I’ve noticed a common failure mode among academic conference keynotes and other large audience talks that I’ve started calling a “no-op” talk.1 These talks are often delivered well and have reasonably good structure, but they misunderstand their audience in an important way. A no-op talk is unconvincing for your skeptics and boring for your allies.

So how do you know if you’re giving a no-op talk? The classic form goes something like this:

  1. Center your talk around a controversial opinion.
  2. Recognize that you have allies in the audience, and spend most of your talk trying to inform them rather than persuade skeptics.
  3. Recognize that you have skeptics in the audience, and simplify your informative points so that the skeptics can understand them.

Did you see what happened? In point (2) you decided to alienate your skeptics, but then in point (3) you decided to bore your allies. The resulting talk doesn’t really work for anyone.

By way of example, consider a talk arguing that dogs are better than cats. If the speaker starts “we all know that playing fetch is the greatest joy in the world” — alienating many cat lovers — but then continues with shallow discussion of well-known dog breeds — boring the dog lovers — that’s a no-op talk.2

When writing an opinionated talk, you need to carefully consider your goals. Are you trying to sway the skeptics? In that case, start from first principles and speak to their values. When taking this approach, don’t forget to be humble and to honestly engage with the arguments against your stance; this will make the audience more likely to trust you. You can do this in a way that is useful for your allies as well — presenting a really clear and convincing argument for your point gives your allies ammunition to argue that point in the future.

On the other hand, you may say f*** the skeptics, I want to make my point without concessions. In that case, just write the talk for your allies. Make points that they’ll find interesting and surprising, and make them in enough detail to show real depth. This may be confusing for those who disagree with you, but, if you do it right, the skeptics in the room may find that your opinion has more technical merit than they had expected. They’ll be confused, but they may be compelled to clarify that confusion later, rather than simply dismissing your opinion as shallow and unfounded (as they would with a no-op talk).

I know that giving talks is really difficult, and giving good talks is even harder. Academic researchers are not trained orators, and it’s totally understandable that not all large talks will land. But I think that being a bit more mindful about our audiences and how our talks might impact them is a great first step towards better academic communication.

  1. Named after “no-op” computer instructions, which have no effect. 

  2. For a programming languages audience, a more specialized version: consider a talk arguing that all software should be proved correct. If the speaker starts “we all know that correctness is the most important thing in software engineering” — alienating many — but then continues with shallow discussion of the available tools for proving code correct — boring the true believers — that’s a no-op talk.