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The Worst Seminar

Thinking of good seminars and bad ones reminds me of a story, which I’m surprised that I haven’t told here, because it’s a favorite memory of mine from grad school. Like everyone else, I’ve attended some pretty deadly talks over the years – some of them had decent subject matter, but were presented murderously, while others had such grim content that they would not have been redeemed by substituting the best speaker available. Combine those two, and you have a section of the Venn diagram that makes you wonder what you’ve done with your life (or with a previous one) to be sitting through the thing.
I remember coming back upstairs after one of those. Like most grad students, I didn’t have the nerve to just bail on a speaker if they turned out to be horrible (heck, I sometimes don’t have the nerve now). So I’d sat through a real forced march, or forced stagger, though a bunch of uninteresting stuff delivered at dictation speed in a nasal monotone. At this remove, I couldn’t tell you what it was about even for a large reward; all I remember was the pointlessness.
So I was back in front of my hood when my labmate at the time appeared in the doorway. “That was the WORST seminar I have EVER heard in my LIFE!” he proclaimed, and I could only agree with him, which I did with a strange expression on my face. “Why are you grinning like that?” he asked. “Because the seminar speaker just walked behind you when you said that”, I told him (truthfully). “No!” he said in horror, and looked off to his right down the hall. “Oh my God! Oh, well. He’s heard it before.” And maybe he had. Nominations for your own worst seminar experience are welcome in the comments, if you haven’t blocked them out of your mind by now.
By the way, I checked to see if I’d told this story on the site by a Google trick, which is useful for searching the site as a whole. Just start your query with, and you’ll search only within that domain. It works quite well, but to be sure, I went and checked a text backup of the site (I make one from time to time, via an “Export” command. In case you’re wondering, the whole site (posts and comments) rendered in 10-point Courier with standard margins on letter-sized paper, now comes to over 28,000 pages. Dang. I did a search for “worst seminar” and didn’t find the phrase, but at this point you’d have to do a search for “Swann” to find the text of “Rememberance of Things Past” in there.

93 comments on “The Worst Seminar”

  1. Henry's cat says:

    The most toe-curling talk I can remember is when our former CEO gave a talk where he repeatedly used the word ‘matricee’ instead of ‘matrix’ for the singular of matrices. And this was a presentation recently given to current and would-be investors. Oh the humanity.
    Another favourite of mine is when the talker recites exactly what is written on the slide, with extra props for following the words with the cursor.

  2. pacman says:

    The worst seminar speakers and those that exceed their time, are totally aware of it, yet ask to the host for more time like they deserve it. Combine that with boring science with a boring speaker, and I think you can describe my worst experience!

  3. Anonymous says:

    In such cases the kindest thing you can do is vote with your feet and walk out. Then the speaker gets the point and learns, while you don’t waste your time. If that sounds disrespectful, then just think how disrespectful it is to waste an hour each of 100 people.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Worst seminar was the one that was just too long. For some reason in my department organic chemistry seminars were given Friday at 3pm. The speaker was an experienced, famous organometallic chemist that later won a Nobel. I thought it would be worth my time. I got there a few minutes early but it the small conference room was packed so I had to sit 5 ft from the speaker and next to two of the organic faculty. The speaker went over all his chemistry from the 1970’s to the present which was an enormous amount. At half an hour past the 50 minutes time, he closed his Powerpoint slides. Everyone in the room was about to clap quickly and get up to leave when he opened another powerpoint presentation and continued talking for another 30 minutes. Worst seminar ever!

  5. Harrison says:

    @1: Totally agree about reciting exactly what is written on the slide. I have a colleague who does this with regularity and it is just excruciating to me, especially because the slides are read fairly slowly.
    I can deal with going over time if the material is good, but if it’s not AND the seminar starts late, that is brutal. I went to grad school at Duke (not chemistry), and we had wine and cheese before our 4pm seminars (never saw this anywhere else, probably for good reason). It was pretty easy to fall asleep during the bad seminars.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The best seminars tell a story and include no more than 15 slides, ideally none. These days I follow this as a rule, having suffered and learned from others.

  7. Lyle Langley says:

    I sat through the most bizarre seminar while in graduate school from a professor from Washington State (won’t name them specifically, but most organic chemists will know whom I’m talking about). Anyway, the seminar was going along fine and then they showed a picture of a moose (I believe it was a moose at first) that they had taken from the view from their house. Next, he started talking in a weird voice (like a bad ventriloquist) and was having the moose ask questions about his work? This happened several times throughout the seminar – changing the wildlife each time – but still having the animals ask questions. Kind of hard to talk with him afterward – I kept wondering if his briefcase held a dummy that he’d bring out.

  8. Dr. Manhattan says:

    “Anyway, the seminar was going along fine and then they showed a picture of a moose (I believe it was a moose at first) that they had taken from the view from their house. Next, he started talking in a weird voice (like a bad ventriloquist) and was having the moose ask questions about his work? ”
    I think there’s a drug for that condition…. CNS compound taken with Moose Head Lager.

