Keeping It Colloquial

In the corners of academia where I hang out, a colloquium is a special kind of talk. Most talks we give are part of weekly seminars for specific groups. For example, the theoretical particle physicists here have a seminar. Each week we invite a speaker, who gives a talk on their recent work. Since they expect an audience of theoretical particle physicists, they can go into more detail.

A colloquium isn’t like that. Colloquia are talks for the whole department: theorists and experimentalists, particle physicists and biophysicists. They’re more prestigious, for big famous professors (or sometimes, for professors interviewing for jobs…). The different audience, and different context, means that the talk plays by different rules.

Recently, I saw a conference full of “colloquium-style” talks, trying to play by these rules. Some succeeded, some didn’t…and I think I now have a better idea of how those rules work.

First, in a colloquium, you’re not just speaking for yourself. You’re an ambassador for your field. For some of the audience, this might be the first time they’ve heard a talk by someone who does your kind of research. You want to give them a good impression, not just about you, but about the whole topic. So while you definitely want to mention your own work, you want to tell a full story, one that gives more than a glimpse of what others are doing as well.

Second, you want to connect to something the audience already knows. With an audience of physicists, you can assume a certain baseline, but not much more than that. You need to make the beginning accessible and start with something familiar. For the conference I mentioned, a talk that did this well was the talk on exoplanets, which started with the familiar planets of the solar system, classifying them in order to show what you might expect exoplanets to look like. In contrast, t’Hooft’s talk did this poorly. His work is exploiting a loophole in a quantum-mechanical argument called Bell’s theorem, which most physicists have heard of. Instead of mentioning Bell’s theorem, he referred vaguely to “criteria from philosophers”, and only even mentioned that near the end of the talk, instead starting with properties of quantum mechanics his audience was much less familiar with.

Moving on, then, you want to present a mystery. So far, everything in the talk has made sense, and your audience feels like they understand. Now, you show them something that doesn’t fit, something their familiar model can’t accommodate. This activates your audience’s scientist instincts: they’re curious now, they want to know the answer. A good example from the conference was a talk on chemistry in space. The speaker emphasized that we can see evidence of complex molecules in space, but that space dust is so absurdly dilute that it seems impossible such molecules could form: two atoms could go a billion years without meeting each other.

You can’t just leave your audience mystified, though. You next have to solve the mystery. Ideally, your solution will be something smart, but simple: something your audience can intuitively understand. This has two benefits. First, it makes you look smart: you described a mysterious problem, and then you show how to solve it! Second, it makes the audience feel smart: they felt the problem was hard, but now they understand how to solve it too. The audience will have good feelings about you as a result, and good feelings about the topic: in some sense, you’ve tied a piece of their self-esteem to knowing the solution to your problem. This was well-done by the speaker discussing space chemistry, who explained that the solution was chemistry on surfaces: if two atoms are on the surface of a dust grain or meteorite, they’re much more likely to react. It was also well-done by a speaker discussing models of diseases like diabetes: he explained the challenge of controlling processes with cells, when cells replicate exponentially, and showed one way they could be controlled, when the immune system kills off any cells that replicate much faster than their neighbors. (He also played the guitar to immune system-themed songs…also a good colloquium strategy for those who can pull it off!)

Finally, a picture is worth a thousand wordsas long as it’s a clear one. For an audience that won’t follow most of your equations, it’s crucial to show them something visual: graphics, puns, pictures of equipment or graphs. Crucially, though, your graphics should be something the audience can understand. If you put up a graph with a lot of incomprehensible detail: parameters you haven’t explained, or just set up in a way your audience doesn’t get, then your audience gets stuck. Much like an unfamiliar word, a mysterious graph will have members of the audience scratching their heads, trying to figure out what it means. They’ll be so busy trying, they’ll miss what you say next, and you’ll lose them! So yes, put in graphs, put in pictures: but make sure that the ones you use, you have time to explain.

2 thoughts on “Keeping It Colloquial

  1. karlshak

    My favorite advice on how to give a colloquium type talk while still giving the experts a little something was that you should start with something your non scientist neighbor could understand then successively leave them, undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, non specialist professors, specialists, and finally yourself in the dust.

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  2. ohwilleke

    “(or sometimes, for professors interviewing for jobs…)”

    This practice was widespread in each of the several academic institution with which I have interacted in any depth.

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