Friday, November 19, 2010

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Part 1

It's that time of the year: the time when we're asked to cast aside the comfort of our respective cubicles to congregate together and justify the time & $ that's been poured into us, sharing all that we've learned & discovered. Yes, a seasoned grad. student will recognize this as a somewhat optimistic take on what can sometimes be a multi-day string of tiring/frustrating experiences, and perhaps this is true. For, although I believe I have learned the skill of effective Scientific Conferencing, I do not always follow my own advice. Thus, in my next posts I will share from my first-, second-, and third-hand knowledge of conferencing best-practices. Readers are invited to post their own conferencing tips below, in the comments section!

On Your Research
It's why you've left the relative comfort of home in the first place. Your research is only as good as your science, but, for better or worse, will only have the appearance of being as good as the quality with which it is presented. This, I have found, has some interesting implications, the foremost of which is that all material should be compiled with a specific audience in mind. This, I am certain, is advice that has been repeated enough to rival those "you have an important software update (!)" pop-ups, in terms of apparent irrelevance. Unlike said pop-ups, their importance is infinitely more assured. In practice, this general advice can be boiled down to a few concrete rules of thumb:
  1. Spend the right amount of time on background information. Too little, & your take-home points will be lost on your audience. Too much, &, at best, people will mentally check out. At worst, you'll seem like you're talking down to your colleagues. The background section of a conference talk or poster is simultaneously the least & most important component of your material. I've achieved the best results by putting together this part of a presentation/poster only after I'm happy with the Methods, Results, & Discussion bits. As it turns out, over the years I've realized that I'm only completely aware of the things I have to say once I've said them. Pathological implications aside, this has led to some truly awful & disconnected background sections. Fortunately (for all parties involved) I've adjusted my preparation procedure to accommodate my idiosyncrasies. If you've ever found yourself having to chime in with explanatory asides when you're already well into your talk, you too may benefit from reversing your preparatory workflow.
  2. The outline slide. Admittedly, this is more of a pet peeve, than anything else. But having just returned from a four day conference, wherein I listened to countless scientific talks, I am astonished at how many people had the same second slide (Figure 1). Please don't do this. Most scientific talks have a similar structure, & your audience doesn't need conference deja vu, in addition to the awesome comfort devices that are Hilton chairs.
  3. Make sure what you have to say will matter to those you're talking at. It may seem like obvious advice, but making sure your research is relevant to your conference of choice (as well as any of the specific subcategories to which you have been assigned) can help you avoid some reasonably awkward situations. I once gave a poster presentation where throughout the duration of my poster time the only question I received was, "tell me, which font did you use for this?" (Figure 2.) Those who know me can probably imagine that my reaction was somewhat mixed. While I love graphic design & typography almost as much as my actual research, the lone, tangential question left me with a lingering posse of internal doubts, & I despise anything that lingers far more than I enjoy font selection. Was my science bad? I didn't think so, as the poster was an extension of research I had already published in a peer-reviewed journal. Was my presentation unengaging? Possibly, but this is rarely a problem for my science-obsessed, over-caffeinated self. Was I accidently wearing a tie with a t-shirt again? My doubts spiraled downward from there. In the end, I came to realize that I was trying to present a very specific (albeit fascinating!) finding in applied machine learning to a general audience of Informaticians, & I was remiss to expect much more.
  4. Be the most excited person in the room. The worst talks I have attended haven't been those which violated the above rules, but those where the presenter obviously couldn't bring themselves to be interested about the research they had to convey. Maybe some will disagree with me in the comments, but I think a grad. student is better off not giving a talk at all, rather than giving one they can't care about. This early in our careers, we sometimes forget that people will remember the best & the worst of what they've seen for years to come. I still remember a particularly engaging talk by Paul Glimcher at the 2006 Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting; it inspired me to pursue the computational aspects of my extant research, eventually, I think leading me to my present line of work. Public speaking is an art that requires practice. When done effectively, the excitement that drives people to do crazy things, like pursue higher education, is contagious even to the back of the room, igniting the spark of inspiration. & science happens.

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