Sunday, November 15, 2009

Job Talks

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

[I posted this as a comment to the thread over at PrawfsBlawg that Dan Markel started for those going through the AALS recruitment process, and decided to repost it here.  Over here, think of it as Jeopardy! - you can guess the question from my answer.]

FWIW, from somebody who has been arguing in courts of appeal, making presentations in business, sitting on panels, and giving academic talks for over 30 years. And listening to a lot of them.

30 minutes is too long. Plan for 15 to 20. At 30 minutes, people will either be squirming or interrupting. Trust me, there's nothing so critical in your talk that you need those extra minutes. You only think there is. When you think you've cut to the bone, cut again. The audience will never know.

Re giving a 60 page paper in 15-20 minutes, a couple points. First, can you really not get your thesis across in 15-20 minutes? There's a real problem if you can't. Second, even if you are in the center of the constitutional law strike zone, you aren't giving this paper to people who know this subject like you do, or even know anything about your area. This is an exercise in interdisciplinarity. Consider that you are giving your talk to a roomful of very intelligent laypeople, and think of all the detail filling those 60 pages as layers that you might draw on to amplify your basic points when it comes time for questions. Think of this like oral argument - you have just a few minutes to get across the problem you're addressing, the current state of intellectual play, your contribution, and why it matters. Don't get lost in the trees.

As to reading papers. Oy vey. Reading a paper, it seems to me, is at one of the rungs of hell, the only things lower being (1) reading the paper off tiny note cards in a meek monotone, and (2) reading verbatim the overly dense bullet points on a Power Point.

As to Powerpoint, much less is much more. Personally, I wouldn't use it unless there is something diagrammatic that simply needs to be viewed communally. Very brief outlines are helpful, but I think handouts are better for that, particularly if you have the text of a statute you are discussing.

As to the podium, nothing wrong with using notes. But don't use the podium like a crutch or a barrier. Step to the side from time to time. Particularly when it's time for Q & A, move out from behind the podium and get closer to the audience. Relax. Have fun. Be the master of your domain. My experience in a number of callbacks is that the audience wants you to succeed (very much) - nobody is comfortable witnessing a disaster, and the hope is always that you are the best thing since sliced bread. Even when you get challenging questions, it's because you have caused some mental gears to be engaged. View every question as an opportunity to be a teacher!

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