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Woos and boos: my research talks

June 24, 2014

Coming back to the research-life stories project I intend to write a few (three that currently come to mind) more stories of my own, hoping that they will inspire more stories by others.

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My first research project progressed very quickly. A few months after I started working with Moni, I found myself writing my first paper (having only read very few papers before), and then preparing my first research talk (having attended very few research talks before). My first talk was at Weizmann, where I managed to utterly confuse some of the most brilliant scientists of our generation. During the talk I apologized and Adi Shamir said something to the effect of “it’s not you it’s us.” After the talk, Oded Goldreich made sure I will not be misled by Adi’s gallantry 🙂 Indeed, it wasn’t them – it was all me. I learnt some valuable lessons about research talks (for example that the intuitions that lead your research may be irrelevant and even confusing when presenting it). It was also the first of many opportunities for Moni to (try to) teach me to never apologize. Unfortunately, even that Moni is completely correct, the temptation is often just too strong for me to resist.

Soon after, I was getting ready for a trip to my first conference and a few seminar talks I managed to schedule. I was quite terrified. Afraid to mess up the talks, afraid to expose my ignorance and even anxious about the practical aspects of travel (it was only the third time I left Israel, and the first time I did it by myself).

On the night before my early morning flight, I get an email addressed to Moni, to me and to a large collection of dignitaries (for example, David Harel, whose only fault was being a past department chair). The email from Professor X went something like “I saw the abstract of your coming talk at MIT. You claim to give the first construction of Z. This is arguably a big fat lie as Professor Y and I already did it in our paper. The only honorable solution on your part is hara-kiri“. I was horrified. I didn’t know their paper and his claim could easily have been correct (it couldn’t have but I wasn’t fully aware at the time of Moni’s encyclopedic knowledge). It was too late to call Moni and I was afraid he will not see the email before my flight. My deck of slides was printed and my first talk was the morning after I land. Disgrace was imminent!

Fortunately, very soon after, Moni replied. I think that Professor X never answered Moni’s email and years later when he interviewed me for a faculty position he have shown no sign of remembering this incident. Professor Y accepted Moni’s explanation (in a private email if I remember correctly) but still managed to squeeze in a couple of rather aggressive questions during my conference talk. By then I was fortunately prepared and calm (and answered: “are you the first to do Z?” with an innocent “yes”).

My second talk during the trip was in MIT. Between the regulars and the visitors, my audience included half of my reference list. I was in awe. The talk was extremely vibrant, with many questions from the audience and if my memory serves, especially from Leonid Levin. I was ecstatic, and I did not mind at all that Adi and Oded (who were just starting a sabbatical in MIT) were taking on many of the questions directed at me. And why should I mind? Here are so many of my idols vividly debating my work! Who am I to disturb them? I only realized it might have been unusual when Michael Luby (giving a talk the day after) answered the first question he got with something like “unlike yesterday’s speaker, I’d like to talk more than five minutes … .“ Still, over dinner, Oded promoted the idea that it may be better if a talk is given by someone other than the authors. So I felt somewhat vindicated.

Throughout the years I gave many more talks, some praised, some scowled, and some both (sometimes even by the same person). Giving a bad talk can be painful (and when you are young it sometimes feels like the end of your career). I vividly remember how the criticism over my first practice job-talk paralyzing me for almost all of the time I had before the first interview (till Moni gave me a few simple comments that dramatically improved the talk). I am still beating myself for not customizing my ICM (International Congress of Mathematics) talk to the non-cs audience. On the other hand, giving a good talk can be quite empowering. One of the sweetest comments that I remember came from Avi Wigderson who told me after a survey talk on RL vs. L that I left the audience no choice but to work on the problem. Like many other things in life, the more you invest in preparing a talk the more you get out of it. While I enjoy giving talks a lot, it is very hard to recreate the rush that comes from overcoming fear in those early talks of my career. I doubt that I sufficiently appreciated this rush at the time (a Joni Mitchell song comes to mind).

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Tommy permalink
    June 25, 2014 2:57 am

    As one who will soon be giving my own first talks, this is great, thanks!

  2. grad student permalink
    June 25, 2014 7:05 am

    As someone who has regularly seen my audience confounded after my talks, I feel quite relieved when I read this post! Thanks! One question I had was how do you decide the level of detail in your talks? I find this extremely difficult to gauge.

    • June 25, 2014 4:59 pm

      No one answer. Personally, my talks are usually lighter with details. Based on my personal abilities, I assume that the audience has very limited attention span. I vaguely remember from high school that in a short story, every sentence should be there for a reason. I feel similarly about a talk – every idea should serve the overall message and the number of ideas an audience can cope with is very limited. Here is the first part of a talk on the topic of giving good talks, and it is more or less consistent with my philosophy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OFAhBw0OXs

  3. Grad Student permalink
    June 25, 2014 6:24 pm

    In the few talks I gave, I always tried to convey the intuition (if one exists) rather than the formal description. It looks now that I have to rethink it. Could you please elaborate a bit more on how intuition can be irrelevant and/or confusing?

    • June 26, 2014 12:52 am

      I’m tempted to apologize for confusing you but I will resist this time 

      Let me be clear – intuitions are wonderful and always exist (sometimes they require more thought to crystallize, which is always worthwhile to do). What I meant is that the thought process that led to a result could be irrelevant. Once the result exist, one should try to take a fresh look. Hope this is clearer now.

  4. June 26, 2014 7:31 am

    Based on my abilities, I hope that the audience has very limited attention span

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