Monday, June 14, 2010

How to Give a Great Academic Talk

I do a lot of public speaking and I learn much from such experiences. I enjoy interacting with various audiences and the travel to exotic and interesting locations is an added bonus.

With so many conferences taking place in the summer, academics are busy doing research and presenting their work at conferences.

I received a message from one of my colleagues in computational economics, Bill Goffe, whom I last saw at the Computing in Economics and Finance Conference that took place in June 2008, in Paris, France. The message was about the best guide that he had ever seen on giving an academic talk and it is due to a computer science (CS) professor, Jonathan Shewchuk, at the University of California Berkeley.

Professor Shewchuk's advice, which is quite informative and very entertaining can be found at: . While written for a CS audience, it applies to economic talks and to operations research talks as well (although I do like to see some math and analysis displayed).

One of the many gems: A talk of 30 minutes or less should be an advertisement for the paper, not a replacement. Your goal is to convince your listeners that they must read your paper. While you might disagree with some points, it should make you think about how you make presentations. The link to a PowerPoint version of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (one of the most famous speeches ever given in the U.S.) is priceless according to Bill.

Another one of Shewchuk's suggestions:

"Nonverbal communication. An infamous study by Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, “Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluations From Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behavior and Physical Attractiveness,” shows that students can predict a teacher's ratings with significant accuracy after watching a 30-second silent video clip of the teacher at work. Resist the urge to attribute this to the superficiality of students' ratings. What is the nonverbal magic that an audience recognizes so quickly?" (Somehow this study also brings to mind the work of Alex Pentland at MIT and his fascinating book, Honest Signals.)

According to Shewchuk: "I believe they are seeing communication uncluttered by extraneous motion, facial expressions, fidgeting, utterances, and other nonverbal behaviors so subtle that the speaker is entirely unaware of doing them. Conversely, a faint, transient facial expression or a brief unconscious twitch of the arm are enough to rob a speaker's words of their force, and even break an audience's attention."