  9. annonie says:

    At a Gordon Conference, a well known, yearly attending speaker with handwritten overheads made on the back of a previously used paper where the other side’s use had shown through, and thus were displayed too. Hilarious, annoying at the same time. But no one walked out.

  10. Justin Peukon says:

    Interesting topic. The absolutely WORST seminar I had to witness was unfortunately given by myself, in 1993. Please don’t ask for details, this was really painful. This day, I definitely lost my rose-colored glasses.

  11. Anon says:

    For my first committee meeting
    Step 1: Make list of the most biggest/famous names of the institution
    Step 2: Naively think doing this will make myself smarter
    Step 3: Realize you may have made a mistake when these guys are free over two months from now and at only one specific time before 7AM.
    Step 4: Realize you will have the juggernauts analyzing your every word.
    Step 5: Have meeting with boss/advisor, talk about project, write down what he says word for word (In my head “he won’t notice”)
    Step 6: Give committee talk with “notes,” reading word for word only looking up when they say “what? I can’t hear you, you’re mumbling again”
    Step 7: Finish committee talk, get new committee members ASAP
    *shaking my head as I type this*

  12. Anon2 says:

    We had an international postdoc come in to our lab (mostly cancer based research) and was giving a talk about what they had been doing the last two months since they were hired. This person came from a lab that worked on fish (not advanced genetic models with zebra fish…just fish), but hey don’t judge a book by its cover, some people just like to “grow.” This person was royally f’ing up the lab. I mean bad. Had contaminated cells (by mycoplasma, bacteria, and other cell types), started contaminating other people’s cells, freezing down and making stocks of contaminated cells , asking people how to run a western…just not exactly making friends.
    I felt bad for her and wanted to give her a softball at her talk. So here she is, giving a talk about her protein of interest and how it may be doing something of interest…I pitch the most feathery wiffle ball a first time father could float to his kid. “I find your work very interesting, and I myself wonder about xxxx, do you believe this protein is an oncogene? :-)”
    I planned this out, there is a right answer (which no one in the room probably knew), the wrong answer, and even an escape (“maybe,” “possibly,”). But no, she replied with the most reprehensible thing imaginable at one of the top cancer institution in the World. “I do not know what that is, what is the definition of an oncogene?”
    Silence. Broken only by our PIs awkward interjection, providing the definition in such a way as you might cautiously explain a trivial matter to a DMV employee; a dumbed down but trying with all 20 years of educational prowess to not offend.
    After that talk she asked for a meeting and resigned from her position.

  13. Anon says:

    In the worst seminar I ever witnessed, the only good thing about it was that it didn’t exceed the time limit. Of course, that was because the speaker was so nervous that she fainted 10 minutes into her talk! Man, I do not miss having to sit through graduate student seminars.
    I follow the 10, 20, 30 rule (made for a 30 minute time slot, but can be adjusted for alternate time slots):
    10 slides
    20 minutes
    30 point font
    The essence is 1) your slides are there to support you, not give your talk for you, so you don’t need a ton of them; 2) don’t go over your allotted time and leave plenty of time for questions and informal interaction at the end; and 3) whatever you do, don’t pack your slides with a ton of small text…you shouldn’t be reading verbatim off of them (as others mentioned).
    These rules, a little bit of body movement and a little bit of voice inflection will go a long way. It also helps if your science is interesting.

  14. Anonymous says:

    @12: That’s a horrible story, but I blame you and your lab, not the post-doc. She was only doing what she could based on her limited knowledge and experience. Terrible hiring decision by your lab in the first place, and a terrible, arrogant culture that is only interested in putting others down instead of helping them to learn and grow.

  15. Rhenium says:

    @14 Anonymous: Yes, and by grow you mean teach them what an atom is…

  16. Anonymous says:

    @15: Then as I said, it was a terrible hiring decision. But one *must* be committed to teach and train new hires once you’ve selected them.

  17. Joe Q. says:

    Worst seminar ever was a computational chemistry talk given by an aging professor to an audience of organic chemists, at which (a) expert knowledge of computational chemistry was assumed from the outset, (b) all the slides featured yellow text on a white background, and (c) the presentation went 15 minutes over the allotted time.

  18. anonamous says:

    I was in a “drug discovery” group in an academic department.
    More often than not we had someone who had produced a library of compounds which were then shipped off to be screened in a plate based cancer assay. When anyone would ask about the assay and what it really meant the inevitable answer would be “I don’t know I am just a chemist” or “I don’t know I didn’t run the assay”
    If you don’t know what the data means then you shouldn’t present it is my opinion. I also feel this demonstrated how limited and narrow the education members of the lab were getting.

  19. johnnyboy says:

    Massive pet peeve of mine: people with laser pointers who keep the pointer on at all time, jerking it around the screen constantly and indiscriminately. Distracting enough to make even a good talk go bad.
    Also highly irritating: people who give very broad titles to their talk, making it sound like it’s going to be a wide-ranging review of a field – and then just present in excruciating detail the very limited work their lab has done in the last few months.

