Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Out of Practice

Do you practice your conference presentations before giving them? What is your career stage?

In my case, I used to practice my conference talks, but now I never do, so for me, the answer was yes but is now no, and the change is definitely related to career-stage. I do not think this is unusual. Whether it is a good, neutral, or bad thing is another question.

If you used to practice talks but now you don't, do you remember when you stopped? I don't, but I am certain that I practiced my talks through my postdoc and perhaps for a while as an assistant professor. I just don't remember if I stopped practicing talks before or after tenure; I think it was before, but I am not sure.

Although I don't remember when exactly it was, I do remember having an anxious thought, just before giving one of the first talks I had not practiced, "Maybe I should have practiced this talk..", but I only felt that way the first few times I gave a talk I had not practiced. The feeling went away either because (1) I was satisfied with how the unpracticed talks went (i.e., I never felt after a talk, "OMG, I should have practiced that talk."), and/or (2) I am delusional about the quality of my talks.

I hasten to add that I typically finish my talks well within the time limit, so my lack of practice does not have negative consequences in terms of talk duration. Whether my talks are less coherent as a result of not-practicing: I'm not the one to ask.

I am certainly not advocating not practicing, particularly for early-career people. For those inexperienced at giving talks, I have seen very-not-good talks (on the first or second practice) turn into awesome talks with practice.

I am also not saying that I don't put much preparation into my talks. I think about them quite a lot, and I run through various options for the intro in my head, in some cases jotting notes. I just don't do a practice run of the whole talk in advance.

For some people, practicing (and practicing) before a talk provides a sense of greater confidence about the talk. Each practice run might be slightly (or very) different, but by giving the talk in advance (to a friendly group, to your cat, to yourself), perhaps many times, you know how to pace it and you know how to deal with the all-important talk introduction and transitions between topics. There is no question that this is useful (and I think people presenting posters should also have a few introductory lines prepared). It's just that, at some point, some of us decide (for better or worse) that we don't need to do this.

52 comments:

Alex said...

In any talk that I give, at least half of it is pieced together from stuff I've presented elsewhere, showing background, techniques, etc. I've presented those slides a million times. It's easy to then say "Now, suppose we add this..." and give a few new slides. Then go to another idea, build off some slides I've given a million times, then segue to some more new material.

So, no, I don't practice either.

Alex said...

I should add that giving lectures just about every day is excellent practice for speaking extemporaneously about science. This further reduces the need for rehearsal. Postdocs and grad students should not attempt to give a talk without practice. Professors, however, do it daily. We're used to it.

MathTT said...

Assistant Prof (going up for tenure next year).

I used to practice, but now I don't. (I'm pretty sure my dog has my thesis defense memorized to this day.)

It's not so much that I feel I don't need to practice. But I can't dedicate the time. I'm so much busier now than I ever was as a grad student or postdoc... I can't squeeze out the time I need to do complete run-throughs. Unless I have a very agreeable neighbor on the flight to the conference, I guess. I've never actually tried that approach.

Anonymous said...

I am an associate professor. I rarely practice the whole talk, but I often rehearse the first couple of slides for important events. If I feel good about how I introduced the talk then it is all downhill for me, but I like having a clear script for my title slide and the transition into the first couple of slides.
The first time I gave a talk as an asst. prof. in a large conference in my field I was so nervous that I recorded the talk in mp3 format and listened to it dozens of times until I almost memorized it. It went great, so I guess it wasn't such a stupid idea after all...

mOOm said...

I don't practice and never have in terms of actually giving a whole presentation. Of course, I do look through the slides after I make and them and think about what I'll say at each point and then change things if there are problems.

I'm a full professor.

Anonymous said...

For me (full professor since last year) that's a function of how well I know the slides. If I made a completely new set of slides for an important event, I will go through them to see what the minimum amount of explanation is that works. (It's enough if I do this in my head, so on the flight to the conference is ok.) Often, this leads me to moving some material to my slide reserve for question time, which is always good as it gives me more space for the actual talk as well as allows me to answer some questions very concisely.

