21 Astronomy Poetry Prompts

Tomorrow, two of our awesome Adler Summer Teen Interns start working with me! Inspired by Chris Emdin’s Science Genius, my two interns will be working on creating performance pieces inspired by astronomy. Since there’s nothing scarier than a blank page, I’ve adapted some of Kelli Russell Agodon’s “30 Writing Prompts for National Poetry Month” to focus on space, and specifically exhibits here at the Adler.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be creating work based on some of these prompts– some of which will be up online and annotated with additional info! If you visit the Adler, feel free to join along and respond to some of these prompts– and if you can’t visit, feel free to adapt them as you see fit and contribute online. Many thanks to Kevin Hainline for additions & edits to the prompts below.

1. Grab a book whose title or cover intrigues you from the Adler’s Astronomy library. Go to page 29. Write down 10 words that catch your eye*. Use 7 of those words in a poem. For extra credit, have 4 of them appear at the end of a line.
*if you land on a page without words, feel free to flip forward to the next page that has text

2. Write a poem that is really a letter to someone you love. Make sure some of these words are in the poem: dung beetle, scientist, nuclear, exoplanet, stellar, martian, black hole, aurora, nebula, field, fusion, atmosphere, magnetism, mirror, collapse, accretion, orbit.

3. Find a fact or collection of facts you think is weird or odd in the planetarium, and write a poem about it/them. Try to include why you think they are weird!

4. Find 5 things in the planetarium that all begin with the same letter. Write a poem as an ode to one of these items or that includes these items.

5. Look up the 88 astronomical constellations and write a poem to your favorite one. Look up the stars that make up this constellation and see if you can use some of the star names in your poem.

6. Make a list of seven words you see in the planetarium that have the same vowel sounds (like bee, treat, pepperoni, eagle) and use them in a repetitive way throughout a poem.

7. Go to the Cosmology Gallery and find the display on the recipe for making life in the universe. Now write a poem inspired or in the style of that recipe about you or where you are from.

8. Turn your paper so that it’s in the landscape position. Go up to Galileo’s Cafe and look out at the horizon over the water, then write a poem about the universe with longer lines to see what happens.

9. Head up to the Solar System Gallery, choose one of the eight planets and write an eight-line poem with only eight words per line.

10. Go outside and stand on 12th Street Beach with your feet in the sand, looking at the planetarium. Think about the fact that you are standing on a planet. Write a poem about what you see.

11. Go to http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/ and find an image you enjoy. Write a poem that describes that image.

12. Go to the Astronomy Picture of the Day archive: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/archivepix.html
Find the picture from your most memorable recent birthday, and write a poem about this image or the object/event shown in the image. Bonus points if you can relate it to your own memory of that day!

13. Write a poem in two sections about two things that are separated by something big: for example, two events that happened far apart in time, two things that are distant from each other in space, two things that are very different sizes, etc. Have the title link both things today in a surprising way.

14. Write a poem that begins with the last important thing you can remember someone saying to you today or yesterday. See if you can use that to talk about something in space.

15. Read: http://www.universetoday.com/25560/the-switch-to-digital-switches-off-big-bang-tv-signal/
Think about the fact that people could once “see” the afterglow of the Big Bang in their homes with an ordinary appliance. Write an elegy about no longer being able to do so.

16. Think of the nicest thing someone ever said to you, then watch this video about the heat death of the universe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSzCS_5qtVY
Write a poem about the end of the universe, finishing it with the good thing someone said.

17. Go to the section of the Cosmology Gallery that shows movies from small scales to big scales. Write a poem about something small, in small writing, that is 5 lines long. Use the rest of the page to write a poem about something big, in big writing, that is only one line long.

18. Go to your favorite spot in the planetarium, close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. If the sounds are peaceful, write a poem with a violent word as the title. If the sounds are loud, write a poem with a kind word as the title. Bonus points for including any words you overhear.

19. Think of something you’ve seen in the planetarium (or read about) that you find difficult to understand. Write a poem about this topic with the opposite hand that you write with (or if you type your poems on the computer, use only one hand to type).

20. Write a poem that includes these words: apogalacticon, event horizon, syzygy. Have the title include one of these words: telluric, constellation, astrolabe.

