Leap into nude lecturing - a true extreme sport

December 19, 2003

Tim Birkhead finds that practice makes perfect when it comes to exposing yourself in a room full of people

Lecturing nude is not something I would recommend. But every time you get up to give a presentation it is like being stark-bollock naked - full exposure - and it means having to make the most of your every attribute.

Like most departments we have a regular series of seminars. I recently noticed that someone well known was coming to talk. The topic was one close to my heart and since the speaker had a good research reputation, I anticipated a stimulating and informative performance.

But with a sinking heart, I knew within the first minutes the talk was going to be tedious. How could I tell? There were three clues: the opening PowerPoint image was about as aesthetic as pavement pizza; the speaker's voice was flat; and they failed to make eye contact with the audience.

Judging from the grumbles among my colleagues and undergraduates as we left the lecture theatre, everyone agreed this was a disappointing lecture and that the speaker had massacred a potentially great topic. Not only had we wasted our time, the speaker had damaged their own reputation and had discouraged a cohort of undergraduates from pursuing a particular topic.

Following a few simple rules would have transformed this from a catastrophic to a competent talk.

There are several reasons why academics give a bad talk: (i) they don't care; (ii) they don't know it is bad; (iii) insufficient time to prepare; (iv) genuinely sick; (v) nerves: this is excusable, especially among inexperienced speakers and at big venues. The solution is to practise at smaller venues first. All speakers should be a bit nervous and, if they are skilful, they will harness the adrenaline rush to give a great performance.

How can young researchers make sure they give good talks?

First, if your research council offers a course on communicating science - do it! I went on the one run by the Natural Environment Research Council and it was outstanding. Second, make use of your PhD supervisor. The rule for supervisors is this: never let a PhD student go to a conference without your listening to their talk first. It sounds obvious, but I wonder how often it happens. I get my students to give their talks in a lecture theatre or in my office. I make a list of everything that's good and bad about it, including structure, PowerPoint images, timing, choice of words and so on and then they go away and revise it. Four hours later they return and give the talk again. We repeat the process until I feel that the performance cannot be improved. If I'm at the meeting where they are speaking, I will also provide feedback - tactfully.

Students can take some initiative too. When they go to someone else's talk they should note what made that talk good or bad. Making a conscious effort to decide what makes a good talk and how that maps onto your own attributes is essential self-instruction. We are all different, academics have different lecturing styles and what works for one person might not work for another, but everyone knows a good talk from a bad one.

Giving an academic lecture at a conference or departmental seminar is an extreme sport. It sounds like the antithesis of sky-diving, but these are very similar pursuits and you shouldn't consider doing either without first practising. After a successful performance both can result in a euphoric rush but, equally, both can be a disaster. Of all the traits a young academic needs, the ability to address an audience is crucial. And lecturing nude? My advice is, don't. But if you have to, make sure your attributes are as well crafted as Michelangelo's David or those of the Venus de Milo .

Tim Birkhead is professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Sheffield. His book, The Red Canary , which describes the first genetically modified animal, was published in August.

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