  20. Teddy Z says:

    I was in grad school, early 90s, and Richard Ernst was coming to speak very soon after he won the Nobel Prize. He arrived to a crowded room and had a pile of overheads at least a foot thick (no joke). He gave a talk on his life’s work, and it was a long life. At one hour and 20 minutes, I said to friends I am leaving, 20 minutes later I got enough courage to do it. He still had a third of the pile to go.

  21. johnnyboy says:

    I would have to agree with @14: a cancer lab that hires a post-doc who doesn’t know what an oncogene is should only blame itself, not the post-doc.

  22. anon says:

    Some of the worst seminars have would up being pretty productive for me. I always have a notepad and pen and sit toward the back.
    If it gets to the point that the seminar is completely drop-dead boring I start drawing structures of things I am working on.
    Free from phone calls, e-mails, orders to make, or other mundane tasks to accomplish, I sometimes leave the seminar room with a new idea. In the process I will have zoned out the last 45 minutes of the talk, but if I am not on the schedule to talk to the speaker, it’s no loss. I have stopped feeling guilty about ignoring the speaker. It is his/her job to catch my interest.

  23. NJBiologist says:

    @16 anonymous, @21 johnnyboy: Not if the candidate misrepresented themselves. I’ve seen a postdoc whose advisor, a prominent name in her field, vastly overstated the candidate’s capabilities in her recommendation (the postdoc left the lab well before her fellowship ended). I’ve also been advised to spin a scientist’s recommendation in order to make them someone else’s problem. Thankfully, this doesn’t seem to be common–but it does happen.

  24. pete says:

    @19 – On the subject of laser pointers, (this isn’t a “worst talk” but..) in my undergrad days (late 70’s) the Chem Dept once invited an elderly Nobel winning chemist to talk about his past work on enzyme catalysis. Some genius decided he needed a really good presentation aide and left him one of those long box-like lasers we used in Physics lab (it was the 1970’s, mind).
    After being introduced, the first thing the Nobelist does is bends down and looks into the laser beam, asking “Is this on ?”. * HEAD SLAP *

  25. philip says:

    Suzuki came last year and was probably the worst presentation I have ever seen. Terrible slides and bad speaking. Perhaps it was high expectations though

  26. philip says:

    Suzuki came last year and was probably the worst presentation I have ever seen. Terrible slides and bad speaking. Perhaps it was high expectations though

  27. John Galt III says:

    Your planet is a quagmire of conflicts of interest. I find that whether or not I am engaged by a talk/seminar, and whether or not it is a good one, my mind often wanders in productive ways and I end up writing down good ideas. If it is a good talk, it generally spawns more good ideas.

  28. partial agonist says:

    Things I don’t want to see:
    -A slide that tries to make 10 points. One take-home point per slide is plenty, thanks, and no tables of 20 pieces of data.
    -Slides with overanimation. Don’t have bullet points on every freakin’ slide and make those bullets points fly in one at a time and spin around and you read them off.
    -A talk so disjointed the speaker seems surprised at the content of the next slide that comes up.
    -unlabeled x or y axes
    -too cute slide titles
    -too long
    Things I don’t want to hear:
    -jargon, undefined
    -repeating yourself
    -no enthusiasm
    -misplaced enthusiasm
    -not really teaching us why you or I should be excited
    -getting bogged down on minor points
    -overcriticising alternative approaches
    -over-referring to other work you’ve done
    -no conclusions or obvious significance

  29. Anonymous says:

    I think the people blaming the postdoc who didn’t know what an oncogene was have the wrong idea about postdocs ans science in general. We’re supposed to encourage people to ask questions and learn not make fun of them. Postdoc aren’t just a low paying job it’s supposed to be a training position. If you come into a postdoc already knowing everything you are wasting your time, defeating the purpose of a postdoc, and wasting taxpayer money. And worse, you are discouraging real scientific progress by making it hard for people of different disciplines to come and learn about your field. I want the physics phd or computer science phd to come into cancer research and use tools from their native field. The lab has to be a welcoming environment and be truly committed to science for this to happen, not just a sweatshop.
    The ‘international postdoc’ label throw in there was just a bonus by a truly anti-science anti-learning post.

  30. Henry's cat says:

    Way back in 2000 we had a talk by the guy who wrote our proprietary docking software. We were subjected to an hour of endless graphs detailing some sort of meta-analysis of our compound library. I was fresh out of a PhD and didn’t want to upset the apple cart with my ignorance, but I couldn’t understand why a lot of the graphs had unlabelled axes! I distinctly remember looking around the room and getting that ‘only me?’ feeling as everyone else, seemingly, knew exactly what was going on.
    It was absolute drivel and of no use whatsoever to anyone watching, apart from, perhaps, the speaker’s underling, who kept nodding sagely behind him.
    After the talk, as we exited the room feeling rather shellshocked, I turned to a more experienced chemist for some guidance on what exactly we had all witnessed and was told I should have had a nap like him.

