The new or reused keynote dilemma

James Clay wrote a post about ‘the half life of a keynote‘ recently in which he pondered how long you should keep giving the same talk for. I know people who always create a new talk, and people who give the same one for almost their entire careers. This year I decided I would create new talks for every keynote, so it’s something I’ve been thinking about. I think the initial reaction is that creating new talks is better. But now I’m through my new talk phase, I’m less convinced. To add to James’s conversation then, here are my pros and cons.

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The advantages of giving the same talk multiple times are:

You get better. As anyone who has seen me talk will attest, I’m not a great public speaker. Giving the same talk allows me to tighten it up, as the first version is often a bit rambling. You take bits out, strengthen other points, know which jokes work, etc. It’s a bit like a comedian going on tour, if you only give new talks each time then it is always the equivalent of the pre-tour show when material is being trialled, compared with the 15th night when it is finely honed.

People want that talk. I have given versions of my digital scholarship talk since 2011. I keep retiring it and then people ask “can you come and give that talk I saw, to my team”. It feels a bit like that group who had one hit in the 70s and every gig they play, people just want to hear the hit and not their electro jazz fusion material.

It saves time. This is not just me being lazy, but is a real consideration for people who have a substantive job. Creating a new talk can take a day, giving the talk takes at least a day out of your normal work, and if you don’t want to be rambling you will practice and refine the talk beforehand, which might be another day. That’s at least 3 days per talk. Most talks I give are unpaid or there is a small honorarium, but the OU doesn’t get anything. If I give 5-10 talks a year that is 15-30 days out of my job. Now there are benefits (see below) so it’s not all lost time, but even so, that is a sizeable chunk of workload. If you reuse talks then you can cut that amount down by half probably.

I don’t really have that much to say. I mean, come on, one or two decent ideas every couple of years is enough surely?

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The advantages of giving new talks are:

It really helps pull together your thinking. Often you have lots of ideas and content but it’s not until you create a talk for others that it helps shape your thoughts. There is real scholarly benefit in creating a new talk.

It makes you think about the audience more. There is a danger when giving the same talk repeatedly (usually modified) that you don’t tailor it sufficiently to the audience.

It keeps you fresh. The flip side of the advantage given above of getting sharper with familiar material is that you can also be complacent and not really engaged with it.

It avoids repetition and gives you online content. Prior to the internet you probably could get away with giving the same talk forever. But now you share content on blogs and slideshare, or it is livestreamed. So people may have seen it in some form already before you even get there. Creating new talks help feed the online beast, if that is important to you.

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I’ve created new talks where I’ve been mildly incoherent, and given old talks where it has not really been appropriate, so there are merits to both. I usually come down in the middle and adapt, remix material from previous talks, but I’m finding this year of refreshing my presentation stock very useful and quite challenging.

6 Comments

  1. The question of “new” vs “old” is according to who’s perspective? If it’s the presenters, that’s one thing, but the more important is it “new” or “old hash” for the audience. And if it’s not about the audience experience, then who is the presentation for?

    This binary also assumes that the presentation experience is solely fixed on the presenter or the slide deck, when, really there is a dynamic between the audience and presentation that never makes it the same. If it is the same, then you are more a VHS player than a human being.

    I had a 2 week speaking gig where I has at something like 9 institutions in 2 weeks and had to do 19 scheduled talks, workshops, etc. Like you mentioned, I found that I was more comfortable, my timing kept improving with a “repeat”. And even if the screens were the same, the outline in my head the same, none were a carbon copy.

    I see each one as a remix, bring in new examples, re-arrange some elements, place your emphasis in different areas, tune it to what you know of the audience or the locale based on what your hosts suggest.

    To me, the “new” vs old are extreme theoretical limit endpoints, and for everyone involved, the middle is more interesting

    1. Well, while it’s true you can give very different talks from the same set of slides, I think there’s a danger here of assuming everyone is a confident speaker, capable of ad-libbing. Speakers come in many different guises. I used to suffer form public speaking anxiety very badly, and so having a well prepared set of slides, particularly one that I knew worked well really helped to offset that anxiety.
      Also creating a new set of slides is the mechanism by which I think through a new way of approaching a subject, whether it’s a different emphasis, metaphor, research etc.

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