Live-tweeting conferences and making tweetable talks
I’ve gotten into the habit of live-tweeting conferences that I attend, and I really like it in part because I find it to be the best way to take notes, really helpful in lowering barriers to meeting in person, and a great way to raise your profile even if you are a lowly PhD student. Coming fresh off a conference and now that I’ve gotten pretty good at live-tweeting conferences, I wanted to share a few thoughts on tweeting scientific talks.
Why live-tweeting conferences is good for you
It forces you to digest the main takeaway(s) of a talk. Let’s be real, no talk should contain more than one or two main messages, and no one can remember more than 3-4 sentences’ worth of information from any talk. Trying to summarize the main tl’dr of a 10-20 minute talk into a couple of tweets forces you to crystallize the main message into a digestable format, both for yourself and others.
It’s a good way to take notes. All you have to do is an advanced Twitter search to look back and find tweets from your account with the relevant hashtag. And because of the public-facing nature of it, I find that I’m much more motivated to keep up with the note-taking as opposed to when I just take notes on my computer. When I take notes on paper or on my computer, I can so easily zone out and stop following along. But if I’m tweeting, I feel really bad if I don’t tweet about someone’s talk and so I do my best to pay attention to at least a part of everyone’s talks. It’s probably not the most efficient way to go back and re-visit notes, but it’s the best way I’ve found to remain engaged throughout an entire conference. An added bonus is that you can also share papers and links to software or repos, which then become part of your notes as well.
It clarifies what’s your fault and what’s the speaker’s fault. If you’ve been attentively listening for the entire talk and trying to distill the speaker’s message into a couple of tweets and you find that you can’t, it’s probably a good sign that that’s not really your fault. I find that even for talks where I understand basically none of the technical details, if the speaker has done a good job of describing the main points and bringing it back to the audience, I can still hammer out a semi-coherent tweet. Talks which don’t help me clearly identify the “so what?”, on the other hand, are very difficult to write anything about. I’d say I have no idea what I’m talking about in at least 30% of the tweets I write, but because the speaker has been very clear I’m confident that what I’m sharing is likely correct.
It raises your profile. The internet is a great equalizer. When you’re one of a few live-tweeters at a conference, people who are passively following along get to know who you are (and probably think you are way more legit than you actually are [see above about not understanding many of the tweets I write lol]). Also, the confidence boost of having something to say and of maybe being recognizable gives me a certain swagger when I go to the social events at a conference. At the first conference I live-tweeted, I knew zero attendees. Twitter helped me make connections and find friendly faces to sit with at meals. At the conference I just live-tweeted, the keynote speaker (a very big name in our field and fairly intimidating person) came up to me at the reception, enthusiastically shaking my hand with a big smile on her face. She already knew who I was, because I’d tweeted about her talk. In contrast, my friend standing next to me, a new professor much more accomplished than me, had to introduce himself to her. What?!
That said, live-tweeting a conference is really hard work. You have to constantly be listening, digesting, and paraphrasing while also searching the internet for the papers and software being presented.
At this conference, I noticed a few things that made talks easier or harder to tweet about:
Things that make talks easy to tweet about
Give the punchline away first. Tell me where we’re gonna end up before you start leading me there. It’s hard to live-tweet something when I’m constantly anticipating where it’s gonna go and when I have no idea when the thought is going to end.
Post papers, twitter handles, and links up front. Try to have at least some online presence that people can point to, even if you’re presenting unpublished work. There’s nothing I love more than signal-boosting an early grad student, but I can only do that if you’re easy to find on the internet or you tell me exactly how to find you. Even if you don’t use twitter frequently, you can make an account and log on just for conferences and when you publish papers. Twitter is a pretty powerful tool in academia, so it’s really good to at least exist on it. I also really loved the talks that posted their preprints and software package links before they went through the details. It meant that I could focus on what they were saying, rather than dig around trying to find their method while also trying to pay attention and summarize their work.
Put useful information on your last slide. This can either be the main conclusions of your talk explicitly spelled out, or the links to your papers and preprints, or something else that’s more than just a list of names or a blank slide with “questions?”. I often wait until the end of a talk to send out most of the tweets, because that’s how long it takes to fully digest the whole message. It’s super helpful when the slide that stays up during Q&A can help me finish up my thoughts.
Always bring it back to the “so what”. This is the key to helping even the people who have no idea what you’re talking about write a good tweet about your talk. If you tell me the point of what you’re doing in simple words multiple times throughout the talk, I can tweet that and point to your paper for how you get there.
A few very bold slides. For bonus points, it’s also fun to have a few slides with very bold and big statements. I don’t take photos while I tweet, but this is especially good for people who do. We had one at this conference that said “Every metagenomic sequencing measurement we’ve ever made is WRONG” (with “wrong” in red font). So fun to tweet that!!
Things that make talks hard to tweet about
Referring to previous or future parts of your talk. If I didn’t quite get what you’ve already covered but you keep referring back to it, it makes it so difficult to figure out what to tweet! (Plus it makes me feel really dumb that I can’t follow). Similarly, if you keep foreshadowing to the rest of your talk, I’m like in suspended animation and not sure when your thought is finished and my tweet ready to be completed. In general, if a person zoning out for a slide or two to check their email means that they’re lost for the rest of the talk, that’s not a very good sign for your talk. Since people are definitely going to do that, you should aim to make your talk robust to it.
Not using nouns. Similarly, using the word “it” or “the model” or other very vague words makes it difficult to keep up with what you’re talking about. Again, if I missed a slide or didn’t quite understand something and I’m lost for the rest of the talk, that’s pretty bad. Also, tweets need to be self-contained and thus require a clear subject, so it’s super helpful if you keep reminding me of what noun I should be using.
Not telling me what the things you’re doing mean. Here, I’m talking about clarifying the specific technical steps that you describe. I experienced this multiple times at the conference this week, where people spent many slides explaining their model but never really clarified why or what the parts meant. For example, going the extra step to say “we are estimating this parameter because it will be our estimate of the relative abundance of a given taxa” makes a world of difference to how much I care about following along with your model specification! It also helps me write a concise tweet: “the estimated multinomial parameters stand in for relative abundance of taxa”.
More than three slides without bringing it back. This is kind of like the bigger-picture version of the one above. Here, I mean “bringing it back” to the overall goal of your talk. What problem are you solving? And how is what you’re doing leading me to the solution (that you’ve hopefully already presented to me)? Again, bringing it back to the main point means that I can write a tweet even if I don’t understand most of the details you’re presenting.
Okay, those are all my thoughts for now. I hope this encourages you to consider live-tweeting the next conference you attend, and maybe provides useful thoughts to guide you the next time you give a talk at a conference. If you were at the conference this week, thanks for giving great talks and making it super fun to follow along and tweet about!