21. Read a bit about the following people, then write a poem where one of them shows up and tells you something and/or gives you something:
Benjamin Banneker
Ada Lovelace
Valentina Tereshkova
Annie Jump Cannon
Alan Turing
Mae Jemison

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Be There Then

I am writing this on my way to TED 2015 in Vancouver. I often find it difficult to work on planes, and so I usually sleep— but sleep has proven impossible on this flight. I’m too excited!

I became a TED Fellow in 2011, and had the great honor of giving a talk on the Kepler Mission at TED Global in Edinburgh. Today I’m headed to the last TED of my subsequent 2-year Senior Fellowship, and once again, I will be giving a talk.

In 2011, I had done relatively little public speaking. I gave a lot of short presentations as a grad student at UW, and of course I’ve taught classes and given professional presentations. However, most of those occasions have both a different audience and format than the highly polished, public-facing communication that one sees at TED.

I was therefore understandably nervous about my talk— I practiced it to death before the conference, even going so far as to record it and listen to it while I went running or fell asleep (for the record, I don’t think that was a particularly useful thing to do, but I think I was thinking it would be like that episode of Night Court where Bull is in a coma and they play him language tapes, and then he wakes up fluent in Spanish). I still have a very clear and visceral memory of stepping out onto the stage: just before, I was standing in the wings next to the man who’d attached my mic, who reminded me to breathe. Rather than calming me down, this comment made me hyper aware of my breathing: was I doing it right? Had he seen me not breathing? Was I breathing now? What if I forgot to breathe and then I fainted and…. well, and then I walked onto the stage and gave the talk, my sweaty palm wrapped around the boxy remote control for the slides. If you watch my talk from that day, you can even hear my voice quavering a little (one YouTube commenter remarked I sounded sort of autotuned). For anyone who knows me, I also probably appear more serious than I think I have ever been in my life.

The funny thing is, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I was vaguely aware that my talk might go online, and I remember thinking that would be great because then my friends could watch it. Awesome! And though I myself watched tons of TED talks, there was some missing connection in my brain between the fact that those talks were watched by lots of people, and that my talk might also be watched by lots of people. It never occurred to me that strangers around the globe would be watching me and my sweating palms stand on that red circular carpet, simultaneously trying to tell people about the amazing Kepler Mission and hoping that I didn’t fall off the ambitiously tall heels I’d decided to wear.

Today, as I fly to Vancouver, I know what’s at stake. I’m giving a talk that is essentially about climate change and the importance of preserving the habitability of Earth, a subject I feel passionately about and a message I hope will reach a lot of people. And man, am I nervous! Despite the fact that I have grown calmer about public speaking in general over the past four years, the flames of my anxiety are fanned by my personal investment in doing justice to this particular topic.

This week, I brought my talk anxiety up with my very excellent and insightful SupporTED coach, Jen Sellers. Jen is amazing at getting me to see the bigger picture when I feel like a frog at the bottom of a tall empty barrel, flailing against the walls as I frantically try to hop out. As a serious practitioner of meditation, Jen gently reminded me that my anxiety was being driven by an attachment to outcomes— that if I want to overcome it, the key lies in being present at the moment I am giving the talk. That is, after all, the only thing I can control— I have no control over what happens to my talk, how the audience receives it, etc— I only have the moment I am on the stage and speaking.

I already try to practice mindfulness, but in the days leading up to the Fellows’ session on Monday, I will be trying something a little bit different: rather than meditating on being present where I am now, I’m going to channel that visceral memory of the first time I stood on the TED stage, and I’m going to focus on being mindful and present there. Essentially it’s sort of a mixture between mindfulness meditation, where you focus only on being where you are, and visualization, where you travel off to some imaginary place as you meditate. Before I stand on the stage in the future, I’ll be standing there in the past, feeling

the clunky remote,

the pile of the carpet,

my heart in my throat, and

the deep inhale before speaking. 

Here we go.

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Happy 85th to Pluto… and The Adler Planetarium! My first post for the Adler Blog is live.

My first post for the Adler Planetarium blog went up today!

2015 marks the 85th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto, as well as the 85th anniversary of North America’s first planetarium: The Adler, of course!

In this post, I discuss some of the history of Pluto’s discovery and subsequent reclassification as a dwarf planet, as well as its ties to the Adler. 2015 should be an exciting year for both– we will soon have a new view on Pluto from the the New Horizons mission flyby this spring, and here at the Adler we’ll be celebrating our anniversary all summer long with fun astronomy events for everyone!

