Research Papers and Presentations are not Mystery Novels

When I write papers or give talks, I struggle with the urge to organize the presentation in the order the work was performed. Unfortunately, this usually leaves the audience frustrated and confused.

I remember one time in particular, I gave a talk to my department while in graduate school. After spending the about ten minutes explaining why a particular technique was assumed not to perform well and presenting previous experiments from other researchers supporting this assumption, I showed results from my attempt to reproduce those experiments. The surprise was that, in my experiments, the technique worked remarkably well.

One professor quickly raised his hand and asked how that was possible since it contradicted previous work. I could have given him a quick, precise answer to his question, but it would have meant skipping ahead and I was not quite ready to reveal the mystery. Instead I told the professor that the answer would be given in the end. He clearly did not appreciate this response.

Afterwards, I was given a piece of advice, “scientific presentations are not mystery novels.” The goal is not to surprise and entertain the audience, but to clearly deliver the relevant information. In this respect, my presentation had been a failure. I only succeeded in confusing and frustrating the audience.

From that point on, I try to ask myself, “what is the main thing I want the audience to know?” That is the first thing I say. If nobody reads or listens past my first sentence, I still want them to have heard my main point.

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