Making Pre-Recorded Talks is So Much Harder Than You Think

I wouldn’t consider myself an amazing speaker, but I have been told on more than one occasion that I give good presentations on scientific topics. In general I also tend to enjoy giving these presentations, provided they aren’t the major ones like my Predoctoral Research Review Committee presentations or my thesis proposal. I have also gotten reasonably comfortable giving talks over Zoom as we have transitioned into this digital community.

A high resolution image to entice the audience… Actually some experiments in trying a more interesting backdrop.

Given all that, I was actually pretty excited to be making a summary video for my poster on Supernova Remnant Evolution for the recent Committee On Space Research (COSPAR) conference. The final product was uploaded to Youtube and needed to be less than 2 minutes.

Here it is:

The final product. More the result of “I need this to be done” than “I am satisfied with this.”

This 1 minute 42 second video took me well over 3 hours to record. I couldn’t get my words out, I was stumbling and mumbling and saying things that were decidedly false. It was a mess, and the question that I kept asking myself during this entire process was “why can’t I do this?” I really couldn’t understand why talking to a webcam in the privacy of my office was so much more difficult than talking to a conference room or a Zoom call full of people staring back at me.

Once I had finally cut together something that looked and sounded like a reasonable representation of my work and ability to speak, I quickly sent that off to the conference and was then faced with the question of what to do with the hours of gaffs and trip-ups that were now taking up space on my hard drive. Feeling a bit better that the task had been accomplished, I started looking over the outtakes. Some were amusing, some weren’t as bad as I had thought, and some were just plain terrible. In the end, I had so much fodder that I decided to arrange some of the more humorous moments into a second Youtube video.

The culmination of all my failures.

It was during the making of this blooper reel, that I started to understand what was happening. Prerecorded talks are static things. They are not given in real time and there is also no penalty for starting again to get the perfect performance. In fact, there is a lot of pressure to do it again and again, lest you immortalize your own mistakes forever on the internet and willfully broadcast that to the world. That is a much higher bar to clear, especially for a speaker who views his talks as a running dialog with the audience as opposed to someone reciting facts. Mistakes will happen in a live talk; Interruptions will happen. People will ask questions. Live talks are living things that grow and evolve with the audience and the speaker and mistakes are a part of that. Being a good speaker isn’t in removing all mistakes — that is impossible. Instead, it is about maintaining the flow of the talk and the message in the face of the unexpected.

In a pre-recorded talk, none of this is true anymore. There is no interaction with the audience, no unexpected interruptions, and ample time to correct mistakes by going back and saying the right thing the first time. It really is a different skill-set. You need the ability to sound like you are talking to people when you’re really looking at a screen and talking to a microphone. You need the ability to read a script well and deliver your lines precisely. Mistakes and stumbles feel more like unforced errors and the corrections feel lazy. Delivering timed jokes is now a game of chance where you have to commit every time regardless of whether the audience reacts the way you expect or not. There is no quickly moving on or pausing for laughter. You have decided how you expect every audience to react to your video for the rest of time. That is a lot a pressure.

Now, at the end of the day, I was able to produce a video that I felt reasonably represented my research and my ability to communicate it. That is what it needed to do. That is all it really needed to do. But I wanted it to do more. All of these additional restrictions, these comments on what a pre-recorded talk is or isn’t, they are only my feelings on the subject — what I want out of my talks and videos. If I saw a pre-recorded talk where a presenter stumbled and went back and corrected themselves, I would not think any less of them. I would just nod knowingly about pre-recorded talks being a difficult thing, and continue enjoying the science they are doing their best to present. That is the realization that ultimately allowed me to feel comfortable submitting my final product, but the lingering uneasiness remained.

Every speaker is trying to convey their point to the best of their abilities. We need to treat them with respect and engage with their presentations in a meaningful and constructive way. It doesn’t matter how well produced their content is, or how great they are at public speaking. They are there, putting themselves in the public eye because they feel they have something that is important to share.

I think I will always prefer to give live talks, or at least give recorded talks to an audience. Maybe someday I will get to the position where I can convincingly talk to the camera as if it were an audience responding and experiencing the presentation with me. I think that is what makes a lot of the best Youtubers successful. It seems like an important skill to continue developing, but it is important to remember that the science is what is matters in the end. Every speaker is trying to convey their point to the best of their abilities. We need to treat them with respect and engage with their presentations in a meaningful and constructive way. It doesn’t matter how well produced their content is, or how great they are at public speaking. They are there, putting themselves in the public eye because they feel they have something that is important to share.

Respect That.

Just some guy trying to be an astrophysicist. GWU PhD candidate, Chandra X-ray Center Predoc, Stellar Undertaker, Maker of things.