Organisms before questions: a case for restructuring talks at academic conferences

I’m a relatively novice conference-goer, having been to a total of five conferences in my time in academia. Three were when I was an undergrad, and found everything interesting. Two have been as a third/fourth year grad student, where I’ve become either more cynical or more discerning in my response to talks (which adjective I pick depends on my mood). I no longer find everything interesting. In fact, I might go so far as to say that I’ve found a majority of the talks at the conferences I’ve been to recently not very compelling.

But it’s unlikely that the reason I find conference talks uncompelling is because I find the actual science or the study organisms uncompelling. I say this because I’ve been working now for over six months on the Creature Feature column for The Hindu Businessline’s BLink magazine–in writing this column, it is my job to find any creature compelling. Each month, I pick an organism. Sometimes, I decide beforehand what aspect of the creature I want to focus on e.g. odd foraging tactics in herons. In other cases, I read anything I can find on the creature, as I did for my upcoming piece on Desert Jirds (link soon!), or read as much as I can, as for these earlier pieces on Golden Orb Web Spiders or Dung Beetles. In none of these situations has it been at all difficult to find something interesting about the organism–there is always a story to tell.

That, I think, is the crux of the problem: academic talks often don’t tell stories*. Sure, they’re based on the format of an academic paper, and that paper is likely telling a story, but I’m now convinced that a story told in three to 20 pages of text cannot be told in 12 minutes of talk if that talk sticks to the academic-paper format of “Introduction,” “Methods,” “Results,”  and “Discussion.” Boiled down, I think the reason that academic talks at conferences often fail at telling stories is that they insist on putting questions before system, putting the “Introduction”  before the “Study Organism”  section.

Academia demands that one’s research be broadly applicable, and in couching our research as broadly applicable, we must think of the big, outstanding questions that our research fits into. But in an academic conference, where the audience sits through some 20+ talks per day, each of which starts with three slides explaining some fundamental concepts in biology, we become awash in big questions with nothing tangible to moor ourselves to. By the time the speaker gets around to describing their study organism, the big concepts they started with are lost in a sea of other big questions in my mind. If the speaker then fails to make an absolutely airtight connection between their work and the big question they started with, I am left with no idea why I should care about this research.

My two favourite 12 minute talks at the Animal Behaviour Society 2014 Meeting motivated their research by their study organisms, and not by a big concept. If you start by showing me an organism, then I can imagine any abstract biological concept you may go on to describe as applied to that organism. That is exactly what you want me to imagine, because that is exactly where your talk is going. Take as an example, Danielle Klomp’s talk at ABS 2014 about camouflage in Gliding Lizards. I actually missed the first few minutes of her talk so I have no idea what her first slides were, but when I came in, she was describing this curious observation that the colours of the lizards’ gliding membranes were wildly different in the two populations she was sampling at, and that these colours seemed to match the colours of falling leaves in each population. This very tangible observation motivated the rest of her talk. She went on to talk about some broader biological concepts–predator avoidance and local adaptation–but by showing me the lizards she was studying first, I could imagine a small hawk attacking those very same lizards in the forests of Borneo as she discussed predator avoidance. If I had heard about predator avoidance before I heard about the lizards, I’d likely have visualised hawks chasing after Peromyscus mice in sand dunes in Florida instead. I would then have completely lost the image, and with it the concepts at issue, when switching over to learning about and imagining the so-much-cooler Gliding Lizards.

A recent post at Small Pond Science suggests that at many academic conferences, a substantial proportion of the talks are all about “the same. exact. damn. idea.” I agree completely, and moreover think that this similarity is only exacerbated by everyone starting with the same definitions and the same conceptual slides. The above post goes on to suggest that speakers take risks by talking more about big ideas, and while I am all in favour of riskier, bolder talks, it’s worth recognizing that many of us may not have big ideas or be in a position to share them at a conference. What almost all of us do have is a study organism, and focussing on this unique study organism instead of the same big questions that everyone is asking can help us do a better job of differentiating ourselves from the crowd, and of giving a compelling talk.**

*I’m referring here to regular 12 minute conference talks, not to 40 minutes seminar talks or plenaries, which are too long to tell without some sort of story.

**A slightly obnoxious disclosure: my own talks at these recent conferences began with descriptions of my fantastically charismatic study organisms, the Fan-Throated Lizards. But the choice wasn’t intentional, really. I just figured that starting with them was the easiest way of describing my very preliminary research. But my colleague Yoel Stuart pointed out that he liked how I motivated my talk with the organism and not the questions, and many of the thoughts in this post are based on the ensuing discussion with him. Conversations with my colleague Dan Rice have also influenced these ideas.

[Addendum: this post is getting much more attention than I imagined it would, so I think it’s worth adding a couple of clarifications. First, stories and data are not mutually exclusive, and I’m not suggesting focussing on stories at the expense of data. Second, starting with one’s study organism is not a panacea for all ills that may befall one’s talk. It’s perfectly possible to start by describing your study organism and still give an uncompelling talk, just as it is also perfectly possible to start with a big question and give an excellent talk.

Addendum 2: as the viewership of this post grows terrifyingly large, here’s another clarification. I’m ABSOLUTELY NOT saying that the big questions aren’t important. They’re crucial, and must be explored. All I’m saying is that starting with your study organism might be an effective way of carrying your audience to those big questions.]

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