How I view an academic talk: like a sports game

Jeff Leek

I know this is a little random/non-statisticsy but I have been thinking about it a lot lately. Over the last couple of weeks I have been giving a bunch of talks and guest lectures here locally around the Baltimore/DC area. Each one of them was to a slightly different audience.

As I was preparing/giving all of these talks I realized I have a few habits that I have developed in the way I view the talks and in the way that I give them. I 100% agree with Hilary M. that a talk should entertain more than it should teach. I also try to give talks that I would like to see myself.

Another thing I realized is that I view talks in a very specific way. I see them as a sports game. From the time I was a kid until the end of graduate school I was on sports teams. I love playing/watching all kinds of sports and I definitely miss playing competitively.

Unfortunately, being a faculty member doesn’t leave much time for sports. So now, the only chance I have to get up and play is during a talk. Here are the ways that I see the two activities as being similar:

  1. They both require practice. I played a lot of sports with this guy who liked the quote, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect”. I feel the same way.
  2. They are both a way to entertain. I rarely played in front of crowds as big as the groups I speak to these days, but whenever there was an audience I would always get way more pumped up.
  3. There is some competition to both. In terms of talks, there is always at least one audience member who wants to challenge your ideas. I see this exchange as a game, rather than something I dread. Sometimes I win (my answers cover all the questions) and sometimes I lose (I missed something important). Usually, being prepared is associated with better practice.
  4. I get a rush off of both playing in games and giving talks. Part of that is self fueled. I like to listen to pump up music right before I give a talk or play a game.

One thing I wish is that more talks were joint talks. One thing I love about sports is playing on a team. The preparation of a talk is always done with a team - usually the students/postdocs/collaborators working on the project. But I wish presentations were more often a team activity. It makes it more fun to celebrate if the talk went well and less painful if I flub when I give a talk with someone else. Plus it is fun to cheer on your team mate.

Does anyone else think of talks this way? Or do you have another way of thinking about talks?