In April of 2012, I was invited to speak at TEDMED about my research on reproductive systems. I also took the opportunity to tell the audience we still have lots to learn about anatomy.
(Warning: there are some pictures of penises.)
So what's it like to give one of these big public talks? It's certainly different from a university classroom. First off, the audience is bigger. A lot bigger. Average size of my audience when I teach? About 50. TEDMED was held at the Kennedy Center's Opera House, and every seat on the main floor was filled. And that's not counting all the medical schools who were livestreaming the event. Intimidating? You bet. Add in the knowledge that the video was going to be on the internet, maybe forever, and you can understand why I was motivated to put a lot of time into writing and rehearsals.
The talks are also shorter than a class or a seminar. Classes and department seminars usually take about 45 minutes. The TEDMED limit? 12 minutes. Obviously, as Carl Zimmer pointed out in a recent Download the Universe post, that's not enough time to craft an extended argument. When your audience doesn't have any prior experience with your subject, 12 minutes is barely enough time to introduce it. And unlike a class, where you'd get the same audience 3 times a week, you have only one shot to get your point across. So when I planned my talk, I had to pick exactly one result from my research and build the talk around it. No graphs, no statistics, just the story leading up to that result and the reason it was meaningful.
Fortunately, the audience at one of these events is also more engaged than your average room of undergraduates. There are always some kids in a college class who are there because of genuine interest in the subject, but bigger classes also bring in students who are only there to fulfill a requirement – and they're as likely to be Facebooking their friends about their weekend plans as paying attention to the lecture. Judging from the number of people who stopped me to ask questions after my talk, the audience was definitely paying attention. Thanks, guys.