How To Get More From Attending Academic Talks

Some philosophy talks are exciting, others are dull. It’s pretty easy to tune out of the dull ones. But once you tune out of a talk, it is difficult to follow the argument when you tune back in,and so you just end up sitting there wasting your time. As Ravi Vakil, a professor of math at Stanford puts it, “Talks are like horses: once you are thrown off, it is hard to get back on. Especially if the horse is stomping on your face.”

Accordingly, Vakil’s first tip for getting value out of talks is to arrive on time so you don’t miss their main points or the set-up of their arguments.

He also recommends people try what he calls the “Three Things” exercise—an attention-directing technique. He says:

If you can get even three small things out of a talk, it is a successful talk. And if you can’t get even three small things out of a talk, it was not a successful experience. Note that the things you get out of a talk needn’t be the things that your neighbor got out of a talk, or the things the speaker expected you to get out of the talk.

How do you do this exercise? At the next talk you go to,

Take a clean sheet of paper, or an index card. Your goal is to have three things, and only three things, on this sheet at the end of the talk…. As you watch the talk, look out for “things” you like. When one comes your way, write it down. Then later write down a second. Then write down a third. Hopefully a fourth will come your way—and then you must look over the previous three, and decide which one must be cut. 

Among those three things could be a definition of a concept used in the talk, a controversial assertion, an example, counterexample, a motivating problem, a question you want to ask, and so on.

Vakil notes that having your friends and colleagues do these exercises can be valuable, too. After the talk:

if other people are playing, send each other your things by email (or discuss them in person). It is surprisingly enlightening. And there will likely be some follow-up discussion. It doesn’t take much time.

You can read more about the idea here (via @gravbeast).

Let me emphasize the point about writing out your questions. Whether one uses this “Three Things” technique or not, it is a very good idea to write down your questions, or at least practice them in your head before you ask them out loud. One reason for this is that your question will be better formulated and clearer, more likely to be understood by the speaker, and more likely to generate a useful answer. But another reason is that your question is more likely to be concise and to the point, leaving more time for answers to other good questions. (Not to mention that it is extraordinarily rude to everyone else to ramble on for 2 or 3 or 10 minutes finding your way to what you want to ask.)

Another suggestion is that, if you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter of the talk, you should do a little research about the topic beforehand. Even something like reading the relevant Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries can supply background context that will allow you to get more out of the talk.

Two other minor suggestions: first, sitting closer to the speaker may help you focus better on the talk. The speaker’s voice will be clearer and louder and your increased visibility to the speaker will likely encourage you to try your darndest not to zone out. Second, chewing gum may help you pay attention to the talk.

Your suggestions?

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7 years ago

Perhaps these aren’t the kind of suggestions you’re asking for, but I’m frequently taken aback by the kinds of things presenters do to make it difficult to get something out of the talk in the first place. (1) When a presenter “gives a talk” by way of reading the paper out loud, I find it very difficult to follow. (2) When a presenter has particularly bad public speaking skills–such as appearing not even to have attempted to correct distracting habits (swaying, wiggling, turning one’s back and talking toward an empty corner of the room–I’ve seen examples of all these), I find I have to work a good bit harder to try to follow.

Vakil does give some helpful tips (the gum thing was new to me), but surely some of the burden of the audience getting more out of the talk falls on the shoulders of the presenter, no?