  31. Semichemist says:

    @17 Joe Q: If I’m ever in a seminar or talk and see something like yellow text on a white background, I’m out. End of discussion. Few things are worth that unavoidable headache

  32. RKN says:

    Maybe the challenge should be to recall an exceptionally good seminar, seeing as the norm in my experience ranges from bland to horrible.
    I recall a conference where a very prominent researcher (first/last name rhymes with Gorge/Birch) delivered the keynote that had to be the most incomprehensible, one-hour fact dump masquerading as a talk I’ve ever witnessed. Immediately afterwards I was in a packed elevator, all of us returning to our rooms, and everybody aboard just fell silent. I whispered to a guy squished against me, “Did you get any of that?”
    Eyes rolling: “Yeah, he’s like that all the time. Have you not seen him talk before?”

  33. Chrispy says:

    I can’t think of a single worst talk, but I have seen an awful lot of talks that follow the following guaranteed-to-be horrible format:
    1) Slide after slide of bullet point lists — read them slowly
    2) Wall-of-text that you read to your audience
    3) Unlabelled axes on graphs
    4) Distracting backgrounds and “clip art”
    5) Go way over time
    Edward Tufte has said that much of this can be blamed upon PowerPoint and its default presentation style. He gives regular seminars on the art of presentation which should be required for scientists. The weaknesses of PowerPoint are made clear in the painfully hilarious Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address Powerpoint on YouTube.
    Speaking of painful, one excellent way to get your students to speak better in public is to videotape them and make them watch to video. This is especially good for curing nervous mannerisms such as saying “like” every other sentence.
    Finally, one mistake I made for a very long time was to use red and green lines in graphs. Colorblindness, particularly red/green in men, is fairly common. Now I make it a point to also have the lines dotted vs. solid or label the lines themselves rather than have a legend — it makes it clearer for everyone.

  34. student says:

    Sharpless gave both the best talk I’ve ever seen and the worst talk, simultaneously

  35. Anon2 says:

    23. NJBiologist
    It was a misrepresentation of work ethic by their former advisor and a misrepresentation of her skills to the lab (both in an interview with the PI and a lab lunch).
    I didn’t mean to get off the topic of bad seminars here, but I seemed to have rustled some feathers here. I’m very surprised at the number of posts that believe in the current environment, me entering an O-Chem lab and not knowing what a benzene ring is, is acceptable. Or myeling in a multiple sclerosis lab.

  36. a. nonymaus says:

    On the slides side, the worst that I’ve endured was structures in blue, with various substructures in forest green, brown, purple, and grey, on a black background. No, I’m not color blind, he really did choose that color scheme to describe the most recent three decades of work in his lab.

  37. Anonymous says:

    What you’re really doing is discouraging people from ever exiting their comfort zone or area of expertise. That sucks for science and in life. I don’t know all the details of your particular case but your tone is so dismissive and negative that a poor attitude about science and learning comes across.

  38. Jon says:

    While I was a grad student, the university was looking to hire (I think temporarily) for a biochem professor position. So we all went to the presentations the various candidates would give as part of their interview process. The most memorable was one from a man who was working at a respiratory research institute in another part of the state. This would have been okay if he’d actually been a chemist or a biochemist, but as far as we could tell he definitely wasn’t. If I remember correctly his presentation had a lot to do with primate studies (again, okay if he had been a biochemist talking about in vivo results) and is the only presentation in the physical sciences that I’ve ever seen that referenced Exodus.

  39. The Iron Chemist says:

    @34: Yes! I was thinking the exact same thing. The one of his that I attended was periodically entertaining but super-disorganized.
    The comment in front of the seminar speaker reminds me of a story I heard through hearsay. A top postdoc from the lab of a soon-to-be Nobel Prize winner was asked in the hallway whether he’d be going to that day’s seminar. “No, it’d be a waste of my time,” he replies just as the speaker walks by him. No ramifications… until he meets the speaker again during an academic job interview a month or two later.

  40. AnonAnon says:

    Gilbert Stork.
    I was looking forward to hearing one of the greats give a talk at a symposium about 14 or 15 years back at Yale. The presentation was about a total synthesis of morphine and derivatives which I thought should be great (always liked total synthesis of natural products). Unfortunately, he very obviously did not prepare the slides himself and had not prepared ahead of time so each slide began with “So what did we do here?”

  41. Lyle Langley says:

    Paul Wender, anyone??
    >100 slides for a 30 minute talk, which, of course, turns into a 60+ minute talk.

  42. bad wolf says:

    @12–One might almost think it was possible for an “international” postdoc to not know all the technical jargon for a field outside their experience in fluent English.
    I have trouble understanding things just spoken in a strong accent, sometimes. Of course i’m not looking for excuses to get rid of someone.

