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Thoughts from a seminar

Hooray, a seminar! I long to be thrilled, learn something new, and maybe even ask an insightful question. This will be exciting!

All scientists are great communicators—right? 

Time to choose a seat. Anywhere but the front row. (Everyone knows that the front row is poison.)

Ah, here’s the speaker. I am an empty vessel! Fill me with knowledge!

Um … it’s the switch on the side of the mic. The one that says “on/off.” The only switch. Can someone just go up there and do it please?

Now get closer to the mic. Closer. No, you can’t “just shout,” especially if you’re not going to actually shout.

This bodes poorly.

Click the “Full Screen” button, or press F5. You can do it. Shouldn’t be a mystery.

A quick glance at the lower left-hand corner before we go full screen … oh no. “Slide 1 of 78.” Nooooooo …

Also, Comic Sans? Really?

You have two sentences to show me whether you’re an engaging speaker or a terrible speaker.

You are not an engaging speaker.

It appears you have the ability to read your slides verbatim. Good for you. So can we.

“This is an interesting result,” you say. Hmm. Clearly, we have different definitions of the word “interesting.”

Those are not “micro” symbols. Those are lowercase “u”s. Those are not the same thing. YOU MONSTER.

You’ve used over two dozen interrelated acronyms already. Just stop.

Hi. We’re your audience. We’re over here. Stop making eye contact with the projector screen. It has no eyes.

No, you’re right, we can’t see the figure with the black background. Sure, I’ll trust you about what the slide probably shows. That’s how science works.

Good, someone’s turning off the overhead lights so that we can see the figures more clearly. No, wait, not all of the lights—just the ones shining on the screen. No—if you turn all of them off—

How long was I asleep?

I see someone else falling asleep. Maybe I’m not a horrible scientist after all.

Yes, please keep using the laser pointer for every single bullet point. That adds to our understanding. See, I didn’t understand what you were saying before, but now that it has a bright red dot on top of it, I get it!

OK. It’s not productive to get this agitated. I have to keep in mind that I can’t control when the seminar starts or ends.

(Because I used those special parts to make my robot frieeeeeeends!)

Great, now that song is stuck in my head.

Oh snap. The person next to me just opened a laptop. How disrespectful. This action fills me with anger and disgust, but most of all, envy.

The sky outside looks so blue.

“Remember this when you look at the next slide,” you tell us. OK, so let me just quickly—oh, too late.

I’m really trying here. I want to learn. Why don’t you want me to learn?

If I had a pen, I’d be making a grocery list right now.

It appears you’ve elected to paste in a table as an illegible, pixelated JPEG. You know you can make tables directly in PowerPoint, right? The future is now.

You just skipped from slide 62 to slide 64 by mistake, then said “oops” and went back to slide 63, and I feel the closest I’ve ever felt to knowing my own future.

What are you even saying. What are you even saying. What are you even saying. What are you even saying. What are you even saying.

Um … are we using the same clock? Your time is up. It’s up. And you’re … just soldiering ahead. Well, I can’t say I don’t admire your chutzpah. Still, stop.

You just said, “In conclusion.” I love you.

No, I don’t have any questions. Wait, someone else does? Someone understood this convoluted talk? Oh, never mind, it’s someone from your own lab.

Actually, questions usually end with a question mark. You’ve made what’s called a “statement.” It’s also known as a “declaration,” an “observation,” or—the way you presented it—a “self-serving assertion.”

Ah, another question in the back. Wait for the handheld mic to come back to you. Wait. I said wait. Great, now everyone heard the second half of your question, and the first half will have to be a secret between you and the dude in the next seat.

No, new question asker, the thing you study in your lab is not the answer to the problems they’re studying in the speaker’s lab. Good try!

I am closer to my own death than when this seminar started. That is undeniable.

It’s over. I can go frolic in the daisies! Or, more accurately, I can go back to the lab.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN, “OUR NEXT SPEAKER”?

As a midcareer scientist, I’ve sat through more unintelligible seminars than I can remember. (Which is kind of the point; they were unintelligible, so I don’t remember them.) I used to wholeheartedly blame my own shortcomings when I’d fail to maintain eager-squirrel-level fascination in the speaker’s topic—until I realized the failure was not always mine. Some seminars are, in a word, hideous.

When this happens, it’s a lost opportunity for everyone, because information is neither disseminated nor received. But for some reason—either because the audience is too nice, or because everyone has become complacent with low expectations, or because we all want to avoid the retribution that comes from someday putting ourselves under the proverbial microscope—we’ve let lackluster talks become the norm.

Giving a good presentation doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice scientific rigor in favor of entertainment. It just means that you should present unto others as you would have them present unto you. Imagine yourself in the audience of your own presentation. If part of your presentation feels too quick, or too esoteric, or too high-and-mighty, or too hard-to-follow, or too obfuscated, then for goodness sake, change it.

Especially if you’ve used Comic Sans.

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