Thursday, August 23, 2012

What should I talk about?

Over my 10+ years in science, I've gotten a lot of advice about how to give a talk. But I've never gotten any advice on how to choose what to talk about.

In the past, it's been pretty easy. I have only had one project at a time, so my plan for talks was: 50% present project, 50% most high-profile past project. Add in a dash of 'clumsy attempt to link them' and voila.

I have to give a couple talks in the next few weeks. Now things get more complicated. 

 Like most parents, I wish my children had more citations, so I feel some need to brag about them in public.

Also, those ideas are the ones that are demonstrably good enough to publish. I know how to present them in an entertaining way. I don't have to worry about the audience member who raises his/her hand and points out the major flaw that makes the present study worthless. Plus I already have the slides made.

OTOH, those come from my earlier life as a post-doc. And I want people to realize I have my own lab with new ideas coming out. I could talk about my current research, even though it's unpublished. This has its own advantages:
(1) Advertise my young lab, and my independent self
(2) Advertise these ideas, which may help in the review process
(3) Attract comment and criticism, which could improve my ideas [very likely in this case]
(4) attract potential collaborators [possible, though unlikely, I suspect]
(5) Advertise my students [which is part of my job as PI after all]

If I could I would write a brilliant talk incorporating all my past research and the new stuff in a graceful and elegant way that put the audience into a state of amazement and wonder. That's a little tricky though. I think I will be focussing on the new things.

There's also the question of focussing solely on the projects that seem to be working, or also mentioning the ones that don't totally make sense yet. And that relates to the question of how much larger framework to give, versus how much to just say, here are some unconnected results.


  1. Definitely talk about your new stuff--as an audience member, I always find it most exciting when the talk shifts into the unpublished data. Even if it's not a complete story, it's still fun to see the shiny new findings, and to hear where the speaker is going to take it.

    They invited you, so presumably they're already somewhat familiar with your older stuff. Maybe give a brief overview of how your post-doc work got you to where your lab currently is?

    I'll be dealing with this in a couple of months, when I'll also give my first talk about current work. I'm just praying I have some clean data to show...

  2. Generally, I always try to have something new in a talk that I have not presented before. But... I find that there are always people in the room who don't know the old stuff, so I am certainly never afraid to revisit it. It will be new to someone.

    1. I agree with both of your points. I think most people will not be familiar with the old stuff and the ones that are would benefit from an in-person explanation. Still, I am leaning towards going with the 90% new approach.


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