Thursday, December 03, 2009


Lately I've been hearing a piece of advice given for formal presentations: to disarm your audience with a self-deprecating joke near the beginning of your talk.

The idea is, your audience will be less defensive and less likely to attack you if you acknowledge that you

a) may be wrong
b) may sound arrogant, but you don't mean to be
c) don't really want to be attacked.

I heard it more than once, thought it was stupid, and perhaps more importantly, a waste of a slide when you could be showing data (which should also, supposedly, make your audience less likely to want to chase you with pitchforks and torches).

And then I saw somebody do it. And thought it was stupid and clumsy and a waste of a slide, but I still found it sort of cute in spite of my thinking that. Which I guess is the point?

So my question is, does everybody think this is a necessary part of scientific presentations? Is it a new requirement?

I mean, it's one thing to start with a joke. I especially love it when someone uses a cartoon that has a double meaning for real life and the philosophy of science. Especially for an hour-long seminar (not so much for short talks, then it is definitely a waste of a slide!).

But a joke specifically aimed at yourself - isn't there a risk of coming across as being weak, like, "I'll pick on myself first! Please don't pick on me!!!"?

Note also that I got this advice from men; and the person I saw who did it was also a man. So I'm somewhat skeptical as to whether this would work for women, but especially for junior women. I'm afraid it just comes across as unprofessional, even more arrogant (who can afford to waste data slides??), or weak (and therefore even more attackable).

What do you think?

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At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Thinkerbell said...

So here's how I feel about jokes and funny asides:
1) They don't work if you make them for the sake of making them. I think you either have the personality to do it - or not. Man or woman - I don't care.
2)For some reason it works better (for me at least) if a slightly more senior person does it. I've seen similar jokes and asides being made by a few-years'-in postdoc and by a junior-to-senior group leader. And for some reason, from the first one it comes across as forced and arrogant: It's usually because they hit on some grand theme of life and then go backt a detail-oriented presentation. It feels like a bit of a disconnect, like an "I can do big picture stuff - only I will forget about it for the next 30 slides".
3) Whatever you do, make it real. Great Hotshot Prof once gave a talk and I LOVED his funny introduction. Until I heard him speak someplace else a year later and heard the exact same joke up to the last word. That did not impress me. So funny: yes. Forced funny: no.

At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is nothing you can do to prevent being hit by the dickswinging. When insecure babies want to cut a woman down, they will do it. It's Default mode. I had this happen YESTERDAY for 2 hours nonstop. Four times, I was interrogated and thumped for using a method that has 1000s of citations that a senior male colleague developed. I answered as I always do with explaining the stats and the validity. Not good enough, add more thumps. Repeated the same answer four times, getting more WTF IS HIS PROBLEM angrier by the minute. Instead of thumping my colleague (and much much senior to the dickswinger), he went after me like a surrogate pinata because I happen to be in his grasp. I finally said to call the senior male, who I'm sure would enjoy teaching the little boy some of the research ropes. He won't call, he's scared of getting his ass handed to him like all the other little boys.

I did my best to make it seem like his thumping concerns didn't matter in my world (they don't). Inserting a joke would have made no difference, especially considering I was making jokes and trying to cut the tension he was creating all along. He lost me as a collaborator because of his dickswingery.

This reminds me of battered women. THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO TO PREVENT BEING ATTACKED. My solution has been to seek out women to work with, which means for me, being global networks.

At 10:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you should only do it if it works for you. If you're not inherently "funny", telling jokes can be somewhat forced. Of course, examples of government funded research that produces non-results is always funny ;-P

The most brilliant example I saw once was a guy, fully realizing that most seminar attendees don't pay attention anyway, who every 15 minutes would "pop quiz" a completely unrelated/off topic question on a slide. "What's the difference between a ship and a boat?". "Which whale is this?" "Can you identify this WWII tank?". This would wake people up and reset their 17-minute attention span.

At 11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that it is popular and can be effective. But I've mostly seen it with more senior scientists. I feel I (as a junior scientist) couldn't pull it off well.

At 11:29 AM, Anonymous oliviacw said...

