Annoying things about conferences (Part I)

[I originally published this post on the Amaral Lab Site

I am sure most of you have experienced those weird social dynamics that happen in conferences (specially but not exclusively if you are young and attending by yourself). Maybe you hung out in a corner, like the terrified 4th-grader or the disengaged teen playing with her ipad that you once were. Maybe you joined a random group of fellow human scientists, with whom you had absolutely nothing in common except science, and had extremely relevant dinner conversations about science, that you don't really care for. I can say that things get better, and if you are lucky and survive, you slowly start making acquaintances, colleagues, and hopefully, some good friends among them. But the dread of having to interact with smart, socially awkward people you are stuck with for a week, and that you haven't really chosen, will never go away completely. On the other hand, I am not gonna discuss  those big shots getting drunk and holding court. Whether they qualify as annoying or not, I guess it depends on the particular drunk.

In any case, in this post I meant to talk about a far more important annoying thing that happens in conferences: talks that suck.

I recently attended a conference on complex systems that was an order of magnitude larger than what I am used to in my the field. Even when the general quality and organization of the conference was very, very nice, I still found myself stuck in far too many bad talks. I believe this is statistically true of   scientific events of any size, but this experience made me think more seriously about the issue than I had before.

I would say that around 50% of the talks I go to fundamentally suck. I am not speaking of the specific content (which I want to believe is generally good), but more of the way speakers present their work.  I am even willing to exclude most (but not all of the) keynotes speakers from this criticism, for being  outstanding or famous scientists, and therefore, outliers.

That is exactly my point: regular speakers don't act like keynote speakers. But maybe they should.  Keynotes usually give exciting and interesting talks without many concrete technical details. They focus more on the big picture, why their research matters, where is it all going, etc. On the contrary, many regular speakers bore their audiences to tears with slides and slides of text, formulas and microscopic details about their research (which, no, nobody but them cares about), while forgetting a very fundamental truth about humans: we like to be entertained. It doesn't matter whether you present to kids or scientists, we all enjoy a good story.

With this, I am not saying at all that talks should be vague, but I think it is way harder and more challenging to give the audience a clear picture of your work without the boring details, and we should  all work at it. For example, I find long, easy intros and conclusions very useful: even if the audience doesn't get the central part of the talk, at least they will leave with an idea of what was going on. Metaphors also help. Don't be afraid of using them to reach out to your audience (but pick them wisely).

Finally, I am very aware of the fact that keynotes usually manage big labs, and get to pick their most interesting work to present, but that shouldn't excuse us mere mortals from trying to make our research fun and accessible. It is not that hard, just takes a little empathy.

In related news: how come it is socially acceptable to pull out your laptop in the middle of a talk??