Friday, February 11, 2011

Presentation Gurus: TED Conference

Watching outstanding scientific presentations is a good way to improve our own. In this first installment of the Presentation Gurus series I introduce a source of such talks, the TED conference. 

Described as "As they say in Boston it's like the Discovery Channel with beer", last night I went to Nerd Nite in Leipzig, Germany hoping to have a good laugh at science and some good German beer, but sadly I  only got good beer.   I came late to a talk on proteins and bacteria, which was good and I thought the night was just getting started. But I wasn't ready for what was about to come.

A woman taking about mythology in Peru  started reading behind the lectern. Reading! But it wasn't even poetry or prose.  It was more like a term-paper. Do some people still read their presentations speech-like? I'm told this no that uncommon in humanities and that the word Vorlesung (lecture) literary means reading-aloud. Clearly, the speaker had learned to present by looking at the professors and peers. This left me wondering if we learn to present by imitation.

If this is the case, welcome to the TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conference where good ideas are spread. TED is a great source of great talks, there are over 800 of them online. If we learn to present by imitation, this is the kind of people I want to imitate. Here is one talk on math that I like.

Mathematician Steven Strogatz on the science of synchronization
Steven Strogatz is a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University and  was until recently a occasional columnist for the New York Times.

I like Strogatz's interaction with the audience and the how he narrates while the video is playing. The video is an active part of his talk, not just decoration. Though there is no much mathematical depth in his talk, when I watched I kept craving for more, and yes, more mathematical details. If  instead he had gone directly to the math, maybe he might have lost his audience or least part of it. This craving for more is exactly what I think should be the feeling left on the audience after a scientific talk.

What are your thoughts on this talk? Do you have a favorite TED talk? Leave your comments below.

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