Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Gauging the Crowd

A year or two ago, one of my grad students became distraught while giving a talk at a meeting. He looked out at the audience and thought that an Important Scientist looked bored and may even have looked at his watch during the talk. The thought of having bored the Important Scientist haunted him when he prepared talks for later conferences, and I spent a lot of time trying to talk him down from his anxiety because it was not a healthy fixation and because (1) My student could have been wrong about his perception of audience reaction; (2) Even if the Important Scientist looked at his watch, this does not necessarily mean he was bored; there are other explanations for watch-looking; and (3) Others at the talk (including me) thought it was an excellent talk, so why worry (too much) if one person may have been less than fascinated?

Audience reaction of the audible and visual sort can also be a good thing and is not necessarily disturbing. I gave a talk last year that had some new and kind of cool results in it. At some point during the talk, when I got to a particularly important image, I was aware of a rustling sound in the audience and I saw that many people had started taking notes. This was followed a few slides later by an increase in whispering among the audience. My anxious and insecure student would probably have interpreted this reaction to mean that the audience had decided to do things other than listen to his talk and were whispering about how stupid he was, but I am more confident and/or egotistical than that and interpreted it to mean the audience was interested.

While teaching a class, we can also pick up on audience vibes and this helps us know if we are engaging the students or losing them entirely. I personally am not bothered by students who have laptops open during a lecture (I assume that they are taking notes, though I know in my heart of hearts that they may be doing something else), and people reading or sending text messages get only a piercing stare from me in a medium sized class, and no admonition at all in a large class. As long as there are some students who are paying attention and who show me by their head nodding, question asking/answering, smiles or puzzled frowns whether they are following the discussion or not, and as long as the unengaged are relatively silent about their ancillary activities, I am unconcerned. It is my job to try to interest as many students as possible in what I am saying, but I know that it is impossible, especially in a large class, to get every single student to pay close attention for an entire class.

In some ways, teaching a class and giving a talk are similar in that both require the speaker to be as clear and engaging as possible, but there are some important differences in speaking style in the two settings. For example, I pay much more close attention to my audience when I am teaching than when I am giving a research talk. When teaching, I want to know what the audience reaction is as specifically as possible, making eye contact with individual students and addressing them directly. When giving a talk, I do not do this.

As a speaker during a professional talk, I prefer to look out on the audience as a whole, without focusing on anyone in particular. I think it is important to look out at the audience and appear to be speaking directly to them (as opposed to the screen or your shoes), but it's probably not a good idea to look at anyone in particular and try to gauge their interest level and wonder whether they arelooking at their watch out of boredom, taking notes on that laptop, or updating their Facebook page.


Isabel said...

"I assume that they are taking notes, though I know in my heart of hearts that they may be doing something else"

yes, FSP, they are doing something else.

"When teaching, I want to know what the audience reaction is as specifically as possible, making eye contact with individual students and addressing them directly."

but you are in denial about the laptop users - I guess you've just written them off.

It's hard for even a dedicated student to stay focused during a long lecture, and it's now even harder thanks to the sea of moving images and chorus of typitty-type-typing.

If people were typing discretely and all the other nice suggestions that would be fine, but that is not the case.

Please people at least be honest! ;)

Anonymous said...

your grad student became distraught simply because some important person looked bored during his talk?? what a wimp!

In my field it's common for audience members to be very aggressive and hostile in their reactions to your talks. It's a form of playground bullying. I don't condone such behavior but the reality is that this is what science is like so unless you are a career technician who will never be seen or heard in public, one needs to have a thick skin and not fall apart whenever the audience response (even from important people) is less than supportive and enthusiastic.

Anonymous said...

In contrast to the second comment, I think it is perfectly reasonable for a student to be nervous, especially if it is one of the first talks he or she has given in front of a "big name." A while back I gave a talk in which a big name in my field (who had also been my coauthor's mentor in grad school) came in halfway through our presentation, questioned our main finding as soon as we had finished, and then left before the next presentation. If that had been among my first presentation experience I would have been terrified. Thankfully, I was already an experienced presenter by that point and my coauthor and I were able to laugh about it.

