On the writing of talks

This semester, I am giving several talks each over the devil and creepiness, and I’m finding the experience of both very different. On the devil front, I’m also in the early stages of drafting the book itself, so the talks provide a good opportunity to try out material and experiment — in short, to present the argument of the chapter I’ve been working on and venture a little further. In the process, I’ve become more confident in the shape of my argument as a whole, and I think I’ve also hit upon something that could work as a framing for the introduction. Overall: very helpful.

Creepiness is paradoxically more challenging, precisely because I’ve already written a whole book on the topic. The project feels “done,” and I’m still figuring out the best way to open the thing back up and say something new (and, for practical reasons, something that doesn’t require deploying the full Freudian apparatus from the book). My initial attempt at Wayne State was very well-received and generated some good questions, but I worried about whether it really fell together into a coherent argument. Perhaps I should trust my audience and not stress out about it.

This is also a new experience for me in that I have the opportunity to give essentially the same talk in multiple locations. While I find that I need to do something at least partly new or exploratory when I’m writing the talks, so far I’m quite content with delivering the same material. The performance side of it becomes smoother with practice, and I find that I can improvise more fluently.

What about you, dear readers? How do you relate your speaking opportunities to your work? Do you have the same struggle with presenting over finished works vs. works in progress?

2 Responses to “On the writing of talks”

  1. Matt Frost Says:

    In the work I’ve had to date, I’ve given far more talks than I’ve ever had to give lectures. (Not that my volume of either remotely compares to yours!) Once upon a time I was a music major, and what I learned there is still true: get the technique “under your fingers” and into muscle memory, so it gets out of the way of the music, and only then will you really have the headspace to improvise. And that sounds a lot like what you’re saying re giving the same talks over again. But for me, because I’m such a detail freak, so far it’s the “done” projects that I have the easiest time communicating. I don’t have the necessary perspective on the works in progress, usually, until at least a piece of the work is “done” and I go on to deep-dive some other piece. Output is sometimes impossible when I’m in the weeds.

  2. Robert Saler Says:

    For me the easier bit with unfinished material has to do with audience questions. When I’m working with new/unpublished stuff, audience questions are generally helpful in advancing my thinking, giving me new angles, etc.

    When it’s speaking about a finished product, it’s harder because I find myself wanting to simply summarize what I’ve already written, which is boring for everyone involved.


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