Recycled or only marginally revised material I don't practice. Haven't given a proper practice talk with an audience for a long time now -- among other things because I rarely have the slides far enough in advance.

Anonymous said...

I always do some practice, more if it is a new talk or new data. But whenever I have tried an un practiced or under rehearsed talk, it has not gone well. I'm 10 yrs post phd

Anonymous said...

I'm a "senior" PhD student (defending soon). My biggest problem giving talks used to be getting nervous, I have mostly overcome this by exposure therapy (i.e. putting myself into lots of public speaking situations, including being a T.A.). I have found that my talks are always better if I practice them to a certain extent, but I usually don't manage to do a complete run-through of the entire talk. Ideally, I particularly try to practice talking through the first 1-2 slides so I can get off to a good start and hopefully get the attention of the audience. Then I try talking through the rest of the slides, and usually discover along the way that it would be easier / more logical if I presented the slides in a different order, or that I have included some superfluous information that should be removed, etc. So the attempt to rehearse results in a lot of editing, which improves the talk a lot and gives me a good idea of what to say, even though I often don't manage to talk through the entire set of slides in one go before giving the talk.

michiexile said...

I just started my fourth postdoc year, and just started my second postdoc position.

I stopped practicing talks very early in my doctoral studies, after having tried a few times mostly because everyone kept saying you should practice your talks; I tend to not get much out of a practice talk, and have been perfectly fine (judging from reactions to when I talk) without practicing.

Anonymous said...

I would add that I strongly encourage grad students and post docs to practice every talk they give, even group meetings in front of a friendly audience. By practicing informal talks I got much better at both presenting and writing talks better the first time (figuring out reasonable slide orders, where I would need background slides etc.). Many times I saw people who gave pretty bad group meeting presentations prepare for important talks (conferences, interviews) and their practice talks would be so bad that there was only so much a practice audience could do to help.

James Annan said...

I must admit, I cannot recall the last time I sat through a conference presentation and thought "I wish this person had not prepared so well". I can't claim to be (anywhere close to) perfect but it's a basic courtesy to the audience to make some attempt to ensure the talk is reasonably well prepared. The worst offenders are generally the more senior speakers IME.

studyzone said...

I'm a postdoc on teaching fellowship. I still give practice talks (my lab is a great believer in practice talks), and even though my teaching experience has certainly made me a better speaker/presenter, there is always room for improvement. I always wondered why my grad PI never gave practice talks. He always provided valuable advice during my practice talks that has certainly improved my talks - but he doesn't usually practice that advice himself (and I never felt comfortable giving him unsolicited feedback on his talk).

Anonymous said...

I'm a postdoc. I always practice all my talks all the way through. I have taught before (and obviously I don't practice my lectures).

I could imagine a time in the future when I would no longer practice my talks. This would probably result in an 80% performance with a lot less prep time.

I would be fine with an 80% performance if I was a professor that already had an established reputation as a good communicator.

At this point in my career, I don't have any reputation, so I think its worth it for me to go all out and try to give the best talk I can.

Anonymous said...

I practice. I'm actually practiving two upcoming talks right now.

The thing is that I haven't talked about this research before. I'm junior so it's not like I have a history of talking about the same stuff over and over. If I had to talk about my dissertation, I could do that cold, because I gave a dozen or so talks on that data.

Prof-like Substance said...

I stopped practicing sometime during my postdoc. Haven't since.

makita said...

I'm just a lowly postdoc, and I cannot remember the last time I practiced a talk. I have a pretty good idea of how long it takes me to go through a particular topic. I may look at the number of slides I have, look through them before my talk, and keep an eye on the clock during the talk. I can speed up and slow down as needed, and have never gone over time.
I think I stopped practicing in the second year of my graduate degree.

plam said...

