Monday, December 19, 2011

Woman of Few Words

Reminder: Don't forget to send in your entry for The Cover Letter contest! There are some great ones so far, but I am sure there are more creative examples lurking out there somewhere. 

Sometimes it seems like I could start 93% of my posts with "Not long ago, I was talking to a colleague and.." One might think that I spend a lot of time talking to colleagues. One might be right about this.

In any case, today is one of those 93% of times. Just imagine the usual beginning, blah blah blah..

.. and he reminisced about the time, many many years ago, when I gave an interview talk for a tenure-track faculty position in his department. He says he remembers my talk vividly. I do not remember my talk, vividly or otherwise. I remember the topic of my talk, but that's about all I can come up with for memories of that event.

Fortunately, my colleague's vivid memories are positive ones. One thing he remembers, however, is how short my talk was. In fact, it was 15 minutes shorter than any other candidate's talk. He says it was unusually short. Despite the passage of time, that sort of horrifies me, even though I know the interview had a happy ending (spoiler alert: I was offered the job).

My colleague hastened to tell me that he liked my talk -- and remembers it -- in part because it was short. According to him, I had something to say, and I said it, no more and no less. Everything I said was interesting. (<-- doubtful)

I could probably provide more insight into why my talk was so short if I could remember it more, but in general, talks that are unusually short are much less common than talks that are painfully or inappropriately long. Perhaps I benefited from that fact.

Unusually short talks may result when:

- The speaker freaks out mid-talk and decides to skip over a large(ish) section of the talk. (I don't think this has ever happened to me, but I have seen it.)

- The speaker speaks really really fast and therefore covers the planned material in much less time than intended. (This is not typically a problem for me, and it doesn't seem to have been an issue in my historically short talk).

- The speaker did not practice the talk and greatly underestimated the amount of time it would take to cover the material. (I always practiced my interview talks.)

- The speaker forgets to say a lot of things that s/he intended to say. I don't speak from notes, but I do typically have projected images as visual guides, so in order for this to have a significant effect on the length of a talk, there would likely be lots of forgetting of little points, not a wholesale forgetting of a major component of a talk. (Maybe I did this? I don't remember..)

I really don't know, but I can think of two other things that might have come into play in my case. One is that I had recently given a similar talk to an audience that interrupted me a lot with questions during my talk. If you go from such a setting to one in which you are not interrupted at all, it can affect the length of the talk considerably. Maybe I scaled my talk back, accounting for time for questions during the talk, but there weren't any (?).

Another possibility is that, for this particular talk, I remember that I merged several research projects into one integrated talk. I took some things from my PhD research, some things from my postdoctoral research, and some things I had been thinking about not long before the interview. I wrapped them all up together in what I hoped was a coherent package, and then.. well, I don't remember, but it seems that in the merging, I made the talk shorter rather than longer. That is, I distilled the essence of various projects (perhaps too much), hit the highlights without elaborating on anything in great detail, and gave some idea of where I wanted to go with this type of research in the future.

It seems to have worked in that case, but of course a danger of this approach is appearing as if you are not an expert in anything in particular and prefer to skim the surface of a range of topics. I was fortunate to have a friendly and interested audience in that case, but I can easily imagine this going the other way, and having the primary impression of my short talk be that I didn't have much to say.

It probably matters whether some in the audience know a great deal about your research topic, or not so much. In the case of my epic short talk, the faculty were conducting a search in a field that was not well represented in their department, so maybe it also worked in my favor that I didn't bore them all with the gory details of the research.

Mostly, I think I was just very lucky. A too-long talk is not a good thing, but a too-short talk also has many pitfalls. So, what to do? Perhaps the perfect talk is the slightly-shorter-than-most-people's-too-long talk.


Anonymous said...

This is a serious pet peeve of mine. Too-long talks fill me with rage. Nothing, even showing up late, could be less professional.

Has anyone ever been seriously disappointed by an hour-long talk ending ten minutes earlier than it theoretically could have?

Cherish said...

I've never been impressed by long talks. The really good talks are those that are appropriate for the occasion or shorter, can communicate fairly well on a high level, and is somewhat high energy. (It's hard to be excited about a talk when the speaker obviously is not.)

Long talks are often long because they get into details that aren't necessary to understand the talk and may actually obfuscate the main point. I've seen these more often from people who can't extricate themselves from inside their work and talk about it in a more general sense.

Old Biddy said...

Ugh. I hate too-long talks, unless they given by a very senior person who is giving a retrospective on their career, telling stories, etc. My bladder is trained to start protesting the moment someone hits the 45 minute mark and then says, "in the next section of my talk..."
We're interviewing for a number of open slots this year and it's amazing the number of candidates who come and give the too-long talk. Making matters worse for them, the proposal talks are right afterwards, and there's a set end-time for that, so by talking too long at seminar they are not only annoying the audience, they are cutting into an even more important part of their interview.

Anonymous said...

A little short is OK (e.g. 55 or even 50 minutes), but for a job talk I have seen 40 minute job talks and was left wondering ...

Did the person not accomplish much?

Did they short change us on the intro, making it harder to follow?

Did they forget to tell us where they think their work is going next?

My recommendation--practice till its clear, smooth and the RIGHT Length

Of course a 68 minute job (or any other talk) or a one hour slots also a BAD idea

Mark P

Anonymous said...

I was taught that a colloquium/seminar talk should be 50 min leaving the last 10 for questions but I have noticed lately that people giving colloquia seem to be running the full hour. Since our colloquia end at 5:00 p.m. and many people have to leave right away, this tends to lead to a lot of departures before Q&A. I would prefer 50-55 min to walk-outs.

jb said...

I actually prefer talks that have a mix of research topics than one long-winded one with basically the same things. At one seminar in our dept, you could actually hear a sigh of relief went through the room at the end of a really long and boring talk.
A friend of mine has this funny intro to her talks (not stem field): "My talk today will be like a mini skirt, short enough to keep your attention but long enough to cover the essentials."

Douglas Natelson said...

FSP, you left out a possibility. You actually listened and paid attention to the expected length of the talk, unlike the vast majority of speakers.

Anonymous said...

I have been disappointed by talks that were too short because the speaker left out lots of relevant information—often giving the impression that they were presenting someone else's work, rather than their own.

I'm only bothered by talks that run over at conferences where synchronization of talks is essential to the schedule, or when the speakers have nothing worth saying.

Anonymous said...

I found that my seminar talks improved when I removed detail and DATA. Instead, it was more coherent when I shared highlights of the story, provided more background, and put the whole thing into a broad context that everyone (experts and non-experts) could relate to. Long, painful talks usually consist of boring data slides that no one can understand unless everyfucking detail is explained.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon 6:07 - long talks are irritating. It makes the speaker look arrogant, as if they assume we have nothing else to do but listen to them. I often have to leave to teach after a seminar and I feel rude if I have to leave while they're still talking but come on - don't force me into that position! I'm curious though about what you said on bringing a bunch of stories together for a job talk. I always do this is that strange? They're all connected - my research program has a general theme and flow - but they represent different studies and papers. I want to demonstrate that I have a research program that uses a range of tools but I'm curious about whether people prefer a single completely fleshed out project or the sweep of the work? Does stage (e.g. recent grad vs. postdoc or faculty) matter?

Math postdoc said...

In response to

"Has anyone ever been seriously disappointed by an hour-long talk ending ten minutes earlier than it theoretically could have?"

Sometimes the talk is interesting and you are learning about something that you would like to know more about. The best compliment I ever got for a talk was from a professor who told me he wished my talk had been longer (but that talk was only 25 minutes).