I distinctly recall a little non-event at a conference: I was scooting to catch a friend’s talk on time. I found him sitting in the hallway outside the room, slide carousel* in his lap. Grabbing a bunch of slides and putting them into his carousel. He was picking out slides, on the fly at literally the last minute. Figuring out both his content and his sequence
Then I saw his talk, which was stellar in every way. (This was no surprise, though, because he rocks.) I thought to myself, “I couldn’t give a presentation that was so conceptually crisp, unless I had gone through it far in advance.”
Slide carousels have been replaced by powerpoint presentations, and as a consequence last-minute talk construction is the norm. You don’t have to shoot your slides in advance, which was a huge annoyance in itself. But it meant that you had your final slides ready to go well before the actual meeting. Having a talk prepared days or weeks in advance is, now, the outlier.
I’m going to a meeting today, and giving a talk tomorrow. (If you’re at Goldschmidt, come on by!) And there is no frickin’ way that I’d show up at this meeting without knowing exactly what I’m going to say before I get there. I might do some small tweaks, but as far as I’m concerned, my talk has to be in the can before I arrive.
I don’t know how common my approach to preparing for my talk is, but here’s how I do it:
- Make the slides (2-20 days in advance).
Think about how much time I have, and then delete half of my slides.
Delete all of the text from the slides and just leave pictures or figures. (Any text on slides is not advised because it causes people to read instead of listening. Well, maybe a few words are okay.
Practice giving the talk about out loud with a timer (a day or two in advance).
Restart the timer about 30 times, usually after about 30 seconds, because it takes that long to find the best few sentences. This is the most critical part of the talk.
Run through the whole talk 2-3 times once I have it totally down.
Give the talk at the meeting. Aside from the first 2-3 sentences, it barely resembles what was practiced because of going into improv mode at the last moment. But it usually seems to come out quite well.
This process takes several hours, to get a 10-12 minute talk down pat. (I do it pretty much the same way for a typical 45-50 minute seminar, too, on the occasions when I’m blessed with an invite. Next academic year is mostly open, hint hint.) I don’t want to make an ass of myself, this can only be avoided if I make sure the talk is ready before I show up at the meeting. I can improvise mighty well, I think, but it comes off a lot better if it looks spontaneous but isn’t.
Do you prepare any differently? More prep, less prep, different prep?
*This was probably around 2000. The Entomological Society of America was a late adopter of digital projection at conferences.