Are there good new formats for giving talks?

Some old formats:

1. Chalk and talk.  Or with Powerpoint.

2. Play a video and comment on it.

3. Panel discussion.

4. Debate.

5. Manage an audience or classroom discussion.

6. One person interviews another or interviews a panel.  Or, one person interviews another and children burst into the room, only to be pulled back by their mother.  This latter option seems popular right now.

7. All Q&A, no talk (one of my favorites).

8. All questions, no answers allowed from the speaker (never seen this one, but it does produce audience participation).

9. Read aloud from one’s book (the worst).

10. Play or sing a song, or perform in some other manner, such as doing periodic magic tricks.  Chat or trash talk while attempting basketball free throws.

Are there new formats worth considering?  Has anyone tried “Holding a two-person or group conversation while pretending the audience isn’t there”?  What else?


I heard of a talk at SXSWedu during which a keynote speaker said he had been busy and had not had time to prepare a talk, and so gave out his phone number and asked those attending to text him questions. My friend who was there said it was amazing!

Live Twits can work just as fine.

The "Live Twits" format is good. Especially if twits is not short for Twitter.

Talk boxing, each panel participant gets to give a 2 minute speech in between boxing rounds. Winner is declared if any speech converts ~10% of the crowd (from their pre-talk distribution) or by knockout.

Variant of

How is scoring done for chess boxing? As K. Arrow would say, it's not fair. For example, boxer Manny Pacquino of the Philippines might lose a game to a decent club player but, if he's allowed to first box then play chess, would knock out the chess player before the opening move could be played.

It seems they establish parity through minimum requirements of chess skill and boxing ability: "The current minimum requirements to fight in a Chess Boxing Global event include an Elo rating of 1600 and a record of at least 50 amateur bouts fought in boxing or another similar martial arts." That being said, I'm sure the relative disparity in skills in the different tasks is something actual participants work to train around.

OK thanks. I know one chess boxing promoter signed up GM Magnus Carlsen, current world #1 who likes to play football (soccer) and is rather heavy built (GM Simen Agdestein, a fellow Norwegian and sometime coach of Carlsen, was of professional calibre in his younger days at football) but I don't think anything came of it, it was just a publicity stunt. Pacman however does sponsor a lot of Philippine chess and is a chess lover. He favors Fischer Random (Chess 960) tournaments.

Are victories to be invalidated if it can be shown that highly relevant information was presented in a misleading manner or even outright false?

Socratic Method? With an audience member performing the role of the useful idiot, aka Simplicio in Galileo's books or one of Socrates' disciples:

Yeah, this is basically the same as Sock Puppetry.

I'm fond of the fishbowl discussion method of running debates/panels with lots of audience participation:

A lot of the other unconference methods work well too, although they're a little scary the first time due to the lack of top down filtering:

- Podcast (Rogan's format feels different)
- Any format adding alcohol
- Questions coming from social media

Along those lines, Comedian Doug Benson does an interview format where both interviewer and guest are intoxicated from marijuana. Example here:

Not my cup of tea but figured it fits with your given format.

There's also a YouTube series called "Hot Ones" in which both guest and interviewer eat their way through a series of increasingly spicy hot wings.

It sounds kind of stupid, but by the end guests are so vulnerable and out of their comfort zone that occasionally interesting things are said.

Live Q&A, but with audience questions submitted asynchronously via slack or similar and the speaker (or a moderator) choosing the most upvoted or most interesting questions to answer.

I was at a talk on Science and Religion where this worked very effectively. The speakers were Christian professors and the audience was students. They used a phone poll to find out what kind of students they were---basically, Christian vs. atheist--- which no doubt helped with the panel's approach. Then they asked for questions and for upvotes on the questions, and a moderator picked questions. They didn't just pick the ones with the most upvotes, but that was useful info. I was surprised at how dumb or vapid many of the questions with lots of upvotes were, which is a sign that if I were selecting questions without the voting, I'd pass over what a lot of people think they will find interesting.

I've always wanted to write a philosophical dialogue and present it as a ventriloquist act.

+1, great idea Matt! You really are a genius.

+1 But you wouldn't want me to tell them everything, would you Matt?


6. It may not have been the mother.

I thought it was the nanny or housekeeper.

I think it was the mother.

'Read aloud from one’s book (the worst).'