  43. Avoided Crossing says:

    I had the great fortune of working the projector/AV switching at THE international conference in our field early in my PhD. The venerable Japanese master, progenitor of the entire field stepped up to the podium with a pointer, his laptop, and some roman digits scribbled on a piece of paper.
    From my vantage point, I could see that the powerpoint file itself had more than a hundred slides, and no two looked alike (the product of his small army of lieutenants and foot soldiers). I was ready for a long, drawn out, disjointed affair. BUT WAIT: something far better was about to happen.
    The mechanism of his talk was as follows:
    1) Punch in slide number, hit enter.
    2) Deliver succinct and illustrative description of the data on the slide, and its implications
    3) Conclude with smooth segue to the next slide (all in idiomatic and well-paced English).
    4) Look down, consult paper for number of next slide.
    5) GOTO 1
    He didn’t drop the mic at the end but he should have.

  44. Anon says:

    Sharpless was flown out to Sydney U (post-Nobel) for a talk which was a ramble no-one comprehended about the number of atoms in the universe and how many molecules we could possibly make – a complete waste of cash.
    Worst slides prize goes to Ed Solomon with a stunning number of figures crammed onto each slide, all explained with a vague wave of a laser pointer across the data. Mind numbing.

  45. bad wolf says:

    @35: Oh, it’s “ruffled” feathers. How could you not know that? Perhaps you should move on to another lab before you embarrass yourself any more.

  46. DrSnowboard says:

    A distinguished Japanese researcher giving his talk in French which he clearly had learnt word by word and phonetically. As an english postdoc with limited french, nightmare but even my french lab colleagues would have preferred Japanese.The audience stayed but questions were sparse…

  47. Anonymous says:

    @37, 42– One might almost think it impossible for a postdoc to do a little background reading on their area of research!

  48. An Old Chemist says:

    I am from an Asian country and English is not my mother tongue. Now, to it add the fact that my pronunciation is not easy to follow. So the best and the only way for me to communicate my stuff during my seminar is to write down every single important point in English, and all the reagents, solvents, conditions in details.
    Most of the complaining, here, about poor seminars is about the native English speakers. For us foreigners, the rules are different, period.

  49. MR says:

    Chrispy, I must say I never thought of this color blindness thing (althought I even have part-colour blind friends)! So thank you, from this day forward I will try to take into account that.
    Don’t have any particular worst-seminar in my mind, but I can agree with people writing about those full-of-text slides and reading-all-the-slide thing, this is awful.
    But way to make boring seminar at least a bit endurable – force yourself to find something to ask about (haha, and experience being hatred by those who hoped that last slide will be the moment when they can stand up un leave).
    Though, not a bad idea to have your idea-notepad with you.

  50. Anonzy says:

    Kishi put me to sleep once.

  51. Bill Kwalwasser says:

    Robert B. Woodward organic chemistry seminars in the ’60s. Best ever. Used blackboard only. Started at top left, and by the end of the hour, finished at the bottom right. Perfectly understandable and exciting to watch. Constantly smoked, and flicked each butt perfectly into a trash can across the room.
    On the other hand, there was a seminar at my institution where a prominent physical-organic chemist (of tertiary bicyclocarbocation fame)screamed at a fellow grad student, who was only allowed to be at the seminar as the projectionist, when said great professor’s slides were not in the right order. Oh, what we had to endure.

  52. John Arnold says:

    In our first year of grad school, we had to give a seminar on our undergraduate research. I had almost never spoken in front of a group of people before, so I used note cards as I was so nervous. Must’ve been absolutely dreadful.
    But not as weird as the (US) person who delivered his talk using a strong German accent – apparently he thought it would sound more convincing!

  53. Life is Tufts says:

    At Tufts a preeminent professor was presenting his efforts and in the preamble was describing his work with his back to the screen.
    He clicked on the first slide and everyone gasped! It was a pic of a woman performing fellatio! He turned around to look at it and said “that’s not my work”- calmly and collectively and continued to give a pretty good talk but without sex acts.
    It seems the previous weekend an Anti-porn against womens’ group had used the auditorium and forgot to remove the first slide!
    Did the Department get an apology? NOOOooo!

  54. Chris Jeans says:

    Just what I wanted to read an hour before I go and give a talk!
    The worst I’ve ever been to was a keynote speaker at a fairly large conference, giving a presentation to an audience of several hundred with a wide range of specialties. Overhead after overhead of Western blots and gel images with no unifying theme to keep anyone interested. Went way over time and the host was too feeble/starstruck to take charge. Eventually (after about 90 mins had passed for a 1 hr talk) a few friends and I started to applaud, the whole theater joined in, and it was over.

  55. Sue Denim says:

    Two stick out in my mind.
    While giving his Cope Scholar address (I think in Dallas?), Satoro Masamune was apparently not feeling well. Carl Johnson was presiding over the session. About 2 slides into his talk, he just said “Carl,” walked off the stage and out of the room. Johnson came up to the podium and said “let’s just go through his slides.” What followed was a series of slides with absolutely no dialog.
    I also saw Barry Sharpless give a talk at a national ACS meeting (again, VERY large room) where he had an overhead projector, several empty transparencies and he proceeded to talk about “a few things that I’ve been thinking about lately.”
    To @10’s point, I gave a talk at Parke-Davis once upon a time and they asked my permission to videotape the lecture to share with other sites with the promise that they would return the video to me after all of their sites had been given the opportunity to watch it. When it arrived, curiosity got the better of me and I watched a few minutes of it. I was sufficiently horrified that I hope I never see myself speak again.

