Science Talks and Pick-Up Hoops

Over in Tumblr-land, Ben Lillie has an interesting post on all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes of a science talk. It's an intimidatingly long list of stuff, in quite a range of different areas. But this is a solved problem in other performance fields:

And that raises and interesting question, since aside from the science section (and not even all of that), all of these apply to any other performance or production. So how do those people master all of those things? The short answer is that they don’t. Almost any production that requires a long, and more importantly disparate, set of skills is produced by a team, each with their own specialty. A play is created by: playwright(s), dramaturge(s), actors, a director, set/lighting/stage/audio designers, producers, executive producers, stage hands, front of house staff, and more. Even something like the Daily Show, which appears to be one person talking to a camera making fun of the news is the product of a massive production staff, including a team of writers.

We’re getting used to the idea that science is the product of teams, not lone geniuses. Is it time to start thinking of public science performance as a team production as well? I think it might be.

It's an interesting post, and I've been opening and closing that tab for a few days now, trying to formulate a coherent response. I've been lucky enough to give public talks at a wide range of places, and Ben's absolutely right that the best of these-- the TED@NYC event I spoke at, the talks I've given up in Waterloo-- have professionals who take care of a lot of those fiddly details for you. They do sound and media checks in advance, and take care of lighting the stage appropriately, and all that. This can't completely avoid disasters-- one of the worst tech failures I've had was in Waterloo, with highly professional production people-- but most of the time, it makes things go much more smoothly.

And a lot of the things on that list are things that every speaker can do, in terms of talk writing and slide design. You should check the readability of your slides from the worst seat in the biggest room you can find, and give at least one practice talk to someone who can simulate your intended audience. I don't think I've ever given a public-lecture talk without making Kate sit through it at least once; usually, I go through it a couple of times in the hotel, too.

At the same time, though, I'm not entirely comfortable with the implicit suggestion, here, because I've given a lot of talks at places that simply don't have the resources to do many of the production things for their speakers. Where the A/V tech was handled by a professor who borrowed a mic from another department that morning, and the lighting is done by a student sitting near the dimmer switch for the lecture hall.

While it's harder to do a good presentation under those circumstances, it's not impossible. And in some ways, it's more important to do those kinds of talks than the ones with really great production values, because a lot of the time, this is the only big public science performance that audience is going to see.

It's really valuable to have had the experience of speaking in big slick professional contexts, because I know some stuff from those that can be helpful when I'm talking in smaller places. I can't do all the production things that real professionals would, but I can get enough of the essentials to make things go a little more smoothly than they otherwise might.

Ben naturally goes for theatrical analogies, because that's what he does with the Story Collider (which is excellent). When I think about teamwork, though, it's usually in more of a sports context, specifically basketball. I think of the split here as being the difference between a league game with coaches and uniforms and referees and a pick-up game where you make the teams based on who showed up that day, and call your own fouls.

League games and pick-up hoops are the same basic game, but there are a lot of subtle differences in what you can do and how you have to play. There are some dominant pick-up players who go all to pieces in a game with real officials, and a lot of players who were very good in an organized context who are miserable assholes to deal with in a pick-up game.

But the most relevant difference, for this purpose, is that if you only know how to play in an organized league, you're not going to get to play very often. It's not hard to find a pick-up game basically anywhere you go-- all you need is a ball and a hoop. If you need uniforms and officials, though, that requires a much bigger time commitment and some cash up front.

So, while I'm all in favor of increasing the general professionalism of science communication efforts, there's also an important place for the pick-up version, with the dodgy A/V set-up and slapdash lighting and everything. And it's useful to know a bit of all those disparate skills in order to be able to function well in those circumstances. You don't need to fully master the intricacies of setting up a stage, but you should know what shows up well on video (light blue is a good default), make sure you wear something that has a place to put a lapel mic (and for God's sake, don't clip it to your shirt right next to a name badge on a lanyard), mark the edges of the field of view if you're being recorded, and so on.

So, yes, by all means, let's put take more of a team approach to talk design and writing, and do as much as we can to elevate the production level for public science events. At the same time, though, remember that it's important to know how to play pick-up.

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I’ve given a lot of talks at places that simply don’t have the resources to do many of the production things for their speakers

For most scientists, this is normal. You are expected to give seminars and colloquia, both at your home institution and other places. It's a normal part of the hiring process. You still have to follow the rule of matching the talk level to the audience (seminars will generally be at a higher level than colloquia in the same department, but the expected level will vary from one department to the next). If you don't learn how to do this kind of talk, you will never advance to a level where you will be giving research talks to general audiences.

Conferences tend to be in places with an AV crew to handle details, but there, you are generally talking to your fellow experts (once in a while there will be a plenary talk or a talk aimed at a general audience, but these are the exception).

Microphone placement is one of those things that favor men over women. The sort of clothing that men who are giving a scientific talk are expected to wear (whether it's "business casual", as I normally wear, or something more formal) makes it relatively easy to place the microphone close enough to your throat to work. Many styles of women's clothing which would otherwise be suitable do not.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 12 Aug 2015 #permalink

On the one hand, most of the items Lillie lists are entirely relevant to the speaker himself/herself: do you understand what you mean to say and your audience's background, do you speak well, are your slides well planned? None of this requires a "team effort." Yet he concludes by suggesting that that's exactly what we should be after. Does he think any of our employers will fund some sort of professional media person to coach us in giving flashy talks? Hey, if they have money for that, please replace the grant writer first!

Also, I wouldn''t much trust talks that looked like Hollywood presentations. I try to give a decent talk with readable slides, but I've never learned how to make Powerpoint do all sorts of fancy tricks and you know what, it's rarely if ever necessary. Usually it's just someone's way of showing off.