I have a very fraught relationship with academic talks. It’s a weird thing with which to have a fraught relationship, but there it is.
Here’s the problem: I love learning. But I’d say 80-85% of the talks I attend make learning next to impossible.
How on earth does that happen?
Well, I’ve had some theories for a while, and now that I’m post exams/prospectus, I’m thinking through some of these theories more fully, rather than just rage-quitting the whole academic talk scene. This is partially because I’ll be expected to present my dissertation research any number of times, and I aim to become a part of the 15% of speakers who manage to keep their audiences engaged. And this is also partially because I believe those numbers should be reversed–not only should 85% of speakers manage to keep their audiences engaged, they should do so in vibrant, inclusive, instructive manner.
I’m just really tired of academics using tweed and tedium as a shield, y’all. I really am.
So far, I’ve come up with four necessary components your talk must have in order to keep your audience members from doodling grocery lists and daydreams: narrative; visuals; humility/confidence; egalitarian approach/participation. I’ll briefly address each, using two talks I recently went to as examples. Talk A is the bad talk; Talk B is the good talk.
Talk A had pretty much zero narrative. The speaker opened by stating what his talk was not–and it was a lot of “not” this and “not” that, let me tell you. Ten minutes in, I was so confused about what his talk was actually about (his title gave no clue) that I literally wrote, “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?” in my notebook and waited for him to answer that question. If you are thinking, I bet he didn’t tell you, ding ding ding.
I was suppose to enter into his talk, presumably wowed by the way he peeled away my layers of ignorance, and not only figure out what the hell was left, but also follow his train of thought from that point forward.
Here’s the thing, though.
Not only did he not give me a topic, he also didn’t give me a narrative. There was no train on the thought-tracks. It was just me, standing in an open field next to a piece of timber and a railroad spike going…what?
And I’m not saying the guy needed to take me by the hand and tell me a story, but at the very least, he could have set me up for something other than a ride down his stream of consciousness.
Talk B on the other hand set the audience up for success. The speaker opened by laying out a number of important things for us. She introduced us to the definitions she would be using in her talk. Then, she expanded those definitions and put them in conversation with each other. Once we were on board with the contradictions between them, she let us in on her research questions, telling us exactly what her questions were, as well as her original interventions.
As the talk proceeded, she moved piece by piece through her questions, opening them up and displaying their component parts before settling on tentative answers. She included historical grounding where it was appropriate, letting us know which theorists had affected her work and why, or which historical developments had played into her selection of research questions. She warned us when she was about to shift gears. She let us know when her work had tangentially surprised her, making it clear that we were stepping off the beaten path for a second. And finally, so importantly, she left us with a meaningful conclusion.
Not only was this a narrative train of thought, it was like…the Hogwarts train of thought.
Talk A had zero visuals. I mean…that’s really all I need to say about that. … But really, what the hell. If your talk is that complex. If it’s an hour and fifteen minutes of clever word play. Throw your audience a damn bone. A condescending smile and a nice tie do not a visual make.
Talk B used visuals.
Now, to be totally fair, these were not the greatest visuals I’ve ever seen. She supported her talk with a black and white text-heavy power point presentation, but, you know, at least she supported it. And even though it wasn’t snazzy as hell, there were a few things it did really well.
First, it gave audience members the chance to interpret her information for themselves using a secondary channel of communication. I cannot tell you how helpful it is to both see and hear a definition at the same time.
Second, it gave her a chance to highlight key moments of conversation from her field work, as well as key moments from the theories and methods supporting her analysis of those conversations.
Third, it gave her a place to CITE her information, lending credibility to her talk past, “I’m wearing a suit, and I am therefore important.” And those citations were also immensely helpful to me as an audience member–I have about four new peeps to look up and read through, now.
Finally, the power point gave her a place to literally diagram her train of thought, which was amazing-everyone-do-this-so-amazing, and also to display appendix-type material such as graphs and charts. I don’t even like graphs and charts, and I was so freaking happy to see them.
Talk A was not the most egotistical talk I’ve ever seen by any stretch of the imagination. And I don’t think he was compensating for a lack of confidence when he steam-rolled through the talk and prattled on and on in the Q and A, taking fifteen minutes to answer a question that required at most five. But it’s important to note that if your audience thinks that you think you’re an expert–if you don’t lead them to that conclusion through the force of your work–you’re not being humble enough to stimulate a truly open dialogue. People have to trust you to be compassionate as well as knowledgeable, and I would not have trusted this guy to be so.
I always ask myself, would I talk to this guy at a party? And if the answer is, only if I was holding brie and pinot noir/PBR, then he’s probably not relating well enough to a wide-enough audience.
Talk B on the other hand did this extraordinary thing, which enters into the Egalitarian component of my conclusions. Not only did she give us her definitions and research questions, she let us know that they were preliminary and open to interpretation.
Now, you will definitely hear lots of speakers pay lip-service to this idea. Usually, when a speaker says, “now, these are just temporary conclusions” they are just covering their ass, and they don’t really want you to argue with them.
But in this case, she meant it. She meant it. It was such an extraordinarily simple thing, and I’m not quite sure yet how she pulled it off…But she managed to tell us, “please let me know what you think” and I 100% believed that she wanted us to.
Not only that, but she gave an interdisciplinary talk that opened itself up to ideas from all sorts of different people. In the Q and A, she fielded questions from disability studies, sociology, psychology, history, and she put them all into easy conversation with each other, reminding the audience that we all learn from each other’s view points, even if we form conclusions in different ways. And, she went straight for the tentative hands in the audience and left the “senior scholars” to wait their turn in line to ask a question. HUGE.
There were just a few other differences between the talks that I feel are worth pointing out, yet didn’t fit into my categories:
1. I took 18 lines of notes on Talk A and a full two pages of notes on Talk B.
2. I actually remember what the hell Talk B was about. I remember precisely one thing from Talk A, and only because it was so gargantuan in its weirdness that I can’t forget it.
3. Talk B looked at how knowledge is made, rather than presenting a list of facts produced by some monolithic knowledge. In other words, Talk B gave us processes to think about, rather than forgone conclusions.
4. Talk B mentioned field work and archival stories. Talk A might have dropped into this guy’s lap from Neptune for all I know. He never let us in on his meaning-making, and therefore, he never allowed us to think, just passively hear.
5. Talk B inspired me. So important. I came out of it thinking, holy shit, I love being a historian. And therefore…
6. Talk B taught me. Put another way, Speaker B was a teacher. She used every trick in the book and made her highly erudite and complex topic accessible to a room full of diverse scholars. And it was awesome.