More post-HotOS’09 thinking1, though less directly-relevant.

I would like to lay claim to coining the term “Teddy Ruxbin Talk” to describe a talk that is a) overly-rehearsed, b) extremely overly-rehearsed c) almost feels like it was acted out, rather than given or d) a mind-numbing mixture of a-c above.

I think most people who lived through the 80s at whatever age will catch the reference. Here’s Teddy Ruxpin[1. Who's back, apparently. Yay!] Teddy will talk to you, but first you have to put a tape in Teddy’s back and hit PLAY. Then Teddy will talk to you. He will say what is on the tape. With the same wording, timing, and inflection. Every time.

I dare say we’ve all given the Teddy Ruxbin talk. Sometimes this is referred to as the “elevator pitch”, when given clumsily. I myself find myself lapsing into this when presenting a poster, and beginning my spiel for about the 20th or 50th time. 2 I noticed a few Teddy Ruxpin talks among the job talks that faculty candidates gave at Harvard a few years back. I guess those are the most common places: poster presentation lends itself to repetition, and you get it from all sides as far as how important jobs talks are which probably explains their tendency to be over-, rather than under-, prepared.

Maybe people will give me a hard time for pointing out the downside of over-prepared-ness, given that many conference talks suffer from the opposite problem. And I’m not exactly sure why I’m opposed to the Teddy Ruxpin talk. It seems to run counter to the reason that it’s so thrilling to watch someone like Yo-Yo Ma perform, the utter ease and comfortability that puts you, the listener, completely at peace. Contrast this to the delicate, difficult appreciation that you experience hearing a young child play something that is clearly just a bit beyond their technical or musical grasp, the slight strain of being put into the position of rooting them on, praying just a little bit that their fingers won’t slip, that their memory won’t fail them.

But maybe over-prepared-ness shouldn’t lead to scripted-ness. Maybe it should lead to a fully natural presentation in which the requisite practice recedes into the background entirely, and you are left without a feeling of intense, deliberate, repetitive preparation, and instead just left with the ideas the speaker wanted to impart. This is probably something akin to what actors strive for, since nobody wants a chump that forgets what comes after “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”, but nobody wants to hear the lines read to them either. It’s a tough balance to strike, but we have Teddy Ruxpin manning one edge of the abyss to let us know when we’ve gone way, way too far.

  1. 1, 2 []
  2. 2. I actually tend to fight against this to somewhat ridiculous lengths, meaning that latecomers to the poster tend to look a bit confused as they receive an extremely weird, highly-obfuscated poster pitch completely driven by a strange need to keep my cranial circuitry alive. []