(More general advice on going to talks
is here.
As with all my webpages, feedback is more than welcome!)

The challenge of talks. It is tricky to get things out of
talks, even after a lot of practice. It is very easy to go to a talk,
and at some point have your eyes glaze over. Talks are like horses:
once you are thrown off, it is hard to get back on. Especially if the
horse is stomping on your face. (That’s why it is very bad to come
into a talk a few minutes late — even if it is sometimes

“Three Things” is an exercise to learn how to get things out of talks.
It can be useful if you are in the first few years of going to
seminars — I’ve intended it as practice for graduate students —
but I’ve also found that I got much more out of talks (especially
those out of my comfort zone) when using it. It is admittedly a
little contrived, and when a bunch of us first experimented with it
(perhaps around 2007?), we stopped doing it after a while because we
got tired of it.

The theory is as follows. If you can get even three small things out of a talk,
it is a successful talk. And if you can’t get even three small
things out of a talk, it was not a successful experience.
Note that the things you get out of a talk needn’t be the things that
your neighbor got out of a talk, or the things the speaker expected
you to get out of the talk.

Here is how it works.
Take a clean sheet of paper, or an index card.
Your goal is to have three things, and only three things, on this
sheet at the end of the talk. The “things” can be of many forms:

  • a definition you want to remember (e.g. “a K3 surface is…”)
  • a theorem you want to remember (“the moduli space of polarized K3
    surfaces is smooth”)
  • a motivating or key example (“a quartic is an example of a K3 surface”)
  • a motivating problem (“why are all moduli spaces of polarized K3
    surfaces the same dimension?”)
  • a question you want to ask the speaker (“why is that hypothesis
    in your theorem?”)
  • a question you want to ask someone else (a definition,
    motivation, a question about a connection etc.)
  • anything else of a similar flavor: something specific that made
    you think.
    Something vague (“I liked the part where she talked about groups”)
    does not count as a “thing”.

    As you watch the talk, look out for “things” you like. When one
    comes your way, write it down. Then later write down a second.
    Then write down a third. Hopefully a fourth will come your way —
    and then you must look over the previous three, and decide which one
    must be cut. A dirty secret is that you may not be able to prevent
    yourself from remembering the one you cut — and the ones you kept
    and reviewed will be more fixed in
    your mind.

    (If you take notes in a more traditional sense, you can still play the
    game, by putting a star beside each “thing”. This works a little less
    well; you will be less focused on looking for “things”.)

    After the talk: if other people are playing, send each other
    your things by email (or discuss them in person). It is surprisingly
    enlightening. And there will likely be some follow-up discussion. It
    doesn’t take much time (to type or to send one sentence responses to
    others’ things if the spirit moves you). If you have questions, then
    ask them to someone (perhaps the speaker over the semianr dinner; or
    perhaps your advisor or your students or your colleagues). Don’t let
    them drop.

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