Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The First Two Lines

When my students are preparing presentations for conferences, I always tell them that the first 2-3 lines are particularly critical and I want them to think carefully about how they will introduce the talk. After the first few lines, the rest of a talk is typically straightforward (data, interpretation, conclusions), but the first few lines are where you either grab the audience or you don't. This is when you lay out why the work is interesting and important, and why anyone should care about the rest of what you have to say. In fact, it's a lot like writing a proposal..

Today a student practiced his talk for me, and his first line was about the techniques and materials. I told him that that sentence could be the third or fourth line, but not the first. This discouraged him, so we discussed it for a while. It turns out that he didn't feel confident giving a cosmic and general first sentence because he has decided that everyone in the audience will know more about the topic than he does and so will know better than he does why the study is being done.

This student has been doing excellent and original research on the topic for several years. In fact, I would even say that he is the world expert on this topic. There will no doubt be some very brilliant people at his talk who have broad knowledge of related topics, but even so, he has to lay out the philosophy of the research at the very beginning of the talk. I think the people he is intimidated by are going to be intrigued by his results, and I told him so very emphatically. I told him that even if the entire audience consists of experts in his exact research topic, he still has to explain why this research is important. As the audience will not consist entirely of experts in his research topic, it is even more important to introduce the motivation of the talk at the very beginning.

I asked him how he would answer the question "Why is this research interesting and important?" if asked by (a) his mother, (b) an undergraduate science student, and (c) a so-called expert in the research topic, and he had excellent responses for each. Then he took bits and pieces of his various responses and crafted an awesome first two sentences. I think his talk is going to be really great.


Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for these words, I needed to hear them. I am him. Except that I don't believe your third paragraph (because I am him, and we don't believe in ourselves) ... but this is a great way to think of an introduction. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Someone once told me that it's always good to start very general ("Why is this interesting?") because it's a win-win strategy. The people who don't know what you're talking about will be drawn in and convinced (hopefully) that your talk is worth listening to. The people who do know something about it will be able to feel smart that they already know what you just said. Everybody's happy!

Sounds like you gave good advice to your student. I'm sure his talk will go well.

Anonymous said...


I have a question for you brought over from other blogs. At Geeky Mom & Half Changed World, folks have been talking about their science classes and why they are not scientists. Part of the story seems to be a general belief that science is badly taught, as compared to humanities classes. Folks also say they were discouraged by less than supportive faculty.

Are they right, in your opinion? Do we do a bad job of supporting our students? Nothing you write here (and this entry is case in point) supports that allegation to me. Neither does my own experience, either as a student or a teacher. I don't think the classes I teach are badly taught (or non-supportive). But, I don't teach introductory classes. Do we do a bad job teaching introductory students? Do we apply a litmus test, and exclude people who aren't dedicated enough (because they're going to be lawyers or teachers instead of replicating our true calling)?


Female Science Professor said...

Intro science classes are tricky because you want to teach important things to non-science majors and encourage students not to fear science/math, but at the same time you don't want to make the course so fluffy that the most essential content is lost. And, since students have to take a certain amount of science, the intro science classes at universities are huge, so you have to teach students with an enormous range of interests and abilities and somehow reach as many as possible even though the class is taught a large auditorium. The students are also profoundly affected by their experiences in the labs or discussion sections, and these are taught by TA's with little to know training as teachers -- some TA's are naturally great teachers and some are not. It's not a good system. I think decreasing class size would go a long way to making intro science classes more effective for more students.

hgg said...

I wish there were more PhD supervisors out there with your skills. Once I get students of my own, I know where to go for inspiration

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with your emphasis on the first few lines of a presentation. Even as an experienced professor, when I give a talk at a national conference, I always think carefully about my first few lines and memorize them. Doing so not only serves to give the best intro to the audience, but it also relieves any jitters I might have. Once I get into the meat of the subject matter, it then becomes easy to relax.

Average Professor said...

he has decided that everyone in the audience will know more about the topic than he does and so will know better than he does why the study is being done

I find this pretty common with my grad students as well. In a related story, once when I asked one of my grad students to review a journal article with me, and she seemed scandalized to learn that it's not just the crusty-old white haired (male) "experts" that review journal articles, and couldn't believe that she - or I - could possibly be qualified to do so.

Anonymous said...

I also carefully craft and memorize the first couple of sentences to every talk I give. It helps with nerves.

I memorize the closing too, after an embarrassing experience in which I finished the talk with a few seconds of awkward silence and a lame, "that's all I've got." Thankfully it was just a departmental talk.

Unknown said...

For more on the state of introductory science teaching, see Sheila Tobias's outstanding book, They're not Dumb, They're Different. She had talented graduate students in the social sciences take science intro courses and then studied their experiences. It's a powerful story about why introductory courses have the negative impact you comment on.

Thanks for sharing your important voice,
Former science professor

the unbeatable kid said...

That some great advise for approaching a talk. I think that a lot of science journalists could also benefit from it for writing articles.

Ms.PhD said...

Great advice. I heard this thing about the opening being the most important part for the first recently, and I really wish someone had told me that years ago. I guess I don't get too nervous so I usually wing it "okay", but I'm working on always having a really polished, attention-grabbing opening!

And, I always tell students they're the expert on their project. Someone told me that in grad school and it made a lot of sense and gave me a lot of confidence.

I'm curious about the book david mentions on why some students thrive and others run screaming from science courses.

I for one liked my science courses in college for ~3 reasons:
(1)the good professors I was (mostly) fortunate to find based on other students' reviews,
(2)the fabulous textbooks that were written to emphasize what questions still remained to be answered, rather than declaiming "Known Truths...QED"
(3)the time and expectation to learn on my own, where I learned that I learn best when given time to integrate information my own way, rather than with endless homework problem sets and quizzes like we had in high school science courses (which I mostly took like broccoli).

alpinekat said...

That's the same strategy a good writing teacher uses to show a student how to draw an audience in. Kudos.