I am always struck by how emotional people get over Pluto’s reclassification– if you read to the end of my post on the Adler blog you’ll hear my personal opinion, but I’m curious: what’s yours? Do you think Pluto should be a planet, or not?

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#ScienceTrain at the Seattle #AAS225: Weds 1/7 @ 12:30pm

If you are attending the AAS225 in Seattle this week, please join us for #ScienceTrain! #ScienceTrain is an initiative where scientists answer people’s questions on public transportation– you can read more about it here and here.

The AAS225 edition of ScienceTrain will take place this coming Wednesday at lunch time: we will meet in the entrance lobby of the convention center (there is a coffee stand there, so stand somewhere nearby). Please try to come right after the plenary talk ends, as we will plan to leave by 12:40pm at the latest.

We will walk over to the Westlake bus tunnel and hang out there for an hour or so. Because the AAS is such a busy time for everyone, I think hanging out in the bus tunnel is likely easier than actually riding the train– but having said that,  you can hop on the Light Rail or a bus from there if you so choose!

The Adler Planetarium’s awesome graphic designer David Miller has given me permission to use the signs he designed, so I will get some of those printed and bring them with. You don’t need to bring anything special besides yourself, an open mind and a willingness to talk about science with people. Feel free to bring friends– the more the merrier.

My apologies if you are one of the people who can’t participate during Wednesday lunch time– but remember that anyone can do Science Train, so please feel free to organize your own if you like! I bet there will be enough people headed to the airport on the Light Rail this Thursday…

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Every Day is a Vigil

Like many others, I am shocked, saddened and angered by the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case. And like many others have noted, the fact that I am white means I can be shocked, saddened, and angered– but I am free from the burden of feeling fear, unlike my friends and colleagues of color.

There are many things to say about what, in my opinion, seems to be a gross miscarriage of justice. Make no mistake, the failure to indict here is not even the same as saying Officer Wilson is not guilty– if the grand jury had chosen to indict, the case would have proceeded to trial, where both sides would have had an opportunity to press their case. To not indict is a statement by this grand jury that a trial isn’t even worth pursuing– which seems even more insulting and crazy to me, not to mention nearly unprecedented, as FiveThirtyEight points out. Regardless of who you believe was at fault, it should make you angry that they didn’t think this case was worthy of a trial.

I will not say most of the things that could be said, largely because I feel they are being said elsewhere with more eloquence than I can muster at the moment. I feel powerless and nearly wordless in this moment, but I also feel like this moment has pushed me to move on a project I’ve been brewing on for some time, a project to commemorate victims of gun violence. More about the project at the end of this post, but first a few personal comments.

Make no mistake, what happened– is happening– in Ferguson is not really about guns. It is about the massive, systemic racism in our society. But guns, and specifically the militarization of our police force, introduce a speed and finality into confrontations that ends lives. Guns wielded– both with intent to harm and without– take loved ones away from us. And although gun violence has the potential to affect all people, regardless of race, creed or background, it predominantly effects people of color.

For the past three years, before moving to Chicago, I lived in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. When I first came to Bed-Stuy, gunshots still rang on a regular basis (though with far less frequency than they had in years before). Over those three years, the neighborhood quieted down, with the occasional exception.

One such exception came about a year ago, as I and my then-boyfriend walked back towards my apartment from the train. We were less than a block away from my apartment when two loud bangs echoed out– we immediately started to argue over whether it was shots or not. There seemed to be no one around.

When we reached my block, however, we found a man lying on the street, legs still partly stretched up the stoop he’d been standing on when he was shot. Blood rushed across the sidewalk, so voluminous and dark in the yellow streetlight that my first thought was actually “someone’s dropped their cup of coffee”. The residents of the house he’d been outside emerged from the front door screaming “nobody touch him, nobody touch him”. I jumped across the pool of blood and ran inside to call the cops.

Renard “Busta” Griffin was 26 years old and lived a few blocks away. Over the next few hours his friends and family– who had also lost his brother to violence a few years prior– filled the street outside. I sat in my bedroom at the front of the house and listened. A cop rang my bell and wanted to know what I’d seen, and as I stood in the front doorway and recounted what I knew, I looked over his shoulder and watched people screaming and crying in the street beyond. He paused, and glanced over his shoulder, following my gaze.

