Stop writing your conference talk during the conference

One of my current hobbies during conferences is to sit at the back of the room and count the number of people who are finishing, perfecting or, lets be honest, just starting to write their conference talk. And if we’re even more honest, I’m sure everyone at some point has been guilty of leaving finishing their slides until the session (talk) immediately before theirs, myself included. 


But because this is common, does it mean this a good idea? Probably not. Preparing your slides during conference sessions means

a) you aren’t getting the full benefit of listening to the conference talks, which is usually the number 2 reason you’re at the conference aside from the free food,

b) you are causing yourself anxiety by rushing to finish slides,

c) you haven’t had time to script and practice your talk.


The first two are obvious downsides. If you’re focussing on creating your own slides, you aren’t concentrating on anyone else’s. And we all know that leaving things until the last minute can create unnecessary anxiety. But what about c? 


Writing talks, especially longer talks (30+ minutes), let alone practicing the talk, can take significant time away from your research. This is probably the number one reason that devoting time to talk writing tends to get pushed to the last minute. However, there are some good reasons to not only take the extra time to prepare your talk slides, but to script and practice your talk too.


Captive audience:

While research output and productivity is measured by number of papers produced and citation metrics, you will never have a captive audience for your paper (except perhaps the reviewer). You can’t lock people you want to see your work in a room and force them to dig through 30 pages of content. Although you could lure people in with the promise of free barista coffee and then lock the door, I think this counts as kidnapping.


On the other hand, a conference talk or colloquium gives you the perfect (legal) opportunity to lock people you want to see your work in a room. What’s more, you also now have the opportunity to ensure they take the correct (i.e. your) take home message away from the paper. 


For students especially, another thing to bear in mind is that it is highly likely your future employer will be in this captive audience. Which is why it’s important to remember that not everyone in the captive audience is necessarily going to be captivated by your talk. Which brings me to the next point…


Your talk is a performance:

Not only is giving the conference talk an opportunity to showcase your research, it’s also an opportunity to showcase your skills as a communicator. Communication skills are a vital soft skill in almost all jobs these days. This is especially true of the short, one minute presentations that are usually given to those who are presenting posters at a conference. A good short presentation describing your work, which is presented confidently and in a way that invites people to find out more about your research, will take your poster from excess luggage to an actual worthwhile pursuit. 


Why you should script your talk

The idea of scripting talks is controversial. When scripting a talk, its very easy to fall into the trap of writing everything down and reading from a piece of paper (hint: do not do this at a conference). For most people, it becomes easy to avoid this pitfall by only noting down bullet points that you need to cover related to each slide. However, this still relies on a certain degree of improvisation. 


Its worth noting that even ‘improvised’ comedy shows on TV, and live TV broadcasts like “BBC Stargazing Live" are largely scripted. In a past life, I tried my hand at stand up comedy, and quickly realised the advantages of scripting (in detail) exactly what I planned to say. The goal with many of these ‘shows’, however, is to appear as unscripted as possible. So, is it possible to write a script for your talk and leave everybody none the wiser? Yes, and for some it comes naturally while for others, it may take extra practice… 


Why you absolutely must practice your talk

A well practiced script will, after a while, begin to resemble improvisation. The best conference talk I ever gave, a 20 minute invited talk, was scripted down to the last word. By the time I came to give the talk, I had thrown the paper script in the bin, along with all its directions: when to pause, when to walk around in front of the screen. Even if I was interrupted with a question, my script was so well practiced that I could simply return to my script as though nothing had happened. I probably spent around 15 hours in total practicing, from the lecture theatre at my research school to the car on the way to work. 


Ok, this is excessive, but its what I personally do. Being able to give a good conference talk is part of what I do. Regardless of how much detail you put into a script, you must practice and you must practice until you are confident that you can deliver the talk in the environment of the conference. This means actually practicing the talk in a lecture theatre if you can, not sitting behind your computer mumbling to yourself. While this is awkward to begin with, you will quickly identify the parts of the presentation where you stumble and hesitate, and you can work to fix this. 



Another reason to practice your talk is to avoid the one cardinal sin of the conference presentation: timing. A talk that runs over time only irritates people: you are the only thing standing between them and the buffet table. As soon as an astronomer hears the tell-tale clanking of the catering company putting out the donuts and coffee cups, it’s over. 


The shorter the talk, the worse it is if you run over time: I often think that if a 50 minute talk runs 5 minutes over, it’s ok. If a 10 minute talk runs 5 minutes over, you’ve already taken your time plus an extra half. Practicing and timing your talk is extremely important, but it only works if (as I said above) you’re practicing under the same conditions as you’re presenting. 


If you’re at a conference, you will have the session chair timing you and providing you countdown reminders (5 minutes to go, 2 minutes, finished, usually). Please, for the love of God, look at the damn session chair. As nervous as you may be, it’s a nightmare to be a session chair and to spend 5 minutes trying to get the speaker’s attention to tell them they’re finished. Different session chairs have different levels of aggression over this: some will stand up and take the microphone away (I’ve seen this done) and some will just let you go on forever. Whatever you do, keep the chair and their timing signs in your field of view, and try to acknowledge them no matter how nervous you are. 


Overall, I think giving talks is important, be it at conferences or elsewhere. However, a poorly-rehearsed, planned and executed talk can actually cause more harm than good. Being an academic isn’t just about researching. Preparing for talks and conferences is work, despite the fact it isn’t your primary task. Devoting appropriate time to writing and rehearsing your talk can make all the difference to your career and opportunities. For the minutes or hour you are on stage, you have a great amount of power to communicate your science, so use it wisely.