Somebody clearly does not bother to attend those events where a poet is reading.

If listening to a poet is that important.......why poems are sold in books instead of CD/Vinyl?

Good point. Poetry readings are indeed an example in support of what Tyler said.

Lightning talks are increasingly used in technical fields. They usually are around 5 minute talks, given in succession, without questions (or with questions held until the end). It's like a panel, but with shorter talks and no expectation that the speakers engage in any kind of dialogue.

This is similar to poster sessions. I thought I would not like poster sessions but I like them more and more.

I think the last one is similar to theater. I'd like too see that.

+1, came here exclusively to say the least one is a play. Beat me to it.

"Chat or trash talk while attempting basketball free throws."

Is this something we can look forward to in a future episode of 'Conversations with Tyler'?

Is this similar to the way fathers and (teenage) sons can talk while fishing, or watching a baseball game, about things they have difficulty with face to face?

An extension to 7, where they are required to (watch a video/read a paper) first, then go for a Q&A. Flipped classrooms applied to one shot presentations.

Here's a list of 50.

I just finished peter block's book Community: the structure of belonging, which references some of these techniques but focuses mostly on the "why". The book is short and informative. Ill admit it was a bit repetitive on certain points, perhaps intentionally, and sometimes he feels like he is drifting into "woo" but it was worth the time overall and this list is a very helpful, practical follow up. Thanks!

"7. All Q&A, no talk (one of my favorites)."

I'd say short talk (15 to 25 minutes) , long Q&A.

In the nineteenth century, there was a famous defection from a scientific conference to the Red Lion pub. In Birmingham I think. Instead of listening to talks at the conference, they went out for a pint. It was such a success they continued to meet from then on.

If they'd bbrought the beer to the conference, it might ahve worked out even better.

+1, that's just the kind of factoid that makes the MR comment section interesting

8 has gotten a lot more popular recently.

The last one you mentioned is the Talmudic discussion, widely assumed to be the secret of Jewish intellectual achievements. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky used to do their research through this kind of discussion. If it is so good at flexing the participants' brain muscles, it might have some effect on the audience, too.

You mean:

"10. Play or sing a song, or perform in some other manner, such as doing periodic magic tricks. Chat or trash talk while attempting basketball free throws."

The current published format of the Talmud is surrounded by other commentaries, which makes it more like a discussion across blogs or other forms of hypertext than a form of speaking to an audience.

You forgot "give a talk to a room fall of people who are superficially present but actually focused entirely on unrelated content on their laptops/iPads/pocket brains," which is an especially popular new format on University campuses today.

Or, in other words, "hold a one personal lecture while the audience pretends you aren't there."

I like Coversations with Tyler, and I hope it keeps going, but I'm sure it was Tyler's intention for them to be more like Conversations than Interviews.

Tyler prepares for his guests, but they don't prepare for him - they treat it like it's an interview, so it becomes one (mostly).

The Complacent (Conversation) Class

Agreed, I'm generally disappointed that guests rarely ask Tyler for his answers to at least some of the questions he asks.

Except Tyler is a sneakingly excellent interviewer. If this whole 'economist' thing doesn't quite work out for him, I think filling in for Terry Gross could be a good backup plan ;)

If Tyler wants it to be more of a 'conversation', he's going to need to be a bit more assertive in pressing his own views - e.g. Ezra Klein, Sam Harris. But the reason I love Conversations with Tyler is that he *doesn't* press his own opinions, he'll ask interesting and potentially tough to answer questions. His style sort of reminds me of a more respectful, better read Charlie Rose.

Agreed, TC excels at this.

Yes, the two person conversation pretending the audience is not there has been tried.

#10. When I was a post-doc in the Cornell Chemistry Dept a lot of years ago the great synthetic chemist, Koji Nakanish came up for a series of lectures. Professor Nakanishi was an outstanding magician and while he did not do periodic magic tricks during his chemistry lectures he set aside one hour bedazzling all of us with his magic.

6. I recently read a piece (it could have been a book review) that complimented Cowen for not using his family as a prop. Take my wife . . . . please. Cowen's conversations is a great format. The most recent biography of Thomas Jefferson, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs, was written by two very different co-authors, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf. The two went on a speaking tour in which they would sit on stage and have a conversation about the book. No questioner, just the two authors discussing the book. It's excellent. Maybe Cowen and his co-author could do the same.

