For the past several days I’ve been composing a research talk. I’ll leave this weekend for a trip to Saskatoon for Plant Canada 2007, a meeting of various Canadian plant science organizations at which I’ve been invited to speak.
On a cool day nearly two weeks ago, I started a fire in my fireplace and sat in my rocking chair with a yellow pad to sketch the arc of my talk. Earlier in the spring I had submitted a title and abstract, which set the themes to address. I outlined the set of data, how they would be ordered, and the basic conclusions, but other aspects of the talk’s arc occupied much of the thinking time in front of the fire. History and ideas add significant depth to talks and can serve as the plot lines to propel the arc of the story. It’s those elements that take quiet thought in the rocking chair as well as several cups of tea and trips into my library (even trips into my office).
From the sketch, I composed a rough script of the first third of the talk, a point where I was undecided about the best way to proceed. That catch led me to begin making the visual presentation. These talks are strongly visual and working on the Powerpoint slides can sometimes offer insights on how best to structure the information.
Another of the critical questions these talks raise is how to convey ideas with pictures. I’ve been asking myself idea by idea, bits of data by bits of data, slide by slide how to compose. This is the consuming part of the process. I worked steadily on slides for several days, thinking about their aesthetic appeal and focal points as well as the clarity of the ideas. The slides need to hold audience attention, convey swiftly the ideas, and also give me a set of clues about what to say (because I won’t be using either script or notes).
I’ve scavenged slides from an old talk, but the ideas of the new talk are sufficiently different that most of the slides will be new for the Saskatoon talk. Most slides will have one or more photographs; indeed, one slide has 13 photographs and a diagram. My photographs of research materials have been captured largely on film, requiring me scan Kodachrome slides to acquire digital images to import into Powerpoint. I’ve been scanning in the late afternoons after spending the day laying-out slides and writing text. My mornings often have begun by cropping and adjusting the lighting of the digital images. These images were then imported to fit around text and/or diagrams. Many of these slides, which may be on the screen for no more than a minute, often take several hours to make. This week there have been several ‘single slide days.’
I finished the slides of the Powerpoint presentation late on Thursday night and drafted the last few notes this morning. I’ve printed the notes to use as I practice the talk to check how the information flows, to make sure the descriptions work, and to know precisely what points to make with each slide. And I need to know that the talk will fit the time that I’ve been allotted.
This evening I began to pack clothes, apples, oranges, and tea. I’ve set my thermos on the counter to fill tomorrow morning with hot water. My binoculars and bird book are with my camera. First thing tomorrow morning, I’ll start driving north.
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The photograph is Mentzelia multiflora and is one of the images I'll use in my talk on evolutionary innovation in flowers.