Absolutely not a necessary part. I think it can be a useful technique for some speakers - those who have a great power differential in their favor. When used by a tenured, senior prof with a major reputation in the field, say. Or a man who has powerful physical characteristics. Or someone from a major research university who is speaking at a regional SLAC. In other words, it can be useful in order to bring the person with power "down to earth" so that the audience will listen and not be intimidated.

However, it's not a good technique for people who need to use the talk to show their expertise and knowledge. In other words, anyone who is not in a socially privileged position, like, oh, women, minorities, people in junior positions....

At 11:53 AM, Blogger Becca said...

I think the types of jokes you can tell might be somewhat different, but it's ok for anyone.

Professors can get away with ones that would (if we didn't know their publication record) imply they are ultra-dumb like "and then we got this blot. I didn't know what on earth it meant. Then my grad student turned it right-side-up for me. But we still weren't sure! So then we did..."

Postdocs should aim for things that expose their competence, but show that they keep it in perspective "And then, low and behold, it worked just like we hypothesized- and the very first time! I think I dropped my coffee I was so shocked, that may be the first time we got it to work in one go. Of course, we had to repeat the result just to be sure..."
Gradstudents are better off with garfield comics.

I think being female might mean it's safer to avoid a joke that is *too* negative, but it's not like I've consciously ever dinged anyone for a remotely funny joke and usually get automatic points for trying (on both confidence and competence).

At 12:04 PM, Blogger EngiNerd said...

For women self-deprecating jokes are bad. The bias (whether conscience or not) against women makes it difficult for women presenters to appear Scientifically Compentent. Self-deprecating jokes reaffirm audience's bias and discounts the woman speaker even more.

A joke with a cartoon like you suggest is a good way for women to incorporate humor into a long presentation. Stay away from self-depreciating in any way for women. Men play by a different set of rules.

I have some actual sources that go into more detail about this if you are interested.

At 12:12 PM, Anonymous DayByDay said...

I think most audiences just want to hear a good story (usually science related, but sometimes personal ones too), and so they're actually rooting for you to do well. Otherwise it's an unenjoyable experience. Most of us know what it's like when the data seem really exciting and interesting, but the speaker/presentation just make it too painful or distracting to enjoy.

So I figure, use whatever mechanism you need in order to deliver your message while making it enjoyable for your audience. If it means making a joke about yourself to break the ice/lower the tension, then so be it. The most important thing is delivering your message, telling your story.

I'm a female postdoc and I've never started off with a joke about myself - but I often include some subtle humor throughout my talks when it feels appropriate. But I've never had to give a talk to a hostile audience that needed to be "tamed" either.

And then, as you mentioned, there's the whole gender issue with being a comedian... studies have suggested that women think more highly of funny men than men do of comedic women. It sort of sucks that as women we have to worry more about being taken seriously that we might avoid a perfectly suitable device like humor to help tell the stories about our exciting science.

At 12:20 PM, Blogger Rosie said...

I don't think it's a waste of a slide.. it could be a waste of time if spend more than a few moments on it, but it's not like you have a set slide limit for any given talk.

I think it benefits the people with personalities that might come off as pretentious or arrogant. If it is used by someone who is pretty meek otherwise then it might come off as weak... but otherwise it is just showing the audience that the speaker doesn't take him/herself completely seriously and that can be a very good thing.

At 12:36 PM, Blogger cookingwithsolvents said...

I vote no @ an entire slide. A funny turn of phrase or SHORT anecdote, sure, IF that's within your personality.

The best advice is to be yourself. If you are an all-business kind of person that's OK. The risk outweighs the reward if you flub the joke, offend somebody, etc.

At 12:42 PM, Blogger whyme? said...

I agree that jokes about science/ meaning of life type things are great when they work well. But I don't like most of the self-deprecating ones. The only ones that seem to work for me are when it's a way for a megascientist to give credit to the postdoc/grad student who actually did the work.

For younger people, I advise my students not to use them. In fact, one of my more frequent comments to new students practicing talks is to quit apologizing for or deprecating their own data. It's fine to say something along the lines of "our preliminary data supports..." but I really dislike the "I'm sorry this gel is so awful" stuff. If it's so bad that you can't interpret it, don't show it. If you can interpret it and have proper controls etc., don't apologize for it.

And by the way, in the days of powerpoint, nobody believes you when you say "I have other gels/images/whatever that show this better" We know what you are showing is the best you've got...

