what I learned from preparing for a semi-plenary talk

I recently blogged about a semi-plenary talk I gave at the German OR Society Conference. This post is about the process of preparing for that presentation.

First I thought about the story I wanted to tell. I’ve given a lot of research talks before. I understand the general plot of a research talk, but a semi-plenary was not a regular research talk. I wasn’t initially sure how to tell a story in a new way. I asked a wise colleague for advice, which was excellent:

  1. Think about your favorite plenary talks. Model your talk after that (including the amount of math to include in the talk).
  2. Think of the talk as a series of 30 second elevator talks. Let those messages structure your story.
  3. Your audience will want to feel that they’ve learned something. What are the takeaways?

I found that creating an initial set of slides wasn’t so bad once I decided in the story I wanted to tell. I have given so many talks before that I had a huge set of slides that I could pull from. I had too many slides and could not fit into the time slot, and editing and pruning my slides was pure torture.

A few months ago, I read a post by an academic blogger who had recently given a plenary talk. I can’t find the post now but I remember that it took about 40 hours to create a one hour talk. This reminded me of an earlier post on teaching MOOCs (How college is like choosing between going to the movies and Netflix), where an enormous amount of time goes into a single lecture.

Here is why it took so long. I noticed that every time I removed a slide or combined a few slides into a single slide, it affected the story narrative in a major way. In a regular research talk, I find it easy to pick a few details to leave out. Not the case this time. Rather than condense the story, I eventually left some topics out all together or turned the insights from a  paper into a couple of bullet points on a slide. Finding the right balance of detail and insight was a constant challenge.

I ended up having almost no math in my talk. I decided that insights were more important that going through technical details.

I recreated almost all of the visuals from my slides in previous talk. It’s not that my visuals were total crap, it’s just that there was just too much detail and notation in previous figures I made for research talks. I didn’t want confusing visuals getting in the way of the story. Sometimes I added a picture to illustrate an idea or insight that was technical in nature rather than launching into a long narrative to explain a simple point. Here is an example of a new visual explaining the concept of ambulance response times and coverage:

Example of a conceptual slide I used in my talk.

Example of a conceptual slide I used in my talk.

Other times i just needed to make a simpler version of a figure or table that allowed me to look at a single curve or to compare two things, instead of a busier figure that works in a regular research talk. At one point, I changed a figure with four subfigures into a single figure by omitting the other three subfigures. I make nearly all of my figures with Matlab and save my code so that I can easily recreate figures for presentations or paper revisions. Remaking figures wasn’t too taxing, but remaking a lot of figures took some time.

Finally, I learned so much about my research when giving this talk. The end my my talk answered two questions:

  1. Where is emergency medical service research in OR going?
  2. Where does emergency medical service research in OR need to go?

I think about high level issues all the time (after all, I frequently write proposals!). But this was different: I was talking about places where this entire line of research is going, not just mine. When I was answering the question “Where does emergency medical service research in OR need to go?” when making my slides, I learned that my research had already made progress in the right direction. Not all of my ideas are in line with the where this line of research needs to go, and it was worthwhile to realign my priorities.

 

Related posts:

  1. Do you have a 30 second elevator talk about your research?
  2. The most important 30 seconds of your dissertation defense

 

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