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Feedback Loops for Better Talks

Feedback loops are a common concept in engineering. When it comes to giving talks, academics would do well to apply some of the thinking behind them to improve their output by observing how it deviates from the desired one, and making changes to adjust it.

I’ve been to a number of conferences lately that had a mix of speakers from design, journalism, and academia. It was striking that academics’ talks were consistently the most boring, poorly structured, and out of place. There are exceptions, of course, but most of them were just bad talks.

I can think of a few understandable reasons for this. Academic work is specialized and can be hard to apply directly. Academics are also often coy and careful not to make claims that go too far beyond what they have proof for, so they won’t turn their results into recipes or dos and don’ts. There is also a tendency to follow the structure of the paper in the talk, which guarantees that it will be poor.

It’s not a lack of experience, though. Giving talks is part of academics' jobs, they should be good at this. Most journalists don’t speak very often, and yet they tend to be much more interesting and passionate than academics. They have something to say and they know how to communicate.

The big issue seems to be a general lack of self-awareness and understanding of the audience. In other words, academics only tend to think about the input (their work) but not the output (the actual talk).

Enter the feedback loop: it observes the deviation between its current output and a desired value (its set point), and makes adjustments to its internal parameters. Any machine or device of any complexity uses feedback loops, usually dozens or hundreds or more. They go back to the times of steam engines and James Watt’s centrifugal governor, and even earlier than that.

Feedback Loop

What does that mean for giving a talk? First, you need to figure out the set point. What should the output even be? What does the audience want to hear? Who are they? This is what journalists and designers understand, but academics don't seem to.

But more than that, a talk isn't just about transmitting facts and findings, you also need to engage. You need to get the audience on your side. Make it fun to listen to you. I'm not arguing for empty fun, but substance isn't usually the problem for academics. Lighten things up a little and make it enjoyable!

It also means responding to the audience. Listening for cues from the audience, seeing whether they are listening or falling asleep, getting a sense if they are with you or if you've lost them. If you can't tell, ask. Get the feedback you need to adjust your output.

And it simply means being aware. Watching other people giving talks and noticing what they’re doing well or not so well is very educational. When you're suffering through the next terrible talk, take note of all the things that make it terrible. Now watch yourself and see how many of those things you do. You'll be surprised.

There is no reason academic talks need to be bad. Just applying some of the principles we know would make a huge difference. It’s not rocket science.

Posted by Robert Kosara on May 17, 2015.