“You see what I have to deal with?” he said, “These people.

I took a good look at him. Light complexioned, white or maybe Latino? I managed to stammer: “They’ve lost someone they care about. They’re upset.”

“They’re hampering,” he replied.

I closed the door. Somehow I slept. It didn’t really hit me until the next morning, as my train pulled into the station at my work, and I burst into tears.

I felt a lot of things, but the two prominent emotions were anger and guilt. The callousness of the responding officer to the human suffering just beyond him were unthinkable, and he, in making those comments to me, had made me complicit in his casual racism by assuming that– what? Did he really think that as a white person in a predominantly Black neighborhood, I would nod and agree with him? And what about how I had actually responded? I should have screamed at him. I should report him– but who will listen? Don’t the police take care of their own? And who am I to be upset by the death of a man I didn’t really know, as a white woman relatively new to a historically Black neighborhood with both entrenched bonds and entrenched problems?

Over the next week, the blood on the sidewalk slowly washed away. If you think the clean-up crews come and make a crime scene disappear overnight, you are incorrect– blood in the daylight is brighter than you would think. It takes a heavy rain for the sidewalk to look like unassuming concrete again– but it never is just concrete again, not really. I talked about what had happened with friends and family, and I decided not to move– largely because I was not in any more danger then than I ever had been. What had happened to Busta was not equally likely to happen to me, a privilege that I did not ask for but that I have, nonetheless.

As the sidewalk went back to looking like just another patch of sidewalk, I thought about how much violence the neighborhood had seen, about how all streets bear witness to the ghosts of what has come before. Hadn’t Busta’s brother died just a block away? How would anyone know? But his mother, running errands down those same streets– she knew. On the corners in Brooklyn are a hundred memorials painted to lost friends on bodega walls. How many others were there, their faces lost to all but those who knew them best?

I wish I could fix all the wrong I see, but certainly I can’t alone. One thing I can do, however, is to offer some solace and remembrance to those who live on.

Here’s the deal: if you have lost someone to gun violence, I am offering to paint you an image of them on a window screen to be displayed in your home. This idea builds on two existing forms of public art: wall memorials to members of a community who have died, (often found on the sides of bodegas, though they can be anywhere), and window screen painting, a Baltimore folk art originally intended to beautify shopfronts, where pastoral scenes were painting on the screens of the shop’s windows. These paintings would be given at no cost to you, the recipient, only with the understanding that you would please display them where they can be seen by passers-by. My intention is to create a lasting visual record of the personal losses created by guns within a community, to allow the images of those lost to stand watch over those who live on. I’ve created a submission form below if you would like to participate.

Due to time constraints, I will probably only be able to provide paintings to a few people at first… but because everyone’s loss is important, submissions will be posted over at http://everydayisavigil.com (just be sure to opt IN by clicking either “website only” or “both” in the form below). To send an image, please email everydayisavigil AT gmail DOT com




Posted in art, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Want to Recruit A Diverse Technical Workforce? Here’s How.

When was the last time you attended a technical meeting in which the first plenary talk, given by the project director, was about how and why workplace diversity is a major priority for that project? For me, the answer is this past Tuesday.

This week I’m attending the LSST Project and Community Workshop, a meeting centered around an ambitious new telescope project called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. LSST will survey the night sky every few nights over the course of ten years, creating an unprecedented data set of our universe that will be public to the US community and our international partners (here’s a short talk I gave at IgniteNYC a few years ago, if you’d like to learn more). Building a huge project like LSST requires tackling immense technical challenges, so naturally we are interested in attracting the most qualified candidates. On Tuesday morning of this week, however, LSST Director Steve Kahn opened our week devoted to tackling technical challenges by highlighting the importance of another challenge: attracting a diverse workforce and creating an inclusive workplace culture.

Granted, words are words: we have a long way past talking about the problem before our project achieves the diversity it seeks. However, I can’t think of any time in my career where a substantial amount of everybody’s time at a meeting was devoted to publicly highlighting the importance of that goal. LSST is the largest ground-based astronomy project moving into the next decade, it has the ability to influence the culture of our field, and it is hugely important that we recognize that.

Want to work with LSST? We are hiring!

