On tea being served before a talk

Later this evening I’m planning to go for this talk on Temples of the Badami Chalukyas, being held at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Indiranagar.

The text of the invite (not present in the picture above) says that “tea will be served before the talk”. Now you might think that it’s no big deal – but in my opinion that’s one marker that sets apart what can be a high-quality fulfilling event for the audience member than one that is merely good.

There are two reasons that people go to talks like this one – one is for the talk itself. For example, the topic of today’s talk looks extremely promising and exciting, and inherent interest in the topic itself is likely to spur audience participation. The other reason people like to go for such talks is that they are good places to meet with other like-minded people, and that is where the tea before the talk comes into the picture.

At the Pratap Bhanu Mehta lecture at IISc two weekends back, there was no tea being served prior to the talk. As a consequence, everyone who arrived walked straight into the hall and took their seats. When I arrived there there seemed to be no conversation whatsoever taking place, and so I went and quietly took my seat. Looking around, however, I noticed a number of acquaintances, and people I wanted to get to connect to (people who could connect me to these people were also in the audience). However, there was no chance of going up and talking to them and indulging in what some people uncharitably call as “networking”. And after the event was over everyone was in a hurry to get home and there was no chance to talk!

This is where tea before the talk comes into the picture. When tea is being served, people usually stand around the service area (not to be confused with Cervezaria) and mill around talking. It’s a great occasion to catch up with old acquaintances who happen to be there, make new acquaintances (that both of you have come for the same (usually esoteric) lecture indicates that you have some common interests) and generally talk to people. And meeting interesting people (new or old) at an event is always a good thing and attendees go home much more satisfied than they would had they only consumed the lecture!

Hence it is of paramount importance that tea (or coffee or milk or water or beer) be served before the talk, for it gives an opportunity for people to talk to each other, to network and to get more out of other attendees than they would from the talk itself. And if you are the antisocial type who doesn’t want to meet other attendees, you can quietly go take your seat while others are having tea – they won’t even notice you!

On using slides for a lecture

Last evening I attended Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s New India Foundation lecture on the role of religion in politics in Modern India. It was a rather complex topic, with a lot of philosophical underpinnings, and as it happened, I soon lost track, and consequently interest, and so I ended up writing this blogpost as I sat in the audience.

Later, I was wondering what PBM could have done to communicate better and make his lecture more easily understood.┬áLet’s assume here that PBM is an academic and so the last thing he would want to do is to “dumb down” the lecture (also my hypothesis is that he perhaps upped the academic quotient since the venue for the lecture was IISc but that’s just speculation and we’ll keep it aside). There is a certain way he is comfortable speaking in, weaving academic arguments, and let us assume that he is best talking that way, and it is not ideal to change that.

Imposing the above and any other reasonable constraints on what PBM would not change about the lecture, the question remains as to how he could have made it easier for the audience to follow him. And thinking about it in hindsight, the answer is rather obvious – visual aids such as slides (or even a blackboard).

The problem with the lecture was that given its complexity there were several threads of thought that the audience member had to keep track of as PBM built his argument. The flipside of this is that if you happened to miss a line of what PBM said, one important thread in the web would get lost, after which it would be extremely difficult to follow the rest of the lecture (This is perhaps what happened to me because of which I started blogging). To put it another way, the lecture as it happened required a high degree of concentration as well as maintenance of a reasonably sized cache in the minds of each audience member, which meant that the mental energy required to follow was really high.

In an unrelated conversation after the lecture, someone was talking about how the ancient Greeks reacted to the invention of writing with horror, saying that the human mind was perfectly capable of storing and transmitting information, and that writing would lead to a diminishing of human mental powers. As it turned out, writing helped free up memory space in human minds and that allowed for more complex thinking and a lot of subsequent scientific development. Of course cultures such as India’s which continued to insist on learning the scriptures by rote lost out a bit because considerable mental capacity continued to be used as a means of storage rather than for processing power.

So the idea is that when you have a complex talk that involves a complex web of thought, considerable mental energies of the audience goes into just maintaining a cache of all that you’ve said, and the arguments that you’ve constructed. And on top of that they need to continue to listen to you with concentration as you continue to weave the web. The rate of dropoff can be rather high. So the least you can do to help the audience ingest your lecture better is to help free up their cache, and putting out all the arguments spoken thus far on a screen, which means that their mental power can go into ingesting and digesting your new information rather than simply maintaining the cache. And that will improve your throughput!

So to generalise, use of visual aids (slides are preferable to blackboards since you don’t waste time writing, but if there isn’t much to be written blackboards will do, too, since slides might constrain) is a necessary condition to ensure high throughput when your talk involves a rather complex web of argument. It simply makes it easier for the audience to follow you and you can communicate better!

Of course if you are of the persuasion that there is a certain way you communicate which you’re unwilling to change and it is the audience which needs to make an effort to catch your pearls of wisdom, none of the above applies to you.

Perpetual giving up is the truth of life

That’s my biggest takeaway from my trip to Calcutta, which is where I’m writing this blog post, sitting in back of a car. On my way back to the airport having delivered a lecture on “the role of data and scientific temper in democracy” at the “management centre for human values” at IIM Calcutta.

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Talk went off okay. I’d assumed an audience of mostly MBA students but turned out there were mostly professors and grad students. It’s possible that my lecture was a bit too laddoo.

This was my second time in the city, and I was here after a gap of nine years. Both trips were rushed. Both trips were to IIM. In fact on both trips my point of business was the same hall!

This time I was put up at the campus guest house. It’s a rather ancient building but well maintained. The staff were also extremely nice – like for example when I got there at 10pm last night they had saved dinner for me though the dining hall had closed. And this morning I was woken up by the loud ringing of my room doorbell and presented with a flask of easily the best tea I’ve had in a very very long time.

The city is a bit surreal though. Both on my way to IIM last night and on my way back to the airport today the roads have been funny. You travel on wide roads for a while and then it suddenly gets narrow. The next moment the driver has sneaked into some tiny residential gully!! And at times the road is extremely wide. So wide that the shops are all very far away.

On my way back to the airport now I realised that it helps knowing people from the city you’re visiting. I messaged Manasi asking for places I can get good sweets. She called and spoke to the driver and he takes me to this little sweet shop near the rather hilariously named “mahanayak Uttam kumar” metro station. There was no pace to park so I hurriedly gorged down radhaballabi, jaggery chum chum and jaggery Sandesh. All very good stuff.

I need to make another trip to this city sometime. If only for the sweets and snacks and tea! And for perpetually giving up in life.