And this is one case where I agree that young scientists and especially young female scientists are likely to have this backfire. I tell my students that there's no point in attacking yourself and talking down your science-- there are plenty of people who will take care of that for you.

At 1:22 PM, Blogger Dr. Smith said...

Well, I think it's a nice ice-breaker, whether the speaker is male or female. And maybe it's just me, but I'm always a bit impressed when a junior-level (grad student or postdoc) speaker starts out with something like that, as long as they back it up with a fantastic talk. I read it as they are confident enough to make a joke, and smart enough to roll into the data without a hitch. It's nice to see.

Where it backfires is if the speaker tries to use it to charm the audience away from noticing that their data/talk is crap. Then it just pisses me off.

At 1:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yup. I totally agree with you on thinking that insults toward oneself are unprofessional. We already have problems with women in the sciences; women have to work so much harder to be on the radar in science. Why bring this sort of thing upon oneself? I think that I may have tried this in grad school >7 y ago and, let me tell you, no one was impressed. (Yes, I am a woman who was told at her grad school interviews: 'what are you doing here, why aren't you going to med school.' Enough said.

"Don't try this at seminar."

At 1:41 PM, Anonymous lost academic said...

"But a joke specifically aimed at yourself - isn't there a risk of coming across as being weak, like, "I'll pick on myself first! Please don't pick on me!!!""

Sure, there's a risk, and it's because the same action done in different ways can be interpreted very differently. The point of aiming a joke at yourself isn't to create an illusion of confidence, it's to bolster it. You have to be either confident or appear so in the other more obvious ways for it to work. You have to strike the right balance, and obviously that's hard to do for some people, which is why getting more practice and more feedback are key.

I don't think age has a lot to do with it. You're either going to do something amusing and mood-setting correctly based on the type of talk you're giving, you're going to do it wrong, or you're not going to do it at all. I've seen a wide variety of people do similar things successfully, and they all just fit with that particular person well in all the situations where it worked. If it didn't work, then universally, the talk had its own problems, primarily in terms of delivery and clarity.

At 2:12 PM, Anonymous lurulu said...

I tend to make self-deprecating jokes about me in real life all the time, I don't really mind and it's sorta funny, taking oneself not to seriously and all that.

Now. For scientific presentations. Of MY work: no, no, no.
I've been told many times: no jokes on you, no apologizes, no "sorry if the labels are not clear", none of that. I don't know who could give advice on the opposite.

I also agree on your last paragraph: those jokes might be less harmful if told by a man, but still, I don't think I'd throw them even if I were.

But let's see what other people say...

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Foreign and Female in Science said...

I have used a cartoon on many occasions, especially during my Ph.D. in our yearly department presentations. I usually pick from Ph.D comics, xkcd, grimmy, -- the ones about seminars, the one about how the less you know the closer you are to your ph.d, and so on, i.e. ones that are a commentary on the science, the settings, or the social context.

Here is my reasoning. Say talk starts at 4pm. People trickle in at 3:55 to uhm maybe 4:05 or 4:10 depending on how much the moderator wants to wait for more people. And the poor people who came in early sit there and stare at either

Shinies by X and Y at A univ and Z at C college


Creation and Properties of Shinies 102324 and 131433 in the Twilight Hours as Observed Through ARGH Detectors and Modeled with the Hottest Science Model (of which I will not go into details since i don't have the time but feel free to ask me about it)

by X and Y at A univ and Z in C college

Or you can stare at one of the above titles with a nice cartoon to make you think a bit and be entertained. Because I am thankful you came on time. And I don't know how else to show my appreciation. And I want you to not be bored. Especially since you may get tempted to start thinking about your work and be distracted.

Of course I spend 0 actual time on the cartoon. However, there are other ways to use cartoons effectively. I wrote out a complete example, but then I realized it will dead give away who I am, so I deleted it. I'd be happy to share it privately.

At 2:41 PM, Anonymous Liz said...

I recently saw this done by one of the world's-best scientists in my particular field (a joke about him being balding that tied into the science - very well done). Because he was such a big name, people loved it and it did put the crowd at ease.

I personally think it is a tactic that only makes sense if you are at the absolute top of the field to who you are presenting. For those who are less established/newer PIs, I don't really see the point and don't see it going over well (regardless of gender)

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Dr. Brazen Hussy said...

