Wednesday, February 22, 2012

dr. strange-talk (or how i stopped worrying and love my audience)

i've been giving a lot of talks lately.

after tomorrow, it will have been three talks in three weeks [1];
on top of that, each talk is newly written [2].

it's getting a little tiring [3] ..
.. and yes, i promise to stop with the footnotes now .. for a while, at least. q-:

if i've learned anything about giving talks in the last few weeks and months, it's that there is a trade-off at work:
  1. you can either be clear and never get through all you wanted to say;
  2. you can plow on, say what you want to say, lose more than half the audience, and probably go overtime.
(this isn't even accounting for questions from the audience, in the middle of the talk.  for some reason, this happens to me all the time.)

anyway, i've opted for option #1.  the operative word here, though, is all.  at this point, i think i'm already doing well if the audience actually remembers something from my talk.

let's face it:
metric spaces make a pretty abstract setting.  most people know this area as a playground for topologists and occasionally, gromov.  other than that, it's a bit mysterious.

like any other field of mathematics, it gets very technical very quickly.  if the audience is full of specialists, then sure: i can say what i want to say.

being a newish field, though, i've been reminded and re-reminded that apart from my immediate colleagues, nobody has ever heard of this stuff ..

there's also the context to consider:
at a conference or workshop, it's safe to assume that your audience is tired from the rigors of travel and stress.  besides, they're probably preoccupied with their own talks .. so half of them are probably not listening.

a quarter of them are probably confused by one of your first four definitions .. and if you're using slides, then they will be lost for the remainder of your talk. [4]
i think i'm being generous, here.

every one of these aspects is familiar to me.  i may be a rather unique (read: strange) person, but i like to think that some of my experience and bias is kin to others'.

this sounds like i'm giving up, but i'm not.  it's just that my expectations have changed.
i liken it to having taught undergrads for a while, planning for the possibility that some students will be curious about the subject, but being aware that most of them just want to get through the class.

it's not their fault: they want to do something else in life, and prefer to be curious about other things.

to think otherwise sounds like complaining about why the entire audience doesn't specialise in your field.

the only difference between you and your students is that you happen to have a ph.d. and suffered your share of misery for your achievement.

they, of course, have not: among other reasons, it's usually because they're younger than you.
that said, i know that tomorrow is my talk, that i will not get through half of what i wanted to discuss, but that doesn't matter.

i'm going to have fun.

i'll try to say why i think this stuff is cool,
give an idea of why it's hard,
and an idea of why the proof should work.

anyway, i still have a few pages to write .. so: back to it!

[1] a more precise count would be 2 weeks and 2 days, but my point persists.

[2] somehow it doesn't seem fair to use slides, if i am given two hours to talk.  what's the hurry?  as i told a colleague recently, i can think as fast as a chalkboard, but not as fast as a computer.

[3] to clarify, i mean "tiring" and not "tiresome" .. though audience members might agree with both.  you'll have to ask them. (-;

[4] odds are that few, if any, of us have thought about repeating a slide later on, just to remind the audience of an important technical point.  this is rarely a problem with chalkboards, of course ..

chalkboards: 1, slides: 0  .. ho ho!

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