Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Grad students: Learn how to give a talk

I've been to roughly a hundred academic conferences and listened to thousands of talks, mostly by grad students. Over the years, the quality of the speaking and presentations has not gotten any better -- if anything, it's gotten worse. A typical grad student talk is so horribly bad, and it's surprising how little effort is put into working on presentation and speaking skills, especially given how important this skill is for academics.

Grad students need to learn how to give good, clear, compelling presentations. Especially those who think they want to be professors one day.

It is difficult to overstate how important presentation skills are for academics. This is about much more than "being a good teacher" (which is a nice trait to have, but not actually that important for an academic's career in the long run). There is a huge division between the professors who are influential leaders, and those who are also-rans. In almost all cases that I can think of, the professors who are very successful are also good speakers, and good communicators overall. They can give good, clear, funny talks. They can engage in meaningful conversations at a technical level and at a personal level. They have a strong command of English and can use the language effectively to communicate complex ideas. So I claim that there is a strong correlation between good communication skills and overall research impact.

In some sense, a professor's job is to communicate the research ideas being done in their group. Although grad students often give the conference talks, professors give countless other talks at other universities, companies, workshops, and elsewhere. The professors write the grant proposals, and often the papers (or good chunks of them) as well. Once you're a professor, it matters a lot less how good of a hacker you are -- your job is to be the PR rep.

So it's surprising that grad students generally receive no formal training in presentation skills. A typical grad student might get three or four opportunities to give conference talks during their Ph.D., but this is hardly enough practice to hone their skills. Acting as a TA or giving "practice talks" isn't much help either. I honestly don't know how to fix this problem, short of running a course specifically on giving good presentations, which sounds like a drag -- but might be necessary.

The language barrier is a big part of the problem. Students who do not have English as their first language are almost invariably worse at giving talks than those who are native speakers, and students from Asia tend to be worse than those from Europe. (In academic Computer Science, English is the only language that matters.) But it's more than just command of the language -- it's about being expressive, funny, charismatic. The grad student who stands frozen in place and reads off their slides might speak English perfectly well, but that doesn't make them a good speaker.

It's also true that grad students are often "sized up" at conferences based on their speaking skills. If you can give a good talk at a conference, you'll get the attention of the professors who will be looking at your faculty job application later. Likewise, if your talk sucks, it's going to leave a bad impression (or, at best, you'll be forgettable).

So, please, grad students: If you're serious about pursuing an academic career, hone your presentation skills. This stuff matters more than you know.