Last month I was at the annual conference of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution. It was a great meeting, as usual, and contributing to that were a whole lot of great talks.
I’ve seen a lot of conference talks over the years, and I’ve noticed a pattern: surprisingly often, grad students finish early, while senior scientists run long*. What I realized this year is that I’ve become part of that pattern: this year, like the last couple, my talks have run longer than planned (see the nifty little figure above). Nobody had to haul me away from the podium; but my talk, which ran a nice tidy 12 minutes in practice, was 14 minutes delivered (using up most of my 3 minutes for questions). As a grad student, I often had a couple of extra minutes to spare. So why is this?
I can think of four possibilities – four things that have changed for me over the years, as I suspect they’ve changed for other senior scientists who run long like me. I think two of these aren’t behind my own pattern, and two are – and I’d be interested to hear whether they’re involved for you too (whether you’re junior or senior). Here they are:
I don’t practice as much. As a grad student, I practiced each talk dozens of times, until I could deliver it upside-down in a barrel of water. (In fact, my talks were probably so over-practiced that the barrel would have improved them). Nowadays, two or three run-throughs are about all I do. So, do I run long because I don’t take prep as seriously now? This hypothesis fails, I think, on two predictions. First, grad-school overpreparation should have left my talks bang on their planned length, but in fact, they ran short. Second, underpreparation now should increase variance, leaving some of my talks short and some long – but that’s not my pattern; I haven’t run short for years.
The stakes are lower. As a grad student, every talk I gave seemed like an audition, with an audience full of potential employers. (I was probably right to think that way.) With the stakes high, I cared a lot about giving a good talk, and part of that was keeping to time. Now I’m a tenured professor with little to lose! Very subjectively, though, I think this hypothesis fails too. I’m far from the world’s most awesome speaker, but I don’t think my talks are terrible, and I think I’ve improved since my grad-student days. In addition, the fact that I’m writing this post suggests that I do care about running long.
I don’t get nervous anymore. I’m quite sure that my early talks usually ran short because I was nervous (well, maybe not “nervous” so much as “quaking in my boots”). Nervous people talk faster: what took 12 minutes in the privacy of my office could pour out in 9 minutes as I stood trembling at the podium. By now, I’ve given dozens of conference talks and departmental seminars and outreach talks, and (I’m not exaggerating) hundreds of undergraduate lectures. Pretty much everything that can go wrong has gone wrong**, and none of them ended my career. As a result, I don’t get nervous anymore (with one interesting exception I’ll save for a future post), and I don’t speed up in front of an audience. This can’t be the whole story, though: it explains why I ran short then, but not why I run long now.
I’ve learned to improvise. Part of my overpracticing early in my career was fear that if I strayed from my planned talk, things would go badly. Now, though, I improvise – in details, I mean, not the overall structure of the talk. I’m enough better at giving talks that I can improvise the precise sequence of points or set of details I cover without too much danger. Now, I don’t think this kind of improvisation explains my pattern. What does is another kind of improv: I’ve learned how to connect my talk, on the fly, to the talks before mine in the session or earlier in the meeting. Sometimes I refer explicitly to a previous talk, and sometimes I just adjust mine to make a connection implicitly. I like drawing these connections, and I think they add value to a session and make it more than just the sum of its talks. The problem is, they take a little bit of time, and it’s time I don’t budget for! I noticed myself doing this in my talk last month, realized I’ve been doing it for a while, and I think it accounts for a big part of my pattern.
What does all this mean? Well, maybe not a lot, except that I feel better having figured out (I think) the perfectly sensible reasons behind the pattern in my nifty figure. I promise not to think less of early-career scientists who talk too fast and finish early, because I understand why that happens. And I think I’ll be less irritated at my senior colleagues who run a little bit long***, like me, because I’ve identified some value they’re adding when they do.
Now, if I could just get those coffee break lines to move faster…
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) June 25, 2015
*It’s also true that most of the best talks are given by grad students, but that’s not my topic today – perhaps because I don’t want to think about it too much.
**Well, I haven’t yet thrown up during a talk, although I know two people who have.
***But I’m still plenty irritated with ones who run way long, and skip over 25 of the 45 slides they had somehow planned to cover in a 12-minute talk. Go ahead, share your stories about disasters like that in the Comments (but disguise the names to protect the guilty).