How your bad scientific talk makes me feel

While clearing out the loft over the Christmas period, I found an old wire-bound notepad from my PhD. It had been used to record key points from seminars, conferences and so on. Flicking through, one entry made me smile. Unsurprisingly, I can’t really remember the specific talk I’m referring to in this entry. I do, however, know only too well the feeling of attempted concentration giving way to sheer critique (and eventually, complete indifference) – a frightening number of talks make me feel this way.

I wrote this long before I’d even considered blogging, and it has sat in my loft for several years since. Before it becomes recycled paper, I thought it was worth transcribing so that at least something comes of the lousy conference talk that wasted an hour of my time one January morning:


As the speaker chortled to his cronies on the front row, rambling on about how the members of his research team were “rarely in the same time zone” (guffaw, guffaw), all I could think was “I don’t care! You have forty-five minutes to convince me why your work is important and interesting. So far, everything you’ve said is irrelevant and to be honest, it’s making everyone except the two people you know feel pretty uncomfortable. Tell us something fascinating!”

But he didn’t. He showed us what seemed like a thousand plots, skimmed over umpteen equations and talked in obscure, unfathomable abbreviated terms. He works on one of the most beautiful, amazing groups of birds – the hummingbirds – and yet he has managed to drain every shred of curiosity from me.

A few benevolent members of the audience murmured a chuckle as he commented on the unnecessary complexity of his inscrutable phylogenetic tree. I, however, found myself fighting the urge to stand up and bark: “Are you serious? If we really “don’t need to worry about it”, why show it? Have you even thought about us – your audience – for a moment? Do you want us to remember you and your work? Do you want us to leave thinking you actually do something worthwhile?!”

I managed to contain these silent outbursts. My aggression has begun to subside. Slowly, I have become numbed to the core by his seemingly endless sermon. I have spent the last ten minutes writing this to avert the feeling that my face is melting, but now I am imagining myself as a hummingbird, desperate for nectar. I hope there is wine at lunch.


Never one to miss the chance for a bit of self-promo, if you would like some tips on how to avoid leaving your audience numbed to the core and desperate for wine, here are ten of mine: Nicola Hemmings’ Top Ten Tips for Giving a Great Talk.




2 thoughts on “How your bad scientific talk makes me feel

  1. Having taken the behaviour module in Level 1 of my zoology degree at Sheffield I have had the fortune to attend your lectures. They are amazing! You are so animated and clearly enjoying yourself – you are easily one of my favourite lecturers. Clearly you learnt a lot from Hummingbird guy, even if it wasn’t quite what he hoped you would learn.


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