Female Science Professor said...

The process of finding a good balance between being receptive to criticism (real or imagined) but not destroyed by it takes time. My student is figuring it out and will be fine.

DrDoyenne said...

My very first presentation at a major conference reported some results from my dissertation that refuted a popular hypothesis in my field--one that had been proposed (and vigorously promulgated) by DrHotshot.

As I stood in the front of the conference hall preparing to begin my talk, I saw DrHotshot walk into the room and sit down. Yikes! I didn't think he was at the conference!

I had a momentary stab of fear, but I quickly decided to ignore him and looked elsewhere in the room during my presentation. I focused on faces that seemed to be nodding and smiling encouragingly at my statements.

I'm sure that in my totally nervous state of mind, that had I seen (or thought I saw) any negative feedback, especially from DrHotshot, I would have faltered. Instead, I steadily felt more and more confident as I progressed through my data.

But then disaster struck. About half-way through my talk, the slide projector jammed (this was a number of years ago). But because I felt I had the audience's support, I smoothly continued talking until the projector started working again.

After my talk, DrHotshot came up to tell me he was impressed with my talk and especially how I remained calm and poised when the slide projector jammed.

He later confided to me that the same thing had happened to him during his first presentation. He saw the Major Scientist in the field in the audience and went into a brain-lock. Major Scientist, who was in the front row, leaned toward him and whispered, "Don't be nervous, son, we all want you to succeed."

Ioana said...

Dear FSP,

Sorry for making a comment that is not on topic. I just read this text about women in science: http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science. The author argues that a career in science is a bad choice for most people (in particular in terms of pay). Women make more reasonable choices than men, hence they don't become science professors. This is a very well written provocative piece. One weak point of his argument I think is that women are also not too well represented among other highly paid professions (see here an interesting paper about MBAs:http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/goldin/files/Dynamics.pdf).
As you're a professor in the sciences, and write a lot about women in science, I'm curious about your opinion on this piece (which you may well have read before).

Erin Hotchkiss said...

If my PhD advisor looks like he is in pain/not paying attention/pulling out his hair it's actually a good thing. It means you've made him think about something new and interesting. Not everyone shows interest in the same way!

Anonymous said...

""I assume that they are taking notes, though I know in my heart of hearts that they may be doing something else"

yes, FSP, they are doing something else."

In most cases, yes, but on occasion, it may be class-related. I was surprised by a student who came up to me after lecture once with a question about a webpage that directly related to something we'd talked about in the last 15 minutes of class. Should he have waited until after class to Google the interesting topic? Maybe. But it was nice to have confirmation that at least some of the laptops are class-related.

And I know from walking around the room that they all at least have the classnotes files *open* - even if I strongly suspect there are other pages open too while I'm not looking. Then again, it's a small class (30-40 students) with only about 5 laptops. Most of the students still print off paper copies of the skeleton notes to fill in manually.

butterflywings said...

Meh, some people just always look bored.

As an audience member, I am excessively polite. I was at a conference last week, and during the after-lunch talk was feeling very sleepy. Due to my crappy time-keeping I had had to sit in the front row, and therefore felt it would be very rude to actually sleep.

Lesson: be more punctual!

Anonymous said...

One of the professors on my MS committee would look like he was sleeping whenever someone gave a presentation. Then his eyes would suddenly pop open and he'd ask a zinger of a question. I guess that's just the way he thinks about things, but it can be very disconcerting when you don't know about it.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how would your student feel if an Important Scientist dozed off while listening to him describe his research. This happened to me - not a pleasant experience at that particular moment but now I find it highly amusing. Of course, it did not hurt to learn later that I was not the only one this happened to.

Anonymous said...

As an undergrad I was asked to give a talk (my first ever) at a big annual meeting. My PI encouraged me to find a friendly face or two in the crowd and glance their way sporadically during the talk for little jolts of reassurance. Unfortunately, the first person I looked at was scowling and seemed bored and possibly even hostile. I found myself unable to look at anyone else and spent the entire time looking back and forth from my slides to this guy. I still have an image of his face burned into my memory...