Hmm... I would not do that.

Earlier this week I gave my big seminar and started with a joke - but it was making fun of a senior faculty member who was in the audience and on the committee to promote me. It went over extremely well and was a nice way to start. I used it to illustrate a problem in my subfield, so it wasn't irrelevant.

But I wouldn't want to start out making fun of myself. Instead, if there is a flaw in one of my projects, I'll go ahead and point it out and talk about how I want to fix it - I find that makes people very sympathetic.

At 3:42 PM, Anonymous AtmosScientist said...

Speakers who show themselves to have at least a little sense of humor at the start of their talks get a positive start in communicating their work to me.

I think it's great to take your work seriously but to do it in a fun way. Science doesn't have to be boring and tedious, we should be able to have a good time while doing it!

As for your concern about women not being taken seriously if doing this, I could see both sides of the argument...but I think showing some humor about your work/field displays that you are calm/relaxed about your work, not nervous. I'd consider it a positive.

At 6:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do it all the time. I work on the basis that a little bit of audience rapport and making the science entertaining aids communication just as much as excellent figures/graphs. If you can pull it off great. If you don't have comedic timing I guess it would look a bit tragic.

I know some confident reasonably senior women (but not too senior) who will do the same. But it's probably true in my subfield that women don't employ humour as often as the men will. And the field is very egalitarian in the terms of gender- all the way to the top too.

But maybe it is a symptom that women feel less comfortable? Or it's because the women I have in mind are so damned good that they don't need to do build rapport. They already have everybody's full attention based on their acumen.


At 8:37 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Thinkerbell- I agree. I think the consensus is that if you are a senior, powerful man and want to come across as non-scary or non-arrogant, then do it. Young men and women usually seem pretentious when they try to use the same tricks, is what I'm getting from these comments.

Personally, my problem is that I'm sort of in between. I'm funny when I'm relaxed, but when I try to make jokes in presentations, it usually feels forced to ME. so it probably comes across as forced to others, too. So then I don't do it. But that probably makes me seem humorless and/or bitchy.

jc- that SUCKS. this is why I daydream about building a shelter for battered women scientists. =(

anon 10:47, I'm totally going to use that pop quiz trick with my students! I've never seen it before but I think it's hilarious! Especially since it's all military (wtf is up with that?)!

EngiNerd, I want more detail. Can you post it here or should I email you?


I think the problem is, you don't always know which audiences will be hostile. So then if you try to diffuse a perceived tension, sometimes it will work and other times your audience will be full of people going, "what is she talking about?"

I agree re: comedy and gender. It's a sad commentary on our culture.

Rosie- the funny thing is, most people who are pretentious or arrogant DON'T KNOW IT. and how you come across can be hard to judge unless somebody specifically tells you (somebody who is not, apparently, a senior power-dude who is just repeating what he figured out works well for him).

cookingwithsolvents, I like you way you put that. The risk outweighs the reward.

whyme? I agree with everything you said, except maybe the "best you have" argument. I was brought up with the idea that the gel should be REPRESENTATIVE, not the one pretty one that you can never repeat quite the same way.

Dr.Smith- exactly. But how do you, as a speaker, know if you are going to be able to pull it off? I guess that is really what I'm asking.

antipodean - I think you mean "reputation", not "acumen". One is earned on the fly, which means building rapport has to be done. The other is pre-existing (hopefully due to establishment of the first).

At 4:36 AM, Blogger FEP said...

Thanks for a great post! The comments are wonderfull too. I am constantly in search of ways to make my presentations and particularly classroom teaching more enjoyable. I teach courses that include equation derivations and such, that can be quite boring.

At 10:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read an article by some advertising guy that talked about using formality level as a way to shake up the preconceptions of the audience. If you were pitching a really out-there idea for an ad campaign, you would dress and act as formally as possible, so the client would be subconsciously reassured that you had considered the options and weren't just doing this because you like the crazy. If you were pitching something conservative, you would do the opposite. Then the client knows that you aren't just imagination-challenged, and you could go bigger and badder but chose not to.