In my area of computer science, students often give talks more often than professors, so the question of practice is often a moot point: students should be practicing their talks. My advisor made us all practice our talks extensively. I think that he often doesn't practice his talks, but that I've seen him practice a talk once.

I did practice my recent workshop talk: the material was old, but the formulation was new. The key factor determining whether I practice or not is the novelty of the material. As someone said, lectures are definitely good practice for talking, although some faculty are notoriously bad at lecturing.

Anonymous said...

One of my upcoming talks is being recorded and I was just thinking it might be a good idea to practice. As in all the way through, recorded with self-critique after. I think I fully rehearsed my job talk, but that is it in last 10 years...

I, too, always finish within the time limit, and know what I want to say because I've spent many months or weeks discussing the content with my students, colleagues, etc. Organizing class every day certainly helps me get in the mindset to be organized and sound coherent (I hope).

Anonymous said...

15 years after the PhD and I still practice a run through of my talks-usually in the shower or on the way to work. This is not a formal review but I do work my way through the slides in my head and think of questions I will face etc. Recently, with colleagues we had to pitch a science business proposal and although we were all seasoned researchers, we practiced together through the slide presentation. For the actual pitch with potential investors, we were inevitably faced with having to turn the presentation on its head at a moment's notice to suit their questions, but thanks to our practice sessions, we were able to do this smoothly without incident.

Anonymous said...

I always practice my talks (I'm an assistant professor who will go up for tenure next year) because it's a habit I learned from my PhD advisor. He was the department chair, a wildly successful leader in his field and he always practiced his talks in front of the whole group. I think it's good practice for many reasons. In addition to helping ensure that my talk goes smoothly, it gives the students a chance to see how all of their work comes together to make a bigger picture and reinforces in their mind that no talk is ever perfect and that they can always benefit from practice and feedback.

Anonymous said...

I used to practice a lot, first in front of friends, later on alone in a room. Nowadays I don't always practice, but as a general statement my better talks are usually the ones where I practice the most. Problem is, I just don't have time.

I stopped practicing sometime around the time I got tenure. Things just got too hectic then.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes don't even finish *writing* the talk until the session starts. But I'm good at speaking extemporaneously. And as for career stage, I just got tenure.

Anonymous said...

Assistant prof (going up for tenure next year).

I practiced all my talks until I got used to talking on the fly from teaching.

Now I only practice for important talks (e.g., invited talks where audience size>150). I try to practice in front of my grad students so they can help to identify awkward moments in the flow and think about ways to make the main ideas behind the math more accessible. I initially approached this as a learning experience for them, but found that it also substantially improved my talks (and the subsequent talks of my students).

John Vidale said...

I generally always practice the conference talks, also any full length talk that is newly created.

I'm dismayed that many people would consider their talks do not need practice. Even when my train of thought is okay before practicing, the first oral run-through generally leads to redistribution of statements between the intro, middle, and conclusions, spicing up the figures with some obscurely related graphics (or de-spicing it), and length adjustments.

If a few dozen or a few hundred are going to listen to me for 15 minutes, I'll spend an hour or so talking through the presentation beforehand.

Donnie Berkholz said...

I've been a postdoc for a couple of years and given probably dozens of different talks (counting "formal" presentations at journal clubs etc), and somewhere in the range of 10–20 different ones at conferences.

I don't practice anymore but I do significant prep work, to the point of writing almost word-for-word scripts for the intro and transitions between slides (especially ones that are huge leaps).

Anonymous said...

I'm more likely to practice a shorter talk (conference, 10-15 minutes) than a longer one (50 minute lecture or seminar). In a short talk I want to make sure it flows very smoothly and I hit all my main points clearly and forcefully. I've seen professors who do great 50-minute talks really struggle with (clearly unpracticed) 10-minute talks; usually they're trying to say too much. With a longer talk you have the time to ramble a little here or there or go off on a tangent -- no good in a short talk.

Science Professor Mum said...

