A call for lightning talks at scientific conferences

Short talks can be incredibly exciting. And when they’re not, at least they’re over soon.

At this year’s BEACON Congress, we had undergraduate lightning talks. One student, three slides, five minutes. Next. I rather enjoyed this session. In my mind, some of the most engaging talks of that conference happened in that session. (And I’m not saying this just because my student Dariya won an award for best science presented.) This got me thinking. Maybe we should institute lightning talks more commonly at conferences. And not just for undergraduates, for everybody.

The beauty of the lighting talk is that presenters have to focus meticulously on the most relevant aspects of their work. And the good presenters absolutely manage to do that. They get their story across in three slides no problems. As expected, the bad presenters don’t. However, they wouldn’t do well with more time either, and at least a bad lightning talk is over quickly. Normally, a talk that bores you to death would continue on for twenty minutes or more, up to, God forbid, an entire hour if it’s a keynote speaker.

So here is my proposition: We should make lightning talks a more common feature of scientific conferences. Don’t just have lightning-talk sessions for undergraduates, also have them for more senior scientists (yes, up to and including established principal investigators). This would allow more people to present their work, and at the same time it would generate more opportunities for one-on-one interactions.

Specifically, I’d like to suggest the following. Consider a regular afternoon session at a conference, 2pm to 6pm, with two parallel tracks. Let’s assume 10 talks per track (approx. 20 minutes per talk plus one or two short coffee breaks). That’s 20 talks during the afternoon, of which any given conference attendee can see at most 10. I’d replace those two parallel tracks with a single track of lightning talks combined with associated poster sessions for the people who just presented. E.g., 2pm–2:50pm, 10 speakers give their lightning talks. 2:50pm–4pm, the same 10 speakers present their posters. 4pm–4:50pm, another 10 speakers give their lightning talks. 4:50pm–6pm, the second 10 speakers present their posters.

Do I think that all talks at conferences should be replaced by lightning talks? Probably not. (Even though I’m tempted to say yes, my tolerance for boring or poorly presented talks is pretty low.) However, a good mix of invited keynote talks, regular 20 minute talks, and lightning talks would probably make for a very exciting and dynamic conference. I hope somebody tries this out. If you do, please invite me!

Claus O. Wilke
Professor of Integrative Biology


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