  56. Ted says:

    For anyone that hasn’t seen it before…
    Death by Powerpoint
    This is why I hate arbitrary slide count limits. Crappy speakers just cram the same material into fewer slides. Quality outs itself, regardless.

  57. Martyn says:

    Fifty-odd comments, and no mention of Giles Brindley?

  58. In Vivo Veritas says:

    I was a a small meeting focused of food intake behavior a few years back. The Chair of the session was from one hot lab, the speaker, from a competitors lab. The speaker was disorganized and way over time.
    The chair gave him 3 overtime warnings, and finally loudly asked him to stop. To which the speaker yelled, into the microphone, “You shorted me you bastard!” and stormed off. Unflustered, the chair quipped – “I guess this was a good thing, as the speaker had used up the time for any questions”.

  59. Hap says:

    Postdocs are supposed to have the basic framework of skills to do research in a given field. When you hire a grad student, you should expect a minimum level of competence in the techniques in your field, but for a post-doc that bar ought to be a whole lot higher. In addition, if the post-doc doesn’t know something, they are supposed to be able to know that they need help – to have the intellectual framework to prosecute a project. If the postdoc can’t do these things, there are a lot of failures, but they are not the postdoc’s hiring group’s alone; the postdoc and the original advisor should have done a better job.
    If a D3 sophomore football player shows up at an NFL camp, is it the team’s job to get him up to speed? No – when you show up at camp certain capacities are expected, and if you don’t have them, you won’t be around. People should not be gratuitously mean to anyone, and as patient and helpful as they can be, but it’s a waste of time and money to be in a position you can come nowhere close to fulfilling.

  60. anon says:

    59 comments and no one has the B**ls to give names !!
    other than Sharpless (a nobel winner; so he has earned the right to moon the audience if he wishes) there are no significant names of eminent scientists mentioned.
    people stop being so PC !! you can name names – no one is going to call you a Troll. C’mon…. make it exciting.

  61. Chemjobber says:

    Other than Ernst, Suzuki, Stork, Wender and Solomon?

  62. jtd7 says:

    Swann gave a seminar when I was in grad school. Unfortunately, they served madeleines at the tea beforehand, and Swann never did get around to the announced topic.

  63. Steve says:

    @12 Anon2: “do you believe this protein is an oncogene? ”
    hmmm that would have stumped me too! I suspect you mean either an oncogene promoter or a product from oncogne expression?

  64. Blinky says:

    We had a pretty serious contender for worst seminar ever.
    The student, who we nicknamed “blinky”, presented a series of horrible structures interspersed with what appeared to be NMR’s of various contaminating solvents.
    At the end, the first row professors started nailing his coffin lid shut when suddenly I (who was on the iPhone interwebs) heard a female gasp/scream!
    Blinky had fainted and then immediately hit his “Mr. Clean” style bald head on the chair arm and bounced back to life with a strange grin on his face. Fearful of him puking, I ran out.

  65. Ann O'Nymous says:

    I don’t think @12 is getting a totally fair hearing, though hindsight is of course a wonderful thing.
    A post-doc in a cancer lab should reasonably be expected to know something about …cancer. Just like my mechanic knows a lot about cars even if he doesn’t know the exact details of the catalytic converter in my particular sedan. And if they are there because of something else, like their expertise in statistics, or fish, or whatever, they should understand that they are going to need to mug up on cancer science pretty quick (if for no other reason than to be a better helper to their colleagues, just as natural scientists have to know some statistics to be useful).
    In summary:
    A poor candidate was hired -mistake #1
    The candidate either didn’t realize they were weak or chose not to do anything about it – mistake #2
    The lab management didn’t address the situation effectively until after a high-profile flameout at a seminar – mistake #3.

  66. philip says:

    @61 though Wenders talk is a bit too broad/grand/overreaching considering he goes from natural product synthesis to solid state nmr in a membrane, I found them quite inspiring

  67. cirby says:

    I run AV for a living, so I have more Bad Presenter stories than I can count.
    Nominee for Best Terrible? A panel discussion about amalgam fillings got to the Q&A part, where the first questioner yelled “YOU’RE AN A******!” and charged the stage, attacking one of the anti-amalgam speakers.
    Most sessions don’t end with an attendee arrest…

  68. z says:

    I remember one where the presenter was using physical slides in a slide projector. Apparently, someone had dropped the carousel just before the seminar and several of the slides fell out. They were replaced, but several ended up in the wrong order, and some were upside down. The speaker got about half way through the talk and just gave up. He said it wasn’t worth finishing like this, so we all got up and left. Not really his fault, but it was the early 2000s, so I’m not sure why he wasn’t using powerpoint.

