture days. He admitted in the break room one day that he got so nervous on lecture days that he couldn’t keep his hands from shaking. I had him for class and I couldn’t tell that he was that nervous and anyway whatever little tics he had lecturing were easily overshadowed by interesting topics and good information.

    I was super shy as a kid, but among the many things I got out of Scouting was being comfortable in front of groups by leading songs at campfires and events. If you can sing dumb campfire songs, with even more ridiculous hand/body motions***, you learn not to get too worked up about little mistakes you make in front of a group. Of course, that’s not an option for everyone, but karaoke is similar. So add that to Jeremy’s “you-could/maybe-you list.” I’m not shy in front of the group now, and in grad school the feedback I got after giving my grad seminar was that I “was too comfortable in front of the group” because I walked in front of the lectern and put my arm on it. I promptly chose to ignore that feedback. Staying behind the lectern wasn’t going to work for me.

    The point is that most of your audience will be forgiving and the occasional cruel academic you encounter has already cemented their reputation as a jerk among their peers, so the audience will be on your side in that case too.

    ***Come dancing, Come on sister, have yourself a ball.
    Don’t be afraid to come dancing, It’s only natural

    (Apologies if the html doesn’t work above.)

    • I was hoping that you would comment Skip. Thanks for sharing your experiences, and for the reminder of that lovely slice-of-life Kinks song. I hadn’t heard that one in years.

      • Pretty certain that the only thing that could prevent me from commenting on a post with a Safety Dance reference is not reading the post at all. 🙂

        When normal life returns, there is a local bar that sponsors karaoke on Monday nights. We’ve been taking students and others there for years. The food is marginal, the service is worse, but the audience really doesn’t care if you can sing at all and the DJ is tip top. We’ve seen some truly bad singing but it’s the beach, so it’s all in fun. So, for any Dynamic Ecology readers who find themselves in the Myrtle Beach area and would like to join us, you are invited.

  4. Another fun perk of having a script for your talk: sharing it with folks who liked the talk and want to remember parts of it (“I wish I had written that down…” “Well, no worries, because I wrote it all down!”)

  5. Pingback: Academic Kindness – Ambika Kamath

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