Spend some time in Vegas (recommended during CES) and Disney World. You'll probably get a few more ideas.

Twitter flame war projected on screen while audience watches.

1. Speaker gets 1 piece chalk & a blackboard Audience gets several cases of cheap beer×

2. Each presenter at a poster session gets one slide and one minute. Audience knows there are beers at the posters

I knew a chap who was down to give a specialist seminar. A small audience turned up. He led them to the river, hired a punt and punter, and they cruised the Cam discussing his latest work. Apparently it was great success, helped perhaps by the Champers, the sunshine, and the ducks.

A little bit of decadence from time to time is a fine thing.

'Chalk and talk.'

How about just talk?

Almost everyone uses props badly. A presenter who can speak clearly for an hour with no notes or slides is someone worth seeing.

Sure, but sometimes there are things that are *much easier* to explain with a picture or a graph, or even an equation (though filling your slides with equations, even for a technical talk in a math-heavy field, is a common noob mistake).

A good presentation with slides uses the slides to complement the talk--big points that are important to remember, pictures, graphs, tables, and equations show up on the slides. A good gauge for this--if I could read your slides to get most of the value of your talk, then your talk probably wasn't very good.

Someone named Spencer Greenberg recently put together a long blog post about alternative presentation formats, here:

Television gives us the answers. People like Judge shows, trial drama shows, and American Idol shows. These are like "debates" in a way, but more entertaining. In all of these instances, there is an element of drama in either the adversarial nature of the partisan advocates and the neutral skepticism of the judge. Indeed, the audience likes to imagine themselves as siding with (or intelligence, instincts, and taste vindicated by) the judge, who is confirming their internal doubts and voicing their clever criticisms and nitpicks. On the American Idol shows, the good-cop / bad-cop / fair-cop dynamic also helps a great deal, there is always always a judge that shares your perspective. So for maximum captivation, "talks" should be arranged so as to mimic the structure of these trials and dramas. The trouble is that many speakers aren't interested in "being on" or in live dispute or debate anymore, and interviewers are walking on eggshells and being too buddy-buddy to avoid losing "access". And speakers look at the scarce time available for talks as a resource they must optimize for maximum increase in favorable publicity, influence, and status. Any juxtaposition with opposing views is thus counterproductive for this purpose. So hosts are interviewing their friends in a friendly way, as if a member of a mutual promotion society. That's boring!

I've participated in the the "hold a group conversation with an audience watching" format (12 people). It was designed primarily to teach the audience how to constructively participate in discussions. Felt like an interesting combination of theater, lecture, and private discussion.

Other formats, mostly powered by smartphones:
- Repeated audience polling (+/- discussion between audience members)
- "Choose your own adventure" lecture with audience polling ("Choose the next topic:")
- Group debate where audience members periodically vote out members of the debate group until a winner is crowned
- Gameshows

For podcasts, my favorite is the TWIV/TWIM style--basically a journal club with the listener getting to sit in on it, and with the participants occasionally explaining unfamiliar terms or concepts. (Maybe like what you'd do if you had a journal club, and a couple of undergrads in your field were invited to sit in--you might spend a little extra time explaining it to them. I'm a regular participant in a reading club that does something like this, because we have a lot of participants from related fields who'd like to understand the paper being discussed, but don't always have all the background needed to get it.

Similar to number 10, have the participants eat a meal during the event. This can be all Q&A or using talks, or any format, but they must continue eating over the length of the hour. Bonus points if the audience gets fed as well. The whole experience feels warmer and more inviting.

As usual for TC, and here in this instance I'll admit usefully so, "talks" is left undefined. Talks with what goal? Entertain? Inform? Motivate? (misinform, demotivate/confuse, anger, pacify, recruit, convince, ...).
The best televised talks I've seen were the series done by Annenburg (man, I think that was it, it was decades ago) on PBS where a panel of experts (with little overlap in specialty) were given roles to play in some scenario and the moderator would give them some hypothetical information and ask them what they'd do (in their role). One series was, IF I recall correctly (and I may not), on some part of the Constitution, another was on either health care or euthanasia. They were excellent, although probably dated now. It must have required an enormous effort by the moderator, as well as (I speculate here) a staff of writers. The problem with using texting or even filtered texting is that the quality will depend on the ability of the reader to recognize quality questions in a sea of uninformative ones. Someone beat me to audience up/down voting questions. How about an audience jury system, in order to determine facts/admissible evidence and compare that to the "reveal" which is the expert consensus. Are (random, to some degree) remote audiences better at discerning quality or fact than people who have more invested? I doubt it.

