Two weeks ago, I argued that scientific papers are basically a waste of time. Today I’d like to generalize the results of that earlier post, by explaining why scientific talks are also a waste of time.
Let me set the scene for you. You arrive at the weekly colloquium eager to learn, like a cargo cult member who’s sure that this time the planes are going to land. But then, about fifteen minutes after the PowerPoint train has left the station, you start to get nervous: “Why are we stopping at all these unfamiliar little hamlets? Are we really headed for the place mentioned in the abstract?” You glance at your fellow passengers: are they as confused as you are? (You’d ask the guy sitting next to you, but he’s sound asleep.) Eventually the announcer comes on and … uh-oh! It seems the train is about to begin its long ascent up Mount Boredom, and you don’t have the prerequisites for this leg of the trip. Can you dodge the ticket collector? Too stressful! You get off, and the train roars past you, never to return.
Such was my experience again and again until three years ago, when I finally gave up on talks as a medium for scientific communication. These days, whenever I have to sit through one, I treat the speaker’s words as background music for my private fantasies and daydreams, unless the speaker chooses to interrupt with a novel idea.
But what about when I have to talk? To be honest, I haven’t intentionally perpetrated a research talk in years. Instead I do a stand-up comedy routine where you have to be a quantum computing expert to get the jokes. It’s like Seinfeld, except not that funny. So why does it work? Simple: because the crowd that expects to be bored is the easiest crowd on Earth.
Now one could argue that, by stuffing my talks with flying pigs and slide-eating black holes, I’ve been setting back the cause of scientific knowledge. But I don’t think so. See, the basic problem with talks is that they have no anti-boredom escape hatch. I mean, if you were chatting with a colleague who droned on for too long, you’d have several options:
- Change the subject.
- Say something like “yeah, I get it, but does this actually lead to a new lower bound?”
- Tap your fingers, study the wall patterns, etc.
- If all else fails, mention your immense workload, then excuse yourself and go back to reading weblogs.
The key point is that none of these tactics are inherently rude or insulting. All of us use them regularly; if we didn’t, it’d be impossible to tell when we were boring each other. Put differently, these tactics are part of the feedback and dialogue that’s essential to any healthy relationship:
“Was it good for you?”
“Could you maybe go a little faster?”
“Do you like it when I use this notation?”
The seminar speaker, by contrast, is a narcissist who verbally ravages his defenseless audience. Sure, it’s fine to interrupt with things like “Aren’t you missing an absolute value sign?,” or “How do you know A is Hermitian?” But have you ever raised your hand to say, “Excuse me, but would you mind skipping the next 20 slides and getting right to the meat?” Or: “This is boring. Would you please talk about a different result?”
(Incidentally, as my adviser Umesh Vazirani pointed out to me, when people get “lost” during a talk they think it means that the speaker is going too fast. But more often, the real problem is that the speaker is going too slow, and thereby letting the audience get mired in trivialities.)
So what’s the solution? (You knew there was going to be one, didn’t you?) My solution is to replace talks by “conversations” whenever possible. Here’s how the Aaronson system works: you get five minutes to tell your audience something unexpected. (Usually this will involve no slides, just a board.) Then, if people have questions, you answer them; if they want details, you provide them. At any time, anyone who’s no longer interested can get up and leave (and maybe come back later), without being considered a jerk. When there are no further questions, you sit down and give someone else a chance to surprise the audience.
If you don’t think this system would work, come visit our quantum algorithms lunch at Waterloo, Tuesdays at 11:30 in the BFG seminar room. Bring a result or open problem.