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On Discussing Formulas During Presentations — 2 Comments

  1. The ultimate question is always, “does the formula help tell the story?” Even scientific papers presented orally at meetings rarely show formulae; the point of the oral talk is to advertise the work and encourage people to read the paper (where the formulae are found). You’ve got to have a really compelling reason to show a formula.

    And if it really is compelling, then it will be worth the effort to spend time explaining what each of the parts signify. The nicest advice I ever got was to explain a formula as if it were a sentence in a language; the equal sign is the verb, the stuff to the left of the equal sign is the subject of the sentence, the stuff to the right is the direct object with all its adverbs and adjectives modifying each piece.

  2. I am a bit surprised to realize, now that you ask, that I very rarely show formulae in my talks. I guess I instinctively avoid them when putting together a presentation for a popular audience. (The Drake equation has turned up in a couple of my talks on extraterrestrial intelligence, more because of its historical role than because it is necessary to explain the subject.)

    (I do show plenty of graphs. I get a little anxious if one or both axes are logarithmic. Then I point out the logarithmic nature and I walk the audience through the quantities marked on the graph. I haven’t gotten negative feedback from people who don’t understand such graphs, so perhaps I’m doing it right.)

    The scientist-to-scientist talks I attend commonly make use of formulae. Unlike the short conference talks to which Brother Guy refers, the talks I hear are usually one-hour seminars, so the speaker can develop the background more fully. At a conference, one might have ten or fifteen minutes, so must gallop ahead to the results.

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