Do's and Don'ts for Brief Research Talks
(Notes From Gordon H. Bower, Ph.D.)
- A talk is not a written JEP paper. Talks have an informal narrative style
and are dramatic rather than detailed or completely informative. Don't read
your speech, speak it from memory.
- The model for the short speech is the campfire story, the teller of a
mystery, or a comedians skit -- not the reciter of an encyclopedia.
- You must be very selective of what you say. Most short speeches can barely
carry one main idea plus its support. Resist the temptation to tell everything
you know or every thought you had. Only the most interesting and important
thing can be said.
- Talk informally as though you were telling your grandmother what you did
and why. Complexity of expression is uncorrelated with wisdom, intelligence
and originality, but its perfectly correlated with audience puzzlement and
- A narrative style is preferable in talks. Research is done to tell a story,
going from problem, goal, plan through actions, observations, to outcomes,
resolution, and a conclusion. Avoid written journal-style organization.
- Prepare your first two sentences as if they were a Madison-Avenue advertisement
for you and your talk. Grab the audience in these first sentences. Example
of weak start: "The research I will tell you about stems from earlier
work by Johnson published in Cognitive Psychology which led to a lot of
follow ups; and I want to thank my collaborators Jim and Dorothy."
A better start: "How do we understand language? How can I figure out
the meaning of what you say? Some people believe we have a mental dictionary
with fixed entries and we assemble meanings out of this. Another theory
is that we only have flexible procedures which decompose compound phonetic
strings into basic morphemes from which we compute meaning..."
- Get interest and attention first, with a rhetorical question, anecdote,
or startling statement or paradox. Assume your audience is an undergraduate
Intro Psych class.
- In planning your talk consider these stages:
- Write on paper slips main ideas and points to be made.
- Assemble into an outline and fill it out.
- Revise outline concentrating on transitions.
- Write out your speech as you would speak it (use oral and not written
- Make a new outline from the revised talk.
- Practice giving talk from outline.
- Practice out loud in front of mirror with clock. Keep it to the time
- Learn to give the talk with just outline notes, preferably on one
- Use visual aids (overhead transparencies or slides, but NOT both). Keep
visuals simple, clear and obvious. Keep text to a few sentences. Don't clutter
with irrelevancies. Use large print (at least 25 point). If you have lots
of results you must show, use many slides, not one cluttered slide.
- Put up a slide only the moment before you want to refer to it. Give the
audience time to read it or read it to them. Remove slide when you want
audience to attend again to you.
- If a within-trial procedure is complicated, show a concrete illustration
in a visual. If the series of events in an experiment is long and complicated,
show a diagram of it.
- In narrative talks, descriptive and inferential statistics should be repressed.
Speak "eyeball-effects" rather than F-values. Say "These
words were remembered much better than these" NOT "The mean recall
for the two categories was 8.75 and 4.37, resulting in an F of 13.8 which
with 1 and 14 degrees of freedom was statistically significant at the .01
level." A better attitude towards description is "Holy Baloney!
Look at that!"
- State the problem being investigated in concrete, specific terms. Help
the audience understand specifics before generalizing (if you ever do).
- Describe exactly what responses your subject was making, perhaps give
one or two concrete illustrations of materials for different trial types.
That helps the audience instantiate the abstractions (you shouldn't be talking
- You are not duty-bound to describe every condition, result or analysis
of your experiment. In particular, suppress complication, unresolved loose
ends, and incomprehensible results. Your goal is to tell a simple coherent
story, to interest and entertain, not to tell the complete unvarnished messy
- Summarize your main idea and then clearly conclude. Make it completely
obvious that you have finished (eg., by stepping back, smiling and saying
'Thank you'). Ask, 'Are there any questions?' Then wait a long time.
- Don't worry about tough questions: they almost never come.
- If a question comes you don't know about, it's okay to say "I don't
know" or "That's a tough one I haven't thought about, I'll need
to think about that" or "That's a fine idea -- worth trying in
an experiment." You don't have to have instant answers for everything.
If you don't understand a questioner, ask them to rephrase it so you can
understand. If someone asks three questions, answer any one of them and
- Plant at least one pithy question with a friend so he/she can direct it
to you in case no one else pops up with a quick question. Sometimes the
audience needs time to think of some question to ask about.
- Smile, be and appear friendly and glad to be there. Dress sharp, but comfortably.
Speak loud enough and slow enough; articulate and clearly. Have fun.
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