  69. philip says:

    @67 amalgams? like…sodium amalgam? I also get very angry about that

  70. luysii says:

    #51 Bill Kwalwasser. Agree. Watching the great RBW draw the porphyrin ring using both hands was fun, and a little scary.

  71. Secondaire says:

    One way to absolutely frustrate me during a seminar is make sure your slides have some completely absurd or inappropriate background/fonts/clip art.
    In my second year of grad school (back in the Pleistocene Era), one guy gave his second-year seminar on a background that was a purple-and-green checkerboard. I realize you’re trying to get people to pay attention, but dude, I get migraines…

  72. Anonymous says:

    To contribute to the Sharpless experiences – he gave the keynote lecture at a symposium while I was in grad school and I distinctly remember one of his slides had nothing but ALIEN LIFE FORMS written diagonally across the screen in comic sans font. I had absolutely no idea what was going on.

  73. cancer_man says:

    Come on guys, how can I make my witty observations on talks from physics if 72 of you reply!

  74. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    On the subject of color blindness: the most common type is the inability to distinguish red from green. The genes in question are on the X chromosome, so about 8% of men and under 1% of women cannot tell red from green.
    I therefore use red and blue instead of red and green.
    Here is a great resource for color palette selection:

  75. yoyomama says:

    To spice up a departmental talk once Woodward asked a grad student to spike the trash can with benzoyl peroxide, but didn’t tell him how much. When RB flicked his butt into the can, it filled the room with smoke and cleared out the audience. Rather more spice than he bargained for.

  76. Matthew K says:

    Just the other week I gave a lecture on the autonomic nervous system to first year Med students. I usually leave the lecture theatre by the side door, but this time I walked up the centre stairs where the students were leaving as well. The guy in front of me turned to his friend and said “well that was a sh-t lecture,” and his friend, who has caught sight of me, said “oh well it wasn’t all that bad.”
    Thing is, I walked out and thought “actually I hate that lecture and I feel kind of embarrassed how bad it is.” Went home and rewrote it, next time it made about ten times more sense.

  77. Fred the Fourth says:

    Regarding the various comments about slides with yellow text on white, or various obnoxious color combinations: look up “isoluminant colors” and then avoid them like the migraines they induce in audiences.
    (Human vision tends not to be able to focus on, or identify, boundaries between color areas which are isoluminant; roughly speaking, areas which would render at the same gray level in grayscale.)

  78. daen says:

    I remember seeing a presentation about systems biology on the agenda of a bioinformatics conference I attended in Sweden in 2004 and thinking, “Oh, that could be fun”.
    First of all, it wasn’t a general overview of systems biology, as the presentation title led me to believe, it was a very, very specific description of a set of simulations for — well, something or other, with some slides which were so detailed and busy that they were impossible to read from probably even the front row (I wasn’t in the front row) and it was presented by an earnest gentleman with such a strong Slavic accent that I could understand fewer words than slides.

  79. darwin says:

    Cannot recall my worst seminar attended, but I do know I won’t get this 5 minutes back…

  80. Steve says:

    I read the following account somewhere, long ago, don’t remember where. Did not happen to me but the horror is etched in my mind.
    An excruciating speaker on a dense topic drones on and on and on. Near the end, someone says his comments don’t match his slides. The speaker realizes he has been off one slide in his comments, and starts the presentation again.

  81. Lyle Langley says:

    “I run AV for a living, so I have more Bad Presenter stories than I can count.
    Nominee for Best Terrible? A panel discussion about amalgam fillings got to the Q&A part, where the first questioner yelled “YOU’RE AN A******!” and charged the stage, attacking one of the anti-amalgam speakers.
    Most sessions don’t end with an attendee arrest…”
    This is on the list of worst seminars? This would be in my top 5 BEST of all time. Assaults and arrests? To paraphrase the my colleague the Comic Book Guy: Best…Seminar….Ever.
    No offense, but unless you are a pie-eyed graduate student, there is nothing inspiring about Wender’s ramblings. We get it Dr. Wender, people are dying, no need to show the pic of the cancer patient.

  82. gladthatsdone says:

    Thesis defense at a well-respected Southern engineering college (think wasps and old jalopies).
    Chinese candidate (no racist intent, you’ll see why) and very nice woman presenting. She had left her husband and child in China to come over for grad school right around the time when tanks were crushing her classmates in Beijing. A momentary lapse in marital fidelity had come and gone with little fanfare except that hubby back home caught wind of events.
    Good seminar, destined for degree, and the time for Q&A arrives. Another Chinese woman from a different department, who had been sitting less than 20 feet from the speaker for the entire seminar stands, points at the speaker’s abdomen, and loudly asks whether her pregnancy was the reason she abandoned her husband for years and took so long to finish her degree. I wish I could remember the exact phrasing of the question, but it involved something about a devil spawn or some other insinuation of an illegitimate conception.
    Like I said, the woman was an amazingly nice person, sharp, well-prepared, and not pregnant at all. None of us knew how well prepared she was, since nobody in the audience had any clue who the antagonist was until the first accusation flew.
    Without breaking pace, making eye contact, or even acknowledging the seriousness and impropriety of the outburst, the speaker calmly asked “Are there any other questions?”
    The denouement, involving the department chair, campus security, and I think ultimately the Atlanta police was nowhere near as memorable as the speaker’s icy demeanor throughout the entire presentation and Q&A. Just…wow.

