Conference talks reconsidered

:: research, rambling

A couple weeks ago, I wrote that I was beginning to hate conference talks. The next morning, I woke up with 50+ Twitter notifications caused by people debating that point. I have reconsidered my views.

In my earlier post, I point out that the typical advice I hear is “The talk should be an ad for the paper”. After several discussions, I think this is bad advice. Instead, Lindsey Kuper and Chris Martens encouraged me to ignore this advice and instead make my talk a performance.

At first, I was unsure what this meant. In fact, I am still not quite what this means. What does it mean to perform a paper? But I followed it anyway.

Essentially I tried to communicate, at a high-level, why I think this work is cool, and what parts of the work are most interesting. I tried to tell a story about what inspired this work, why I care about it, and what came out of it. I did not try to show many technical details; I showed only those necessary to tell the story of this work. I did not try to explain the particulars of all this work; I showed only those necessary to fit the work into the context of the story I wanted to tell.

I think the end result is actually an effective ad for the paper. However, by approaching the talk differently, I produced a much better talk (IMHO). And thankfully, I am not alone in that opinion.

In my initial practice talk, the renowned critic Matthias called the talk “90% perfect”. He went on; I took numerous quotes:

  • “I could get up and give this talk after seeing it”
  • “I hate this work, I couldn’t care less, but I could give this talk, so well done, so perfect for the audience”
  • “Proof is exemplary high-level, intuition-based proof”
  • “QED was perfect. And QED (ish) was even better.”

Of course, he went on to dismiss the audience as a bunch of theoreticians, and said that the talk was perfect insofar as it perfectly explained utterly pointless work, but I assume he said this only so he could not be accused to giving praise.

A video of this talk is online here.