The Bezos method:

Anytime an Amazon worker has an idea to discuss, they're asked to structure their pitch in the form of a four-to-six-page memo, which the company calls a "narrative."

They then take their pitches to team meetings, where the first 20 minutes or so are spent reading the memo. After, the presenter
fields questions from the rest of the team.

20 minutes?

Do their lips move as they read?

I don't think that it translates well into a recorded format, but there was a school in ancient Greece that used to do their instruction while walking. I believed they were called the Peripatetics.

Here is another idea; exchanges of extemporaneous poetry like was done in East Asia. I guess the contemporary equivalent would be a rap battle.

11. Create an internet meme.

12. Twitter.

13. Trolling.

Oh I forgot my favorite:
14. Sock puppetry.

Goethe's first contact with the Faust story was via a puppet show - according to the introduction in my edition.

Passing this link along in case anyone here finds it useful: I compiled a list of 47 different formats that can be applied when bringing together groups of people that don't already know each other (that go beyond the standard formats of lectures, panels, etc.)

11. All comments from audience, no speech from the speaker (popular at higher institutions of learning these days).

You beat me to it!

That is a horrible format. The audience never learns what the speaker is trying to convey, first of all. Usually they're supposed to ahve read the paper beforehand, but they haven't. Also, the questions are comments, not questions, because it seems stupid to say, "On p. 25 I don't understand how you get from equation (12) to equation (13)" even if that's crucial.

What's best is a talk with questions to interrupt it so the audience can make sure it understands and can dwell on what's interesting to the audience. These questions can include "Skip the literature review-- go straight to your model" and "You only have 30 minutes left. How about going to your regression results now?"

My experience with Q&A is that it can fall apart if somebody in the audience wants to have a pubic conversation. The upvoting of submitted questions works very well.

I am a bit surprised no one has yet suggested "Middlebury Rules." The speaker begins and then the audience stands up, turns its collective back to him or her, and (this is in the Extended Middlebury Rules model), tries to shout her or him down, also.

Interaction is somewhat limited, but the format is quite efficient in terms of time, everyone can go home earlier than expected.

I am a big fan of the talks that aim at different levels of expertise in succession. I've been at talks on machine learning that function well at the novice level all the way through advanced practitioner, but its a pretty rare event. An example of the format is this one from Wired that covers a neuroscientist explaining a concept to a 5 year old, 13 year old, college student, graduate student in neuroscience, and expert neuroscientist. I imagine this type of talk could work in a variety of different subjects/disciplines.

Podcasts should be distinguished from other forms because listeners can take them in while doing doing other jobs. Pods can also be paused and replayed, and there is often a transcript, too. There is also a greater chance to follow up by following links to other resources or even methods of communicating with the guest. In an interview with a newspaper, most interviewees agree to speak to end conversations, whereas many people that appear in pods seem to desire the start of a conversation. Finally, I've noticed that some contain dialogue that lasts over an hour (Tim Ferris regularly goes 1.5 to 2 hours). I've found that I encounter interesting ideas in long pods in ways that I almost never see elsewhere, and I think part of it is the length requires guests to share their interesting rehearsed content and then they have to dig a bit deeper to produce more tentative conclusions, which intrigue for different reasons. An aside, there were a lot of great things that happened on the Internet in the last ten years, but many of them have become watered down (blogs) or obsolete (Google Reader). Hopefully "longform" pods endure as I have found them better than almost every other method of absorbing ideas other than 1:1 conversation with a professor.

Surprised no one seems to have mentioned talk + pre-moderated Q&A. Give your talk, meanwhile people write down questions and drop them in a hat and a separate moderator picks the best x to present at the end. Less transparent and spontaneous, but mercifully fewer boring diatribe questions.

Yeah. You lose the interactive element, and you accept the moderator as a filter for worthwhile questions, in exchange for avoiding "questions" where the person really wants to give a speech of his own on your time.

" ... one person interviews another and children burst into the room, only to be pulled back by their mother..." That one is marvellous. I would listen to anything presented in that format.

