Books on how to give a great talk are dime a dozen. But how do you give a talk that will be impossible for your audience to forget?
Rather than accept throw away epithets and sanctimonious dogma, I prefer to look for empirical evidence. This search led me to a talk given at the Urodynamics Society meeting in Las Vegas in 1983. Say what you will about the methods used, the talk given by British physiologist Professor G. S. Brindley at that conference will never be forgotten by those in attendance. Brindley later received a knighthood for his bioengineering research.
What follows is based on account of this lecture by Laurence Klotz, who attended the meeting as a senior resident hungry for knowledge. Klotz went to every lecture he could and, on the face of it, there seemed nothing special about Brindley’s scheduled lecture on vaso-active therapy for erectile dysfunction.
Klotz relates the following from the morning of the lecture:
“About 15 min before the lecture I took the elevator to go to the lecture hall, and on the next floor a slight, elderly looking and bespectacled man, wearing a blue track suit and carrying a small cigar box, entered the elevator. He appeared quite nervous, and shuffled back and forth. He opened the box in the elevator, which became crowded, and started examining and ruffling through the 35 mm slides of micrographs inside. I was standing next to him, and could vaguely make out the content of the slides, which appeared to be a series of pictures of penile erection. I concluded that this was, indeed, Professor Brindley on his way to the lecture, although his dress seemed inappropriately casual.”
Once in the lecture hall, Klotz took his seat in the third row and noted that before him sat a number of middle-aged urologists with their partners in “full evening regalia”.
Brindley took to the podium, still in his tracksuit. He related his hypothesis that the injection of vasoactive agents into the copora of the penis might initiate an erection. The next sign that things might take a turn for the peculiar was when Brindley explained that, in the absence of any suitable animal models, he had elected to use himself as a guinea pig to test his hypothesis.
“His slide-based talk consisted of a large series of photographs of his penis in various states of tumescence after injection with a variety of doses of phentolamine and papaverine. After viewing about 30 of these slides, there was no doubt in my mind that, at least in Professor Brindley’s case, the therapy was effective.”
Apparently, Brindey felt there remained a problem with his demonstration thus far. Skeptics might yet wonder whether erotic stimulation had played a role in achieving the dramatic results.
“The Professor wanted to make his case in the most convincing style possible. He indicated that, in his view, no normal person would find the experience of giving a lecture to a large audience to be erotically stimulating or erection-inducing. He had, he said, therefore injected himself with papaverine in his hotel room before coming to give the lecture, and deliberately wore loose clothes (hence the track-suit) to make it possible to exhibit the results. He stepped around the podium, and pulled his loose pants tight up around his genitalia in an attempt to demonstrate his erection.”
Now, this is an out-of-ordinary approach to communicating a scientific discovery. This display alone would have ensured a memorable talk. But this was just the beginning. According to Klotz:
“At this point, I, and I believe everyone else in the room, was agog. I could scarcely believe what was occurring on stage. But Prof. Brindley was not satisfied. He looked down sceptically at his pants and shook his head with dismay. ‘Unfortunately, this doesn’t display the results clearly enough’. He then summarily dropped his trousers and shorts, revealing a long, thin, clearly erect penis. There was not a sound in the room. Everyone had stopped breathing.”
But is seeing really believing? Brindley seems to have thought not. Klotz tells us what happens next:
“But the mere public showing of his erection from the podium was not sufficient. He paused, and seemed to ponder his next move. The sense of drama in the room was palpable. He then said, with gravity, ‘I’d like to give some of the audience the opportunity to confirm the degree of tumescence’. With his pants at his knees, he waddled down the stairs, approaching (to their horror) the urologists and their partners in the front row. As he approached them, erection waggling before him, four or five of the women in the front rows threw their arms up in the air, seemingly in unison, and screamed loudly. The scientific merits of the presentation had been overwhelmed, for them, by the novel and unusual mode of demonstrating the results.”
“The screams seemed to shock Professor Brindley, who rapidly pulled up his trousers, returned to the podium, and terminated the lecture. The crowd dispersed in a state of flabbergasted disarray. I imagine that the urologists who attended with their partners had a lot of explaining to do. The rest is history. Prof Brindley’s single-author paper reporting these results was published about 6 months later.”
So, there you have it. A simple, practical demonstration of how to give a talk that will never be forgotten. Professor Sir Giles Skey Brindley, thank you.
Now, time to revise my talk on Irukandji jellyfish and priapism…
- Brindley GS. Cavernosal alpha-blockade: a new technique for investigating and treating erectile impotence. Br J Psychiatry. 1983 Oct;143:332-7. PMID: 6626852.
- Klotz L. How (not) to communicate new scientific information: a memoir of the famous Brindley lecture. BJU Int. 2005 Nov;96(7):956-7. PMID: 16225508. [free fulltext]
- Wikipedia, Giles Brindley.