Yesterday we went to see a chat with Alan Alda and KC Cole at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, as advertised by Clifford here. Alda was apparently some kind of TV actor back in the day, but he is also quite the science aficionado — hosting Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, and originating the role of Richard Feynman in Peter Parnell’s play QED.
The most interesting story we heard was one that happened just the day before, when Alda and Cole visited with some students at USC’s engineering school. Apparently it was quite a day, beginning with short presentations by each of the students about the work they were doing. After the presentations, Alda led the students through a series of improvisation exercises from Viola Spolin’s classic workbook. After which, the students were asked to give their presentations again! Apparently (I have to take their word for it), the first time around the students were pretty darn good, but the second time they truly came to life.
Giving talks, or presenting ideas more generally, is one of the necessary skills of academic life that we usually presume one just picks up on street corners. The idea that, for example, college professors should learn how to teach classes would be an anathema to most actual college professors. But there is a lot of skill involved, and practice and learning can really make a difference. (The same would go for writing papers, or being an advisor, or a thousand other aspects of being a professor.)
My favorite part of the chat was Alda’s admonition to scientists to “Show the Love.” He was moved by the evident passion for their work exhibited by the students, but recognized that it didn’t always come through during scientific presentations. So here is some simple advice to young scientists giving talks: show the love! (Good advice to old scientists, too, but there’s no hope they would listen.) Let it be clear that you are absolutely fascinated by this work you are doing. You’re not in it for the money and fame, one presumes. Don’t look at a talk as a terrifying ordeal to be stoically survived; look at it as a chance to share some of your passion with other people who haven’t delved as deeply into the material as you have. I know we’re not supposed to use icky words like “love” in the rigorously austere corridors of professional physics, but this is a case where a little culture-changing wouldn’t hurt anybody.
And if you’re not all that passionate about what you’re doing — switch to doing something you really do love.
Update: Jennifer adds more words, plus an amusing cartoon, and an annoying poem.