In discussing this talk with my colleagues this week, I was also reminded of a very informative report by the Anita Borg Institute, entitled “Solutions to Recruit Technical Women“. The report is well worth a thorough read, and is chock-a-block with helpful, implementable ideas for improving diversity in the applicant pool, conducting  inclusive interviews, and creating feeding channels to direct potential candidates into the field from a wide variety of backgrounds. While focused specifically on women, I think many of these suggestions are applicable towards creating a more diverse workforce in general. Remember, if you are hiring the best people for the job and you believe that ability is independent of race and gender, your team should reflect that, and there are things you can do now to help make that happen.

Huge thanks to Chrys Wu, Kay Thaney, Sasha Laundy, Bitsy Hansen and Hilary Parker for pointing me to this report and discussing these and other solutions with me.


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A Non-Talk on Giving Talks

The following is a collection of almost entirely subjective advice about giving talks. Mostly this advice is based on what has worked well for me, but it’s also based on what I have learned in the course of sitting through terrible talks. The only good thing about terrible talks is that they afford one the chance to contemplate the sources of one’s suffering, whereas good talks are engaging and keep one focused on the subject matter. This advice is mostly geared towards scientific talks for a variety of audiences, but hopefully these guidelines are generic enough to be useful outside of science communication. 

First, a bit of motivation.

Why Does Public Speaking Matter?

At the most basic level, giving talks is one of the primary ways of disseminating the results of your work to others. Academic publishing is where your results become part of the permanent record of research of course, and for better or worse, your publications are one of the primary metrics by which your success will be judged. Public speaking is more versatile than publishing, however, as public speaking is often how your work reaches those who would otherwise never know about it– be they others in your field, or those completely outside of science (“the public”). Your academic papers are likely to reach your immediate colleagues, those within your subfield– but through talks, you can reach both scientists outside of your immediate subfield, and the public at large.

And why does reaching a larger audience matter? Because the health of both your career and the field depend on it! 

If you are invited to give a professional (academic) talk somewhere, chances are that the people who know something about your work had a hand in inviting you in the first place. If they know about your work, and they invited you, they are already “on your side”– they think what you will say is interesting enough that they’re willing to hear you give that talk. So, in some sense, your talk isn’t really for them– it’s for the people in the audience who are outside your subfield. Your goal for the talk should be that they come away with a sense of how your work fits within the context of the field, and why it is interesting. If you are early in your career and hoping to get a job, people in unrelated subfields are the faculty swing vote– you need them to be pulling for you when the department is deciding who gets the job offer. 

Public speaking also helps your field as a whole: most of our work is funded, to some extent, by taxpayer dollars. Those taxpayers have immediate needs that likely supersede their interest in space and/or science in general. Therefore, if you are giving a talk to the broader public (generally speaking, anyone outside of your field), your ability to convey what you are learning represents a return on their investment. Personally, I love being an astronomer, and I feel that it’s a privilege to work on something that takes me so outside of myself on a regular basis. When you speak to people outside your field, they’re giving you some of their time in the hopes of sharing in that experience– respect that by giving a good talk.

And now, on to my utterly subjective guidelines for doing so.

Consider Your Audience

In my view, the number one contributing factor in giving a good talk is empathy. Empathy plays out in a number of ways in a talk, the most fundamental of which is the realization that the talk is not for YOU, the speaker, but for THE AUDIENCE. Before you create a single slide, the first thing you should do is consider who makes up your audience. Are they experts in your subfield, scientists from a completely different discipline, non-scientists..? If they aren’t scientists, who are they? “The public” is not a uniform bloc of people, so consider why they are attending your talk to begin with. In some sense, every audience consists of both novices and experts, and the trick is to create a talk that will reach them both. 

Missing ingredient.

Missing ingredient.

Above all, remember that no one in the room is more interested in your work than you are– if they were as interested as you are, they’d probably be doing it themselves! As the speaker, your job is to convince them that what you do is interesting and worthwhile. 

Start At The End

Whether your talk is a few minutes or an hour, you need to decide what you want the audience to know when they leave. This should not be a laundry list– it should be a single sentence that summarizes the main point you want people to walk away with. If you have lots of time to speak, you can nest a couple of subpoints under this main message, but the main message should be clear in your mind. 