I don't practice anymore and I think I stopped after I got my lectureship (I guess you get confident about things more then). However, I think I should practice them. I have noticed that as a PhD student and PDRA I never over-ran my slots - now I do (although I always notice and stop as best I can and I never unneccesarily read out conclusions and I've noticed a tendency to drop my outline slide now too...). I don't know whether this is because I don't practice or because I just think I have to cover more material now. Or maybe its part of the general slide into senior scientist habits... I hope not!

Anonymous said...

I do practice presentations, conference and otherwise. I have a strong amount of presentation anxiety (always have) and find it bolsters my confidence to practice in advance.

I'm an assistant professor now, but this was also my habit when I worked in industry.

Math Postdoc said...

I generally don't do practice talks anymore, and I find I like it better that way because the talk feels more spontaneous, so I am more engaged (and I think my audience is too). In fact, if when I give multiple talks on the same topic, I try to rearrange the material a bit each time or emphasize different aspects of it to keep it feeling fresh.

When I am very nervous, I plan out the first few minutes of my talk word-by-word, so that I am sure to have a smooth beginning and can catch my stride. If there is a part I expect to be difficult, I may go over it additionally in my preparation. I should say though that I generally give chalkboard talks, and bring detailed handwritten notes, so that's a little different than the scenario you describe.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Alex. I stopped practicing a few years into being a professor. I give public talks several times a week and I literally have no time to squeeze in practice. I do go over the slides though. And I will practice really important stuff (like my invited talks) but that is it. I'm much more comfortable simply standing up and talking than I ever was before becoming a professor!

Anonymous said...

I'm 16 years out of Ph.D. and I STILL practice all talks. Usually I even practice my lectures when I'm teaching! If I don't do this, invariably I cannot get through as much the material in the alloted time -- practicing probably gets me about 20% more material, AND it improves my delivery hugely. Basically some people are naturally good at lecturing and can wing it, but others of us really can't.

Girls Are Geeks said...

I'm trained not only as a scientist, but as an actress, and I've been on stage since I was 6. For me, giving a talk is giving a type of performance, and I am incredibly comfortable doing so. I read through my talk, but I almost never practice. I actually have found that if I practice, I often do slightly worse the second time around during the actual talk. When I gave my job talk 15 times this past spring, it was up and down (at least to me, I hear I'm pretty good even on a bad day).

On the other hand, I tell people with less stage experience to practice, and they typically need it.

Relating this to level of academia, a tenured professor has likely "performed" numerous times and therefore would need less practice vs a grad student or post-doc or new instructor.

I recognize that I'm an anomaly, but it does seem to me that more practice in life leads to less practice for each individual talk, lecture, or, in my current case, classroom activity

DrDoyenne said...

Do I practice my talks? Yes

Career stage? senior scientist (30+ years)

I would add a question for those who answer "no" to the first question: Do you get compliments on your talks?

If you don't care about how you are perceived as a speaker and can do a fair job of it, maybe you don't need to practice.

Perhaps regular teaching (which I do not do) can substitute for practice. However, I see many colleagues who teach a lot, but who give terrible talks at conferences.

I decided that becoming an excellent speaker was a way to give me an edge in a competitive field. I not only practice (at least a couple of times), but constantly look for ways to improve my presentations. This deliberate strategy has led to many contacts and invitations that would not have otherwise come my way.

Anonymous said...

I am a postdoc, I spend ~1-2 hours practicing for a talk, even if I have given the talk before.

On a semi-related note. When I attend a boring talk, I have used the time to surf the Internet (sometimes checking FSP) using my iPhone.

To Love What is Mortal said...

I am post-tenure and I still practice my talks...but I do not practice my lectures. The idea of not practicing my talk would give send me into a panic during my talk.

Anonymous said...

I don't practice my conference talks (or any other talks) any more. I stopped when I became an assistant professor, and the duties of teaching, grant-writing, etc caught up with me. Also, I believe I am a better speaker now because I get way more practice with teaching.

mOOm said...

