Giving a Philosophy Talk


Ole Koksvik (Bergen), along with the help of friends, has put together a very useful set of tips for giving a philosophy talk.  I appreciated the “rationale” section, in which he notes, among other things, that “giving a bad presentation is impolite.”  There is some good advice throughout, much of which is consistent with the general rule that guides how I put together my presentations: “remember, philosophers are people, too.”

And while we’re on the subject of talks, let me (again?) draw your attention to this now classic post on how to ask a question at a talk.

Feel free to add your thoughts on the topic.

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Josh Parsons
6 years ago

Some excellent advice from Ole. I particularly like the emphasis on understanding the point of view of your audience.
As he says, he can afford to be opinionated because no-one has to do what he says, and so some people’s milage may differ. In particular, I wouldn’t headline “do NOT read”. Talking off the cuff works for some people and reading works for others – it depends on your prose style and your ability to talk coherently from notes.
I always read my papers; and I like to think I do it well (one reason for thinking this is that people who think that read papers are uniformly awful are often surprised to learn that I was reading). My technique is to go through the paper with a red pen (or the electronic equivalent) crossing out the boring bits and and starring points that will need a little impromptu explanation.
Then I just do all the good things that Ole suggests doing anyway: do a practice run-through with a stopwatch, speak standing up (a point that cannot be emphasised enough), make eye-contact with the audience, and think about what I’m saying as I read.
One thing Ole doesn’t mention, but which is the guilty secret of many a good presentation is “trapping”. Suppose you have to cut something (and you definitely always will if you are reading a paper). Why not cut some objections and your replies to them? As philosophers, we’re all trained to anticipate objections like crazy, so it goes against the grain to do this. But it works – if the objections are any good, then they audience will just come up with them in question time anyway, and it’ll stimulate discussion, and you have a perfectly crafted reply up your sleeve.
There’s also “reverse trapping”. Suppose there’s a devasting objection you don’t want to discuss, so you describe the objection during your presentation and say that you have a good reply that you had to cut for reasons of time, but “perhaps we can come back to it in question time”. No-one will ever take you up on this offer. This is, however, dark magic, and not to be used by the unwise.Report

Ole Koksvik
6 years ago

Thanks, Josh. I really like the trapping and reverse trapping points. I had meant to cover something similar under 3., but putting it explicitly in terms of objection and reply is useful.

I’ve heard the particular criticism you raise (don’t put so much weight on not reading) a few times. I headline it as I do because I think the read talks have among them the very worst offenders against audiences. Tthat goes equally for those who read off powerpoints; horrible.

I’m a bit loath to accept the dichotomy of talking’off the cuff vs reading. I intended to provide an alternative, namely to talk from a list of prepared dot-points. From what you’re saying, it seems that that’s pretty much what you end up doing anyway, after going through your mansucript with the red pen. But I guess there’s actually a spectrum of things one can do, from reading out verbatim, on the one hand, to speaking naturally, with or without the aid of a list of dot points, on the other. Perhaps the claim should be that it’s better to be toward the latter end than towards the former.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I’m not sure about the impolite claim, but it probably depends on how broadly “unnecessarily” is intended, since no one directly intends to make a bad presentation.

I don’t find the appeal to busy schedules convincing, since (1) as people with the luxury of taking glorified paid vacations that have a relatively low direct utility for their principal work duties, we’re doing quite well in the time department, (2) usually we’ve committed to a substantial conference-long chunk of time of which a single presentation is a small percentage, so our time is well used or wasted depending on the overall quality of the conference, not individual cases, (3) whether a presentation is worth my time may have more to do with the relevance of its topic to my research and the quality of the ideas, not primarily due to whether it’s interesting or boring, (4) presenters are often audience members and vice versa, so schedule inconveniences we endure in one role we benefit as the other, and (5), it takes much more time to prepare a great presentation, especially not read, than it takes to endure a boring one, so politeness should give priority to the presenter’s busy schedule, not the audience’s.

