Presentation Poetry

I attended a lunch talk on Tuesday in which the speaker opened by saying how much he enjoyed mathematical modeling. So much, in fact, that it had inspired him to write a poem, which he recited for us from his first slide. He was no T. S. Eliot, but that would have been a bit too much for a lunch talk anyway. As it was, the audience didn’t quite seem to know what to do with the poem, but there’s physicists for you.

Whenever I give a talk or present a poster I always try to search for some gimmick that will stand out in people’s minds, and give me a way to distinguish my message from that of the other talks or posters. I’ve never quite been able to do that to my own satisfaction. What I usually end up doing is taking particular care to produce well-designed, uncluttered slides and hoping the audience notices the difference. They probably don’t, since my ideal of scientific information design is to be neat and unobtrusive.

The best way to make an unforgettable impression is to get your audience to laugh at something entirely frivolous right at the start, but I think you need to have been a scientist for longer than I have if you want to get away with that and still be taken seriously. Starting off with a four-line poem, on the other hand, was cute and stylish. It was unobtrusive like good slide design, but not unnoticeable. It made those who could appreciate it smile; and those who couldn’t simply had a “What?” moment before the real scientific content started. It certainly didn’t detract from taking the speaker seriously.

Now, if only I could find a similar gimmick that fits my personality more than poetry.