I think science talks work the same way. If you're a Dr. Big F. Deal, or you are presenting something safe and incremental, you have the Science Establishment(TM) stamp of approval. This gives you the space to tell jokes, humanize yourself, and try to counteract the perception that you might be arrogant, stodgy, or boring. If you're an unknown, or your work is controversial, not so much. You need to bring the professionalism 110%, or you'll get written off as weak or crazy.

At 10:55 AM, Anonymous outlaw josey wales said...

The reason a self deprecating joke works is that everyone knows that the guy is famous & powerful. That's what makes it funny(er).

If you're not a super powerful woman, do not under any circumstances say ANYTHING self deprecating about yourself. It will make you seem weak. Never apologize for anything either. If there's a mistake on your slide, make a "fake" apology, i.e. yeah, that should be X, or yeah, that might need to be clearer then MOVE ON quickly.

I think the most effective presentations by women are those where they show exceptional command of their topic, have dotted every i, and know their shit inside out, backwards, and upside down. The presentation is crisp and professional. Anything less and it'll be "she doesn't know wtf she is talking about."

At 11:52 AM, Blogger butterflywings said...

I wouldn't make a *self-deprecating* joke at work - it would backfire on me. As a young, junior female it is hard enough to be perceived as competent anyway.

At 2:39 PM, Anonymous female post doc in science said...

I would never do that. The selfdepriciating joke that is. Not in a scientific presentation. I'd joke, or have a cartoon, a smaller disarming joke but that is p[artly my persona... and that's would I would go with. I wouldn't try and joke if you aren't one normally.

And yes, women have less leer way here than men. As always. Old male professor should joke to ease the audience and show that they have some selfhumor.

/bitter female post doc

At 4:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't like jokes in technical talks. It breaks the concentration. Save it for later during informal interactions.

At 10:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it irritating when speakers make jokes or show cartoons or tell anecdotes whether at the beginning of the talk or during. I took time out of my day to hear about the work, not to hear you crack jokes. Just cut to the chase and get on with the talk already, dammit!

when senior big-name people do it, I get annoyed because it seems they are saying "I'm so important that I can waste your time." Um, no. Just because you are more senior and powerful, does not mean that everything you say is so precious. When junior people do it I get annoyed because it's like they are trying to emulate the big folks.

Maybe I'm just a Oscar The Grouch.

At 8:34 AM, Blogger daisy mae said...

i think that you really hit on the subtleties of joke-making here. sometimes its ok, sometimes its not. its deciphering "when" that's difficult. as a grad student, i would never, ever lead with a joke - nor would i have a joke slide. however, i occasionally let a joke slip in - as long as it can also be construed as a regular comment.

for example, i had to give a seminar that involved "polishing that turd" (ie making my negative data look good) and there was a slide about protocol optimization. so i made a comment about "one of the joys of being a graduate student is the months spent optimizing protocols"... some people "got it" and laughed, others thought it was a normal part of the presentation.

but as one of your first commenters stated - some people can do it, some people can't.

At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Self-deprecating jokes only work for men. Sexist, but true.

At 11:58 AM, Blogger Dr. Smith said...

Dr.Smith- exactly. But how do you, as a speaker, know if you are going to be able to pull it off? I guess that is really what I'm asking.

Yeah, that's the tough part. I think you have to start small (as in, don't do it!), then see how your talks are being received. As you get more confident, try and toss an aside here and there and see how the room feels (best to do this in a non-high pressure situation). My department was VERY MUCH into making grad students give regular seminars, so I had a lot of chance to practice. It was pretty much the same audience every time, so I knew what I could get away with.

I tend to try and work a little dry humor into my talks now. And in class lectures, I'm a big one for sneaking joke slides in every 20 minutes or so. However, on a national stage at a big meeting I am all business. Not enough time, and "you never get a second chance to make a first impression". Especially when you are young-looking and female. You can joke later, at the social hour.

At 10:28 PM, Blogger Random said...

I agree with those in the "no-joke" camp. One of my (junior female) friends had her (famous senior female) adviser explicitly tell her that people tend to want to do that, but for young women it just doesn't work _especially_ if the joke is self deprecating. Its not fair, but they're just waiting for you to exhibit weakness or insecurity or lack of competence, because they're already primed to think thats true about you just because you're young and female. She basically said that until you're established, you just have to go in there and be super prepared, confident, and know your stuff. And, even after that, its risky. I guess another thing in the category of unfair, but true?


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