Conference talks

:: research, rambling

I am beginning to hate conference talks. I am in the midst of writing a conference talk for my recently accepted paper. Although I have only given one conference talk thus far, I have attended several conference and listened to many talks. These experiences have convinced me that conference talks are largely pointless.

I do not find conferences to be pointless. The papers are usually well written, if dense. The conferences themselves always lead to interesting conversations with clever people. I always return from a conference filled with creative energy. And, I admit, I like the excuse to travel to interesting locales.

However, the talks themselves are pointless. Most talks I have attended are terrible. Those that are not terrible I do not remember much of anyway, except that I should go read that paper. Of those talks, I would have made the same decision after reading the abstract for the paper. The talks add nothing because the talk slots are too short to communicate any technical material.

It is not entirely the fault of the speakers. For one, there is little incentive to give a good talk. If you give a good talk, then maybe you convince someone to read your paper, and maybe people remember who you are. This might be important if you are on the job market, but it does not matter for everyone else. Besides, most people will forget the talk in a month, good or bad.

Even if you are a perfectionist so incentive does not matter, it is not easy to craft a good talk. Conference papers are often complex and dense pieces of work. Frequently, the papers omit many details due to space, so completely understanding the work requires not only the paper but a technical appendix or code artifact published separately. Authors (usually (maybe only sometimes)) spend a great deal of time polishing these papers and supplementary materials to effectively communicate a complex and dense piece of work. The slot for the conference talk is 15—20 minutes, in which a speaker much fit a 12-page paper plus supplementary material?

“No! Obviously as a speaker you must not do that. The talk should be an advertisement for the paper. It should be an overview of the paper. It should communicate the key technical ideas and convince people to read the paper.”

What silly advice. I hate advertisements. Why should I sit through sessions and sessions of advertisements?

“No! Obviously as an audience member you must not do that. Just go read the abstracts and find the talks you want to attend. Skip the rest to have conversations with colleagues and authors.”

Okay, so the audience is going to read the abstract to convince them to see a talk that convinces them to read the paper of which they just read the to convince them to see the talk that convinces them to read the paper? This is circular reasoning that wastes the time of both the speaker and the audience.

As a speaker and writer, I have already spent a lot of time and effort on the paper. I have crafted the abstract and introduction to communicate the key technical ideas and give an overview of the paper as precisely and concisely as possible. Shortly thereafter, I have carefully written the rest of the paper to effectively communicate the technical contributions in as much detail yet as concisely as page limits allow. Besides, I had to write them anyway to effectively communicate my research. Why should I reproduce these efforts in a short talk that must communicate less due to the nature of the talk and the audience?

As an audience member, if I want an overview of the paper, the abstract and introduction section provide this. The author already spent a great deal of time writing these sections, which communicate more thoughts in less time than the talk will. If I want more details, these sections are conveniently located with the rest of the paper. Besides, I need to read the abstract anyway to figure out which talks to attend and which papers to read. Why should I then sit through a talk that advertises a paper that I have already decided whether or not to read?

“Well the talks give an excuse and talking points around which we can organize a conference.”

Well why can’t we find a better excuse or better talking points? Why not give longer highly-technical talks that supplement the paper, or questions-and-answer style talks for those who have read the paper and want more? Or why not make the papers more open ended so talks can be more speculative?

I do not know what should go in place of the current conference talks, but the current system seems utterly pointless and results in completely wasted effort.