I also find the advice about not reading too simple. Good unread presentations may always be better than good read presentations. But in my experience, bad unread presentations are often the worst. The only excruciating experiences I’ve had were unread.

We might hope that by encouraging not reading as the norm, good unread presentations might become a basic skill in the profession. But I’m not so sure. We can all be good presenters when we teach, because we usually teach material we’re thoroughly familiar with, allowing us to speak easily about it and to focus most of preparation on the needs of our audience. But conference presentations are about work in progress, new arguments, ideas, and areas of interest: we don’t have the familiarity and mastery to present well, and we have to spend much more preparation time on the content than on the style.

In the end, I find most presentations boring in delivery and style regardless of whether they’re read or not. And I don’t really find “boring” that much of an objection, as long as the content is useful to me. I can’t imagine how I would read most of the literature in the field if I were oversensitive to boring style.

I was also a bit surprised about the advice not to pace around. Do you mean don’t walk around at all, or just “pace” in the sense of nervous repetitive movement? I ask because I’ve often heard that movement helps the audience pay attention–and it seems to be common in popular venues like TED talks. I don’t have an opinion one way or the other, just thought it sounded uncommon.Report

imprecise
imprecise
6 years ago

I’ve heard or read the point about pacing around a number of times. I think what is meant is don’t *constantly* pace around, back and forth, back and forth. You can move — and can use movement strategically — but don’t overdo it. I’ve only seen one TED talk, Amy Cuddy’s on power postures, and she moves, but not all the time. She often stands still.

I’ve done some team teaching and taught with people who pace constantly. It does get distracting.Report

Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
6 years ago

I like this idea behind this proposal very much, but have concerns that some of the recommendations are not very friendly to philosophers with disabilities, and wonder how this might be reconciled with other issues. Just to take one example — if a consequence of reading a quote out loud is that for at least some people, this results in divided attention and less retention or comprehension, it is also important to consider that if the quote isn’t read aloud, blind philosophers and low vision philosophers do not have access to this portion of the talk. Producing large print handouts isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and I do think it is important to consider how to improve talks *and* take into account accessibility for disabled philosophers — not that I think Ole is suggesting that accommodations for disabled philosophers ought to be disregarded here! I just want highlight the issue of accessibility for disabled philosophers, since it is often overlooked in discussions about how to give philosophy talks.Report

Ole Koksvik
Reply to  Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
6 years ago

That’s extremely useful. I’m a bit ashamed that I hadn’t thought about that at all. Revision required.Report

Amy
Amy
6 years ago

For me, and I assume for most others, the thing that most influences my level of interest/boredom at a talk is the content of the talk. Thus, I would add to the list of tips that speakers should be very careful to provide an accurate and informative TITLE for their talk, so they’re more likely to end up with audience members who have an interest in the content of the talk and who aren’t expecting the talk to be focused on something else. It’s also great when conferences provide abstracts in their programs.Report

Muhammad
Muhammad
6 years ago

I actually find the format of most philosophy conferences are rigged to be boring and unhelpful. Often we must submit 3000 word papers. And then for some reason these papers aren’t distributed beforehand. I already have a 20 minute document in my hand, what is motivating me to change that into a presentation?

Political Science conferences for instance do not force you into the confines of just 3000 words, they can be up to 5000-7000 words. You may ask “7000! That’s well over 20 minutes.” It is, but that’s because it’s just ASSUMED that you will present the barebones of your paper. And the presenter can be sure that the audience won’t miss out the subtleties of their paper because papers are distributed in ADVANCED and audience members are expected to have read the papers already. Usually a session in Political Science conference involves a 10 minute overview of important points the speaker would like to emphasize and then the rest of the time is spent in questions and discussion from a much better informed audience.Report

Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
Teresa Blankmeyer Burke
6 years ago

I’d be happy to give you feedback on a revision, or work with you on this if you’d like. It’s an important topic!Report