Warning the audience that they're going to have to vote to answer questions isn't bad for forcing attention.

For an audience of practitioners, who know they need to be trained on something boring but useful, I have seen a presenter labour his way through a talk on the mechanics of keeping tort damages reasonably consistent across a jurisdiction, by giving out the mini-reward, after every section, of slides of views of and from Rudyard Kipling's beautiful house.

The "Do-Now."

UVa's Dan Willingham puts it this way: "Memory is the residue of thought."

Translation: Whatever the puzzle is that you are about to solve for the audience, give them 5 to 10 minutes first to think about it, even with very limited info. Then spend 3 to 5 minutes pulling those ideas from the audience. All of that is "activation." Then give your talk.

Example if you're Robert E. Kelly

1. "Think of whatever little bit you may know about South Korea. Now think of West Germany in 1989: remember whatever you can. Compare South Korea now and West Germany then. Write down whatever you can for the next 3 minutes."

2. "Time's up. Pair up with a person next to you. What were you able to scribble down? Read your scribbles to your partner."

3. "Time's up. Eyes back up here. Raise your hand to share what you and your partner wrote. I won't comment, I just want to hear what you have. You in the green, go first. Great, who can build on that? Thank you, who can add to that? I'll take 3 more comments."

4. Okay, that brings me to my talk: The German-Korean unification parallel, and I'll hit on (or correct) all the points that you just made.

I like this without #2, which seems awkward and difficult in most talk audiences I see (various individuals scattered a few seats apart). But the idea of encouraging the audience to think about the problem and then contextualizing your solution appeals to me.

What about starting with a pretest geared towards the main points of your talk?

Multiple Small Groups of 4, each person in the small group gets an identical printed article. 1/3 Time to Read, 1/3 Time to Discuss, 1/3 Time for each group to report back their findings on the article/subject and the group members thoughts, often sparking discussion. We call it a mini inquiry.

Running this question in reverse: there are ways to take oral formats and use them in writing articles that should be more often used. Economics sort of does this by the custom of having the author present his paper at seminars before publishing it, and incorporating the questions and comments into his paper (usually with the motive of forestalling a referee's questions and comments).

For our law-and-econ lunch group's approach to reviewing a book, see:

Review Discussion: Game Theory and the Law (with Kenneth Dau- Schmidt, Michael Alexeev, Jeff Stake, and Bob Heidt), Law and Society Review . Our dialogue- form review of the 1994 book by Douglas Baird, Robert Gertner \& Randall Picker. Law and Society Review, 31: 613-629 (1997). In Ascii txt- HTML or pdf (

Talk with multimedia and audio and music. Way more advanced and effective (and time-consuming and labor-intensive) than PowerPoint.


Reverse debate. Participants are informed of the debate topic and their positions prior to the event. Once they show up they are told that they will actually be taking the other side of the debate.

If you cannot thoroughly understand and defend your opponent's point of view, it is unlikely you actually understand the topic well at all. The element of surprise is, of course, important here.

Reflecting teams were developed in Norway by Tom Andersen and his colleagues. Some of us have adapted them for other learnign purposes.

Pewdiepie seems popular and similar videos too. So do something on your computer, broadcast the screen and comment on what you're doing.

Tyler, you haven't heard of PechaKucha? It's the latest presentation craze from Japan!

Joe Rogan through his The Joe Rogan Experience podcast does the last suggestion. They have free-flowing 3 to 4 and 1/2 hour conversations sometimes with pulling up videos throughout and commenting on the video. They talk like there is no camera, for the most part. I don't mean this literally, of course, but effectively.

I watch it on Youtube, because my favorite hobby is to watch conversations. You should go on the show. He has a huge audience actually, 30 million download per month. Kind of a cult favorite who attracts all types of people including academics like myself.

As an amateur, although pretty good, magician, I often injected magic tricks into my lectures as an economics professor at Temple University. One that always got their attention was when I took a dollar bill and tore it into pieces, said the magic words "Alan Greenspan" and restored it to its full glory. Or, when I was able to predict the serial number of a dollar bill I had never seen, randomly provided by a member of the class. Needless to say, the tricks were not simply thrown in to entertain my class, but rather, to illustrate a point about the subject matter of the day.

Comments for this post are closed