Chalk Talk

Yesterday, I presented my work on influenza ecology and evolution at the Infectious Disease Program seminar series at the Broad Institute. Most of the talks I’ve seen there were Keynote or PowerPoint slide deck talks, and so this time round, I thought I might shake things up and do a chalk talk (or whiteboard talk) instead. The whirlwind that went through my mind after the talk meant that it’s only today that, with a clear mind, I could find the time and space to write about it.

I think it was quite a fun experience. In terms of preparation, I found it to be much less stressful than doing a slide deck, because it meant I was not fiddling around with software trying to get proportions and alignments perfect. I gave myself two rounds of talking through the material on a blackboard as preparation as well. Finally, I put a set of sketches in my notebook as a reference during the talk (particularly because there was one computation toy example which I found a bit difficult to commit to memory). During the talk, the audience was quite encouraging, and I remember seeing a good amount of nodding of understanding (no droopy eyes), and there was a good amount of positive interruption from the audience for questions and such. After the talk, I also had the opportunity to interact with the audience, and get some feedback from my host, Danny Park, on how it went.

On reflection, there’s some things I’ve learned from doing my first public chalk talk:

  1. It’s much less stressful to prepare for. I’m beginning to feel that slide decks are way too restrictive, both for preparation and delivery.
  2. Danny commented that because of the nature of the chalk talk, where the speaker has to write down important points, the pace of the talk slows down to a much more comfortable pace for the audience. My colleague, Nichola, also mentioned the same point after the talk.
  3. I think I could have done better with polishing the delivery. One example would be being less repetitive, which is something I notice happens quite a bit.

I think chalk talks should become the norm again, especially for research talks, where the ideas are complex and the presenter is forced to give a simplified version of the logic behind an experiment or an analysis. Imagine how big of an impact we could have if we didn’t waste people’s time with poorly made PowerPoint slides and poorly delivered talks!

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