  83. Anonymous says:

    Went to a regional conference and saw an interesting looking topic on separation of enantiomers by LC/MS. Student proceeds to go into detail about how he separated the diastereomers of methamphetamine. The enantiomers, as expected, came out together.

  84. Cheminista says:

    There are three types of horrible talks:
    1) The Nobel Laurate/eminence grise who knows we’ll sit patiently through whatever ramblings he might want to throw out (a few have already been mentioned…)
    2) The internal presentation by someone who’s just learned advanced PowerPoint and who’s slides are so cluttered and noisy that you would think they were evidence of psychosis,
    and my new least favorite:
    3) The young professor who thinks he’s giving a TED talk, full of evangelical fervor, dramatic pauses, revelatory epiphanies, etc.
    For heaven’s sake – if the work is good, you shouldn’t have to sell it so hard!

  85. Hap says:

    @81: I don’t think you should be able to show cancer patients in your talks unless you’ve actually developed ways to make your compounds for them (and they have used them). On the other hand, bioactivity and compound supply are always used as arguments for a synthesis, but ones that are rarely fulfilled. If a compound is good enough to be useful it can be developed for scale (eribulin), but most aren’t going to be. Most syntheses aren’t going to solve supply problems for anything sufficiently useful, so implying that one can (or otherwise that doing so is the reason for a synthesis) is not honest.
    2) @57 – it’s already been posted here before (
    3) If group meetings count, we had a wowser. New postdoc, hadn’t gotten much done yet, gave an > 2.5 hour talk on his work (in the group, not before), mostly literature, with small bits of new work. He interrupted in the middle to play with the group elastomer of choice, and then went on some more. After 2.5 h, I left, because I wanted to get dinner before 8 (when the dining hall closed). I wish I had drank. Alternatively, Ireland gave a seminar at my school right before he retired, and he sounded like he was done.

  86. Cato the Elder says:

    My all-time favorite was when an eminent, older organic chemist, who apparently did not know how to use powerpoint, gave a presentation and it quickly became obvious that the slide transitions were timed rather than by click. Every five minutes or so there would be an awkward moment where he was still talking about the slide from one (or two) slides back…

  87. Anon says:

    Society of Developmental Biology conference, in the middle of my Grad school career at Snowbird, Utah (circa 1998)… I was able to attend because they needed local students to help run projectors and instruct the speakers that the screens were backlit, therefore requiring the slides be loaded backwards.
    A Japanese postdoc/young professor did not get the message, so a grad student was feverishly trying to reverse the slides as his talk progressed causing two things:
    1) some misloaded and backwards or upside-down slides…
    2) … ultimately causing the speaker, who had already been nervous for likely his first international talk to lose his cool entirely, stammer, stutter, and trip through the remainder of his now incoherent presentation.
    He left the stage with his head bowed in shame, and spent the rest of the session in the audience, hunched over holding his head with both hands, sobbing, and rocking back and forth…the 500 or so people in the room trying to pretend not to notice. My heart went out to the man, and I truly hope that he recovered from this trauma and had a successful career.

  88. NMH says:

    Kary Mullis in his presentation (just pre-Nobel) put up slides of naked women’s backs with tatoos. My favorite part was he said that when he worked at Cetus he had a good tech whom he fired, and hired a girl much younger than him with whom he dated. Then showed a pic of her in a somewhat intimate scene (bedroom).
    Several woman walked out of the talk.

  89. The Iron Chemist says:

    @84: I think you’d be unpleasantly surprised how much you do have to sell some good work. Case study: the first Suzuki coupling was reported in Tetrahedron Letters. Nowadays, seemingly minor perturbations of it get published in much higher-profile journals.

  90. GladToMoveToProcess says:

    Re #40: The worst talk I ever heard was by Stork, when he received the Nichols Prize (I think) around 1980. At one point, he said “What’s that slide doing here?” Great work, awful presentation.
    On the other hand, Gilbert gave the absolute best talk ever, about 10 years earlier. Lupeol, as I recall, and it was truly inspiring. A force of nature….

  91. Anon says:

    @83 Methamphetamine has 1 stereogenic center, so there are no diastereomers to separate. The student either successfully separated the enanteomers, or separated the compound from an impurity. Not having been to the talk, I can’t speak to whether you misinterpreted the talk, or if it was even worse than you describe.

  92. Anon says:

    @89 Back in the day, Tet. Lett. was a well-regarded journal for short communications. It’s only in the last couple of decades that it’s fallen from grace and become a place for uninteresting stuff that would bounce from places like Org. Lett.

  93. Anonymous says:

    @4, Negishi, right?

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