Choose Your Content Wisely

The message you want your audience to take away should guide all your subsequent choices about content. What are the main pieces of information you need to include to bring your message to the audience? If it’s a short talk, you may include only a bit of background and few examples of your work (say, a plot or two), whereas if you have a lot of time you can include more detail, or spend longer on the examples you do include. The main point here is again to exercise EMPATHY: the talk is not for you, it’s for the audience. When you see people speeding through information, or there’s a bunch of plots in the talk that they don’t really explain (or worse have to click past), it means that they didn’t consciously think about what information to include and, as a result, have included too much that’s only tangentially relevant and probably uninteresting to the audience. 

Don’t Go Over Time

Seriously people: DON’T GO OVER YOUR FUCKING TIME. It’s disrespectful and makes you look unprepared. We all make mistakes, and sometimes perhaps you’ve misjudged slightly– but if the session chair tells you you have 30 more seconds and you go on for another five minutes (or another half hour, as I have seen in colloquia), you are being an all-caps ASSHAT. Once again, not everything you have done is relevant and interesting, so pick the part that is. 

Consider Making Your Talk Modular

If you’re giving a longer talk, part of choosing your content is thinking about how to make it digestible. Human beings have attention spans of roughly 10 minutes or so, which means that it can be helpful to remind people of your main points repeatedly during the talk. If possible, break results and subtopics into subsections in the talk, so that you have mini-conclusions throughout the talk. When you finish, you can revisit these mini-conclusions all together to provide a succinct snapshot of your main points.

Making your talk modular is also really helpful for adjusting the amount of content you present in real time. Different departments have different audience styles– for example, the style in my department at Princeton is to ask questions throughout the talk, rather than waiting until the end. That can be great, as it shows you the audience is engaged and curious, but it can also derail a talk that would have been the perfect amount of content if there wasn’t time out for discussion midway through. To account for the range of styles out there, I often try to keep some of my content in reserve and include an extra optional mini-section at the end. Then, if I get through the primary part of my talk and still have time, I can click on and present some bonus material, a work in progress, or even go into further detail about something I presented in broad strokes earlier. 

If It Doesn’t Convey Meaning, It Doesn’t Belong On Your Slide

You can include pictures to provide a bit of visual interest, but detailed plots, equations, and even schematics are information-rich graphics and do not belong on your slides unless you are going to discuss them. If I see one more person put up a plot and say “I’m not going to talk about this here…” UGGGGGGHHHHH WHY IS IT ON YOUR SLIDE YOU’RE HURTING AMERICA.

Do You Want Me To Listen Or Read?

Humans love the idea that they are good at multitasking, but the truth is that there is no evidence that multitasking actually exists. What DOES exist is rapid serial tasking, where you switch attention between multiple tasks. If your slide is full of words, your audience is forced to choose between listening to you and reading the slide. Chances are, though, that they will try to do both, and your message will be lost in that conflict of attention. 

Once again, wordy slides are often an indication that the speaker lacks empathy: the words are there because THEY want to be able to read them, so they don’t forget. Listen up: slides aren’t your notes. There is a notes section in the speaker tools, so use that if you need to, but really you should just suck it up and…


The gold standard is to have done a dry run of every talk you give, so that you know it by heart. For long talks this can be pretty time-consuming, however, so usually you can get away just going over your talk slide by slide and recalling your main point. For each slide, you should have a clear single point in your mind– the point of practicing is not to memorize every word, but rather to create an association in your mind between that main point and the visual of the slide itself. When you look at the slide, you should be able to recall your point. If you can’t, you either haven’t practiced enough, or maybe it’s just not a very illuminating slide. 

Practicing in front of an audience can be hugely helpful– if you can enlist a few friends and/or colleagues and ask them to give you honest, constructive criticism, it will greatly improve your talk. It will also help you to absorb this criticism if you listen carefully to feedback without defending your choices! When responding to critiques, challenge yourself to phrase your responses as questions. 

One other very helpful tool is to make a video of yourself practicing. This is hands-down my least favorite thing to do– I hate watching myself on camera, and invariably I discover that I have some weird physical tic that I didn’t know about, e.g. “Why am I looking at the ceiling so much? Wow, I gesture a LOT. What is that dumb thing I’m doing with my mouth while I’m thinking?!” Of course, the reason this is helpful is that being aware of these behaviors is the best way of getting rid of them. If they distract you watching yourself, they’ll be distracting to the audience too!