Dr Doyenne - Yes I do get compliments on a lot of my talks. After my latest public lecture at our department colleagues sent me e-mails and stopped me in the corridor and street and told me how much they liked my talk. Yes, I do teach and put a lot of effort into both preparing classes and non-teaching presentations. But I don't practice beyond looking through the slides and thinking about what to say. I am extroverted - maybe that helps. I get fired up and excited when I get talking to an audience. Without the audience it's just not the same at all. Maybe this is what the difference is between the practicers and non-practicers.

Anonymous said...

I practice in front of my cat. She is a more critical audience than any conference; forget about checking email on iphone, she will simply walk away if she gets too bored.

Anonymous said...

I'm an assistant prof. I had a few years of teaching before settling down into a TT position. I rehearse internally, and write some transitions out on printed copies of the slides by hand (perhaps reminiscent of a chalk-talk rehearsal). I guess I do read through the talk a few times (airplane is a great opportunity for mental rehearsal). I seem to perpetually feel like a talk is never 'done' - I am tweaking it more and more each time I read through it. I am often still adjusting the morning of the talk. I have been complimented on my talks, but I guess I don't know how many more compliments I might get were I to be more prepared in this way.

I am in the same camp as other commenters - if I have to give a talk more than once with a quick turnaround time (job talks) - it tends to just fall flat after the first time unless I do change it up and 'keep it fresh'.

I think another benefit to me for thinking 'on my feet' to generate a coherent narrative is that I don't have extra mental energy to focus on being nervous, which used to be a real problem for me.

Elizabeth said...

First year postdoc - I do a full practice talk (alone) before every public talk (conferences/seminars), even if I have given the talk before. I've never practiced my presentations for group meetings or collaboration meetings.

Tanya Golash-Boza said...

I am 6 years post PhD, have given over 60 talks, and always practice the whole talk out loud at least once before delivering it. I find that my talks are better when I practice them because I have practically memorized them.

Funny, though, I never practice my teaching lectures...

I have definitely seen lots of talks where I wish the person had practiced.

Anonymous said...

When I was a student, I practised everything. As a postdoc, I practised everything. Now, associate prof, I only practise talks of 25min or less, mostly to get the timing and emphasis right. With an hour seminar, I find that the timing takes care of itself - this is probably due to teaching 120 50min classes each year for the last decade. I still find 10min talks daunting, but it is a useful group meeting when we have 2 or 3 of them to try out before a conference.

Anonymous said...

I practice them (Asst. Prof) but much, much less than I used to. In the "old days" ~3years ago as a postdoc I practiced them silly but now it's a couple runs to be sure I have the basic structure down. Not sure when (or if) I'll stop. Lectures I don't practice (who has time?!).

Donnie Berkholz said...

@DrDoyenne: Yes, despite the lack of practice, I regularly get compliments on my talks. I've won "best talk" / 1st-place awards and been invited to give a number of presentations by people who've heard me before.

Communicating my work just happens to be one of my strengths, because I've invested a good deal of time in becoming good at it.

Anonymous said...

Associate prof. I always practice my talks several times. I remove slides, I remove text from slides, I add in figures at seemingly the last minute.

I respect the time the audience has taken to see me speak and so put a lot of effort in to giving great talks.

As a result I am invited to speak far more often than my research profile would suggest.

Practice pays no matter how experienced you are!

(I even still look over my class notes before lecturing!)

James Annan said...

Well I'm sure some people can carry it off, but the high proportion of "I'm far too important to practice" comments certainly helps to explain the frequently dismal level of basic competence displayed - by which I mean nothing more complex than completing the talk in the time available. It is almost always the more senior speakers who over-run, apparently because they never bothered to consider how long it would take them to wade through the material.

mOOm said...

