Disasters seminar organizers can avoid

In early 2012, Josh Tewksbury of our Department of Biology asked faculty members for advice for seminar speakers, as part of a course he was running for graduate students on how to give presentations. I responded with the following, which is really advice for seminar organizers. As it may be of use more generally, I have posted it here. I figure that I must have attended about 6,000 seminars over the years. I have seen most of these disasters happen. Enjoy.

My letter to Josh Tewksbury:

This gives me an opportunity to "vent" on a topic that I have been wanting to. It is not a complaint about you, please understand.

I think our students (and postdocs) need to be told about what one does when one runs a seminar, when one is the person introducing the speaker, and in charge of the event. (So this is not advice for the speaker, except indirectly).

I can't tell you how often I have seen the person in charge sitting in the first row, smiling beatifically, very proud of themselves, and enjoying the talk, while meanwhile
(1) the audience can't hear what is being said, because the speaker was sure that they didn't need a neck microphone, and/or
(2) the audience can't hear what is being said because of loud conversation or construction work in the hallway outside, and/or
(3) the audience can't see the slides because the room lights are on, and/or
(4) people are standing in the back of the room, in considerable discomfort, or even lined up out into the hallway, while there are multiple open seats down front, and/or
(5) the slides are out of focus, and/or
(6) the speaker has no laser pointer and is just waving their hands uselessly at the screen, and/or
(7) they have a laser pointer and are moving it all over the place so fast that everyone is getting seasick, and/or
(8) they decided to write something on the board at the front but forgot to turn the lights up so that the writing can be seen, and/or
(9) the audience is distracted by being too hot or too cold, or the air system has a hurricane in progress, and/or
(10) in the question period, an egocentric person in the first row asks a technical question of some complexity, and does so in a very faint voice which the speaker can barely hear -- so the speaker totally inconsiderately walks over to the questioner, fails to repeat the question, and answers it in a voice just barely loud enough for the questioner to hear, and/or
(11) in the question period, the speaker looks at only one part of the audience and fails to notice several people who have their hands raised.

Lesson: If you are the seminar organizer all this is your responsibility. Don't just sit there smiling stupidly with pleasure at what a wonderful talk you set up. Get up, go to the back, see if people can see, can hear, are not too hot, not too cold. Harass the speaker when they fail to repeat the question loudly enough for the audience in back to hear. Help the speaker notice questioners in the question period. Tell the people lined up in back to go down the aisles and take some of the empty seats. All these issues are on your shoulders, and if they go badly, it reflects badly on YOU.

OK, there, now I feel better.