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Telling a Good Story at Conferences

By Nicholas Higham

With peak conference season not far away, many of us will soon turn our attention to writing talks. In doing so, we need to know our audience and put ourselves in the place of a typical listener. I’m sure I am not alone in having two particular wishes when attending a talk. First, I want to hear a good story. We all like to learn why the speaker is working on a given problem, what difficulties were faced, and how they were overcome. And the more personal the story—unique to the speaker—the better. Second, I want to take away a good idea, one that I can perhaps utilize in my own work.

Mathematician John de Pillis regularly contributed cartoons to SIAM News from the 1980s onwards. Imbued with de Pillis’s unique sense of humor, these cartoons are as relevant today as when they were first published. SIAM News will reprint selected cartoons in future issues, and SIAM hopes to make the complete set available online in due course.
All too often, though, the story and the ideas are obscured by a surfeit of low-level detail and a profusion of equations. Equations are useful only if they can be read and understood, so given the limited time that a slide is displayed and the inadequate legibility caused by imperfect projectors and lighting, the old adage “less is more” applies. And slide text should be as large as possible, for the benefit of those of us with less than perfect eyesight.

It is not necessary to tell the whole story. The narrative needs to be pared down in order to communicate the key ideas and conclusions in the limited time available. Every unnecessary word and symbol should be excised from the slides.

I recently spent some time looking through back issues of SIAM News held at the SIAM office in Philadelphia, Pa. An article in the October 1996 issue reports on a minisymposium on oral communication held at that summer’s Annual Meeting in Kansas City, Mo. Margaret Wright, then-president of SIAM and a panelist at the minisymposium, advised, “In planning any talk, ask yourself, ‘What do I want to convey? What should the audience remember – later today, next week, next year?’” The article is full of excellent advice. Indeed, the SIAM News archive is a real treasure trove, with many articles still pertinent today—years after publication—and others of historical interest. I am hoping that SIAM will be able to digitize the complete archive and make it available online.

My first official duty as SIAM president was to introduce the SIAM Invited Address by Irene Gamba at the Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) in Atlanta, Ga., in early January. This was the largest meeting I’ve ever attended, with over 6,000 delegates. I took the opportunity to attend some sessions on the history of mathematics. These talks have a natural story, but still need to be presented well – and they were. Some speakers read from a script, as is common in history talks. A useful tip for less-experienced presenters is to write down what you want to say for the introduction and conclusion of the talk. Ideally, learn the words and speak them naturally, but if nerves take over or your memory fails, you can always read them out.

An interesting fact I learned from one of these talks is that applied mathematician Richard Bellman, statistician Jon Tukey, and computer scientist John McCarthy all had the same Ph.D. advisor. Can you guess who? The answer is in the footnote.1

While at JMM, I picked up a couple of other tips about giving talks. One is that it is beneficial to provide a shortened URL on the first or second slide from which the audience can download the talk and follow along or investigate links. The other tip is to 3D-print some aspect of the talk’s mathematics and pass it around the audience. Finding something suitable to print, however, may not be easy!

It’s good to see posters growing in popularity at SIAM conferences. There were 22 posters and six talks at the Annual Meeting of the UK and Republic of Ireland Section of SIAM this January, allowing a wide variety of mathematics to be presented in one day.

Scott Bagwell of Swansea University (left) won first prize in the student poster competition at the Annual Meeting of the UK and Republic of Ireland Section of SIAM, held January 12, 2017 at the University of Strathclyde. Professor Des Higham, president of the SIAM UKIE Section, presents Bagwell with his prize. The poster can be viewed online at http://maths.manchester.ac.uk/siam-ukie/annual2017. Image credit: Nicholas Higham.
A recent innovation at the SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering and the SIAM Annual Meeting has been minisymposteria: minisymposia for posters. A minisymposterium organizer collects poster submissions on a particular topic, which are colocated in the display area. I co-organized a minisymposterium with Françoise Tisseur at the 2016 Annual Meeting (AN16) in Boston, Mass., and we managed to attract 22 posters without too much effort. This is a great way to feature a research topic without constraints on the number of presenters and competition from parallel sessions that affect minisymposia.

The option nowadays to print on fabric has made giving poster presentations more attractive. These posters can be carried folded, within a suitcase, without the need for a cardboard tube. Our experience in Manchester with fabric posters, which cost a little more than paper ones, has been very positive, and we have had no problem with creasing. Just don’t forget to collect your poster by the after-session deadline, as “abandoned” posters usually get thrown away when poster boards are removed.

At AN16, SIAM experimented with e-posters: large electronic displays that allow interactive material to be displayed from a laptop. E-posters were also featured at the 2017 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering in Atlanta, Ga., in late February. If you attended this meeting, be sure to provide feedback on e-posters (and other aspects) to meetings@siam.org, as this will help us decide whether to continue offering this option.

1 Pure mathematician Solomon Lefschetz

Nicholas Higham is the Richardson Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Manchester. He is the current president of SIAM. 
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