Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Watching one’s own talks on video

For readers who don't get beyond the first sentence, the take-home message is that it’s a great idea to watch videos of your own talks, for the purpose of improving your style and presentation.

The papers we write are very restricted in format. Indeed, a paper is pretty much determined by the result you’ve obtained. You get to name the variables, but that’s about it. Thereafter, you follow the well-worn path of introduction, model, results, and conclusions.

Contrast that with the activity of giving a talk on the work. Do you make jokes? Do you dress up? How much technical detail do you include? Do you compromise on accuracy for the purpose of conveying the intuition? Do you include cute animations in your slides? Do you stand primly to one side of the screen, or do you prefer to pace around? Do you sound informal and chatty, or grand and authoritative? Do you memorize any key passages? Decisions, decisions!

And, there are no right answers to the above questions; the answer depends on who you (and the audience) are, and what you’re talking about. Different approaches work for different people. And here’s where watching oneself on video can help.

I watched the video of my talk at the iAGT workshop mentioned in the previous post (and also here :-). And —this is the key point— various mistakes in the delivery of which I was blissfully unaware were suddenly exposed to the harsh light of day as a result. I then tracked down a video of a talk I gave at Microsoft Research (Cambridge) a few months ago, just for the purpose of gathering more data. The only previous time I watched myself give a talk was at a training session on lecturing quite a while ago, where a group of us had to give short fragments of undergraduate lectures, that were recorded and played back. At the time, the equipment was cumbersome and analogue, so you did not get to study your performance at leisure, at a later date. Also, it’s worth taking in a video lasting half an hour or so, to see if your style changes over time.

As it gets more common to record talks, you hopefully get more chances to do this. If not, maybe you should get a colleague to record one of your undergraduate lectures, or any other similar technical presentation.

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