95% Of Your Presentation Software’s Features Do Not Exist

You know all those templates that are options in your favorite presentation software? Delete them. OK, you can keep the simplest one. Now go into the slide masters section and get rid of everything that isn’t a blank slide or a slide with a single text box for a title. Bullet points? You don’t need those. Columns? No. Prefab spots to put an image with bullets next to it? No, no no no. These things are dead to you from now on. 

Look at that font menu! Now stop looking at the font menu! Pick a single font and use only one font in a given presentation. Don’t make it Comic Sans, Papyrus, Curlz or anything that resembles these fonts (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, CERN). You probably also don’t need to put anything in bold or italics either. Emphasis can often be conveyed effectively (and more subtly) by using differences in font size or slight differences in color saturation (as in a pale blue versus a slightly darker blue).

Slide transitions: these also do not exist*. They are distracting and unreliable, being one of the top things that often gets screwed up when transferring a talk between laptops. I once gave a talk that I’d written with a relatively mild fade between slides– but when deployed on the presentation laptop, that fade had been transformed into a horrifying pixel dissolve. Finally, the all-transitions-all-the-time software Prezi 100% doesn’t exist at all. If you want to be seasick, go on a boat ride.

* One caveat here: Dan Foreman-Mackey convinced me that there is, in fact, one acceptable slide transition… anvil. Anvil may ONLY be used to deliver the punchline of a joke, and that joke had better be funny. Also, you can only use anvil once a year. 

Anvil in action.

Anvil in action.

Give The Audience A Guided Tour Of Your Plots

Many times, plots that may be acceptable for publication don’t display well in a talk– but a little bit of extra attention can really help your audience out. Use the text boxes in your presentation software to relabel axes, provide arrows to features you want to point out, and use shapes to selectively block out potentially distracting features (e.g. complex plot legends) until you’re ready to walk the audience through them. 

It can also be helpful to use the slide title to state the point of the slide. No one needs you to title your results slide “Results 1”– that’s perfectly good real estate you could be using for “No Trend Seen With Stellar Color” (or something relevant to your work). 

Give Credit Where Credit Is Due

Always include attribution where appropriate, whether to your colleagues or yourself. If you use a figure or cite a result from someone else’s work, include a short reference (e.g. Batygin et al. 2012) nearby on the slide. To keep the visual noise low, make it in a lighter, smaller font– but don’t leave it out! Proper citations indicate that the speaker is not only collegial, but well-versed in the literature. Similarly, if you use images off the internet, try to find public domain work and include attribution wherever possible. 

Don’t forget to give yourself credit, too– especially in job talks, it’s important that your audience (which includes the hiring committee) have a clear picture of what part of your work YOU are actually responsible for. Of course, be gracious and acknowledge your co-investigators and their contributions, and don’t represent yourself as having done work you didn’t directly do… but you can still alternate between using “my colleagues/team/co-investigators” and “I”. 

On Answering Questions

Audience members ask questions for one of two reasons:

  1. They have something to say
  2. They have something to ask

Unfortunately I sometimes think #1 is more common than #2, even when #1 is couched in a sentence that ends in a question mark. If you are relatively new to presenting your research, questions can be harrowing– it can feel like you are being tested and that makes many people anxious. The top thing to remember is to stay calm! You did the work, and that makes you an expert on the piece of it that you did. You may not know everything about the topic, but that’s OK– give the best answer you can, and if you need to think about it a bit offline, just say so. You can also offer to discuss it further after the talk is over. Remember that questions (even if persistent or aggressive) are a sign that the audience is paying attention, and are vastly preferable to a room full of silence and ennui.

Relax & Have Fun

Inhale, exhale, repeat! It’s a privilege to have the attention of your audience, so try to enjoy the moment as much as you can. The people whose talks I like are typically relaxed and conversational, where I can see that they like their work and are looking forward to telling me about it– it’s really hard to watch someone who is really uncomfortable speaking. I personally get very nervous right before talks, but I try to remember that the unpleasantness of pre-talk jitters will go away shortly after I start talking.

A Few Additional Links

For additional reading, here are a couple of other good guides to giving talks:



Lastly, if you find color choice challenging, this site can help you choose an appealing color palette for your talk:


The one caveat to the above, though, is that you should limit the number of colors in your talk to about three at most– many of those palettes are really bright and busy, and will be tiring to the eyes for most viewers. 

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