I just spent four days at the 3rd North American Congress of Epidemiology which is a meeting of four major epidemiological societes–i.e. there were a lot of people there and a lot of talks.
Tara Smith over at Aetiology has a good recap of how an otherwise wonderful conference was weak on social media but I want to address a more general point. A point that isn’t even directed towards epidemiology in general.
At some point in history, someone decided that giving a good speech had more in common with reading from a book or article than having a conversation. Why? I would guess because maybe people sound smarter when they speak like a book. The problem is that reading and speaking are two very different activities, even discounting the obvious.
When people write, they can pack their ideas in densely using very specific words and phrases in order to get their point across as concisely as possible. You can do that when you’re writing because the reader, if he or she hasn’t understood what you’re talking about, can go back and reread what they haven’t understood. That’s not to say that there are still some people who still can’t be understood no matter how many times you reread them!
But people aren’t used to being spoken to in such a dense way. Conversation flows in a very different way from writing. When you’re actually speaking with someone, it’s easy to pick up on body language to know if they have understood you or not and repeat what you think they might be confused about. When you’re standing up on a podium, it’s difficult to gauge what the audience has picked up or hasn’t picked up (which is why I think most talks should include audience feedback during the presentation). In that case it’s the speaker’s responsibility to make the talk mimic a conversation although, clearly, without the convenience of another person.
My bottom line is that when anyone presents their research they should sound less like a book and more like they’re talking to the audience in a pub after one pint of delicious beer. If you’re an epidemiologist presenting to epidemiologists, think about how you speak to other epidemiologists at the bar at end of a conference (as I’m preparing to do tonight!). Or if you’re an epidemiologist presenting to a general audience, think about the last time someone asked you about your research when you were out with friends. And if you’re an epidemiologist and you’ve never been to a bar, you don’t exist.
This doesn’t just go for epidemiologists either. Feel free to replace epidemiologist in the last paragraph with anything, cosmologist, cosmetologist or Costa Rican.