I think there are different understandings here in terms of what "practicing a talk" is. I assumed that "practice" meant giving the actual talk in full either with an audience or to an empty room before the real event. I've never done that. Of course, I put a lot of work into preparing my talks, thinking what I'm going to say etc. And I definitely more than look over my lecture notes before teaching however many times I've given the class. But again, I don't call that practicing.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

My department's culture makes all students practice their talks before a real audience and get feedback. I've seen terrible talks go to pretty good ones after 2 rehearsals (with a couple days in between to completely rework the slides). The feedback has to very detailed and informative for this to happen (a vague "it seems ok to me" is useless).

For myself, I generally do not practice in front of a live audience or out loud. I do spend many hours tweaking the slides and mentally rehearsing what points I want to make, but I've found I speak better giving an extemporaneous performance than a rehearsed one.

This is particularly important as I have often been given a different length time slot than originally invited for with only about 5 minutes warning ("our second speaker cancelled—you now have 40 minutes instead of 25" or "we're running behind schedule, can you do 20 minutes instead of 30?").

For lectures, I'm even more extemporaneous—sometimes having only 3 words in notes for 3 70-minute lectures. That requires a a very thorough knowledge of the material, as well as a willingness to go in different directions and at different paces depending on questions from the students. It is not suitable for a conference talk.

Anonymous said...

I'm a postdoc.

I always practice my talks and find that it substantially improves the quality. As others have said, practicing helps me nail down all the little details I need to remember to say, be on top of my animations if applicable, make edits to slides, rearrange material, cut a few slides for time, etc. Mostly it makes what I say a lot more coherent and concise.

I practice out loud, by myself. I have and would continue to practice in front of a group - but I think I can do a satisfactory job self-editing - I just need to go through that process. It kind of depends on whether I have time to arrange that sort of thing.

I believe that practicing throughout my career will continue to improve my talks significantly. I can see skipping practice if desperate - I can wing it if necessary and can do okay or even good - but I'd hope I wouldn't make that the norm. Even one practice makes a world of difference if in a time crunch.

I see a lot of bad talks. (I am also very critical). And yes, a lot of the senior talks are the worst offenders. At the conference I was just at - it was totally refreshing to see some of the super well-rehearsed student talks. I suspect that 10-15% of people are truly gifted and can pull off a good talk off the cuff (even if not the most coherent - their charisma and scientific ability inherently win over the audience), and that the rest would benefit (to varying degrees, but many by a lot) by practicing.

Anonymous said...

I've stopped practicing talks probably during my second year as a postdoc. The only time I've rehearsed since that time (and needed it) was when I gave a drastically new talk (e.g. an outreach talk) or once when I had to give a research talk in my mothertongue. The latter took surprisingly long to get right, since I've built a library of concise sentences in English to describe my work. It required a lot of work to translate these into concise sentences in my mothertongue.

profacero said...

I can give a good talk without practicing and haven't formally practiced in many years, but if I want to make *sure* I have time to make all my points, then I have to - to measure exactly how long I can spend on each thing.

Otherwise I "practice" in my head while doing other stuff. It always goes well.

Associate professor - have been in this long enough that I should be full, though; have given very many talks, so this is Why I don't practice formally, have practiced mucho.

unlikelygrad said...

Third year grad here, and I'm totally with @James Annan--what is wrong with being over-prepared?

And for all of you who think that you can just do a talk on the fly because "you've done it so many times"...when I was at ACS this fall, all of the best talks I heard were given either by grad students, or by profs in the "Education" section. The profs who gave technical talks in my division tended to be boring, disorganized, or worse. (See my blog post on this: http://unlikelygrad.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/what-not-to-do/ )

In all fairness, in my Former Life, I did give many talks based on recycled material. For these I didn't necessarily run through these in their entirety. But I always made sure to practice:

(1) The introduction--several times
(2) The conclusion--several times
(3) Any new parts--obsessively
(4) Transitions between sections I was already familiar with

I seem to be able to lecture without practicing, though, as long as I put in sufficient prep time.