New Reflections on Old Invites

Well it’s been and gone. That merry band of a few who drop by to look at these posts might remember a post about that time I was actually invited to do a speaking thing at a conference.

You’ll also recall (or find out for the first time if you go back and look at that link) that I had a series of things to try and do. A sort of half-baked labours of Academic Faux-Hercules to try and achieve generic brand immortality with (not even the good kind of generic brand; more like the type of generic brand you know is going to break really soon and not match the ‘immortality’ label).

This then is my part-time academic scorecard, to be subsequently known as my PTAS review to make it fit academic lingo more easily.

Did I Embrace Unwanted Things?

I did the planned talk on that happy little lump of offal, the liver. And the morning tea spring rolls didn’t get flung at my head (this is a bonus because I checked and they don’t spring).

I do feel like I worked harder to find a way to make this talk work for the audience than I might have if I chose my own topic. Who am I to judge though? I turned it into a blog post for the Songs or Stories site here. All feedback welcome.

Score: The unwanted thing at least got a pat on the shoulder and a thumbs up, rather than a full body embrace. That’s more acceptable socially though so I give it a pass.

A slightly less athletic thumbs up than this, but still.

A slightly less athletic thumbs up than this, but still.

Did I work hard as a speaker?

Well I turned up. I rehearsed each talk a bunch of times, which is definitely an aim. For each talk I produced an accompanying referenced post online. Oh, and for the social media talk I rehearsed with my new co-presenter, we set up a loose script in advance, worked on a joint slide deck, advocated for more tech infrastructure and spent hours trying to set up a Livestream thing.

So I worked a bit, but also felt like I actually contributed to the program rather than just being there.

Score: Pass as measured by a face full of soft cheese in the airport lounge when I fell asleep.

Did I do better talks?

Always hard to measure from inside the belly of the beast (the same reason you don’t trust Jonah’s assessment the size of the whale that swallowed him I guess). I definitely delivered more closely to the style of talk I’d like, but I need more feedback from the punters.

Score: Still waiting for the verdict of the jury after they settle on which takeaway they’ll order for dinner.

Did I do the conference?

I spoke to people. I spoke to people I hadn’t met electronically before even. I shared meals. I heard new stories. I did not talk to anybody from a company that sells stuff (could call that as positive or negative).

It is massively easier to do this when you’re surrounded by “your type of people”. You know, the other people out there who like giving controlled substances to babies. We think the same.

Was I super proactive like the real pros are? Probably not. I’m not sure what the colour of the paint in the corners of the room was though.

Score: Pass, in that I was at least a fish swimming randomly around trying not to bump into things, not floating belly up. In the corner.

Did I seek opportunities?

Well speaking to people was a start. And I’ve shared a couple of things in follow-up. Did I come up with any definite collaborations? Well, not really. Those things can take a bit of time though, right?

Let’s assume it’s a starter for the sort of earthy sourdough bread where you end up hanging onto that starter for multiple generations of a family and at least one armed uprising. (Yes, I like my sourdough with a hint of frontier gunpowder.)

The one area we did really take up some opportunities was in the social media talk. The real highlight of this was the involvement of people online in the Twitter stream who made an effort to help “just because”. This really demonstrated that there are some amazing and supportive people out there (setting an alarm at 02:00 in Canada to chip in to a Twitter stream is a pretty amazing effort).

Oh, and a guy in Sydney live illustrating the session and sending it back to us. I’ve wanted to do that for 2 years.

Score: Would be a fail if measured today, but hoping it’s a slow burn.

This is the very cool work by Gavin Blake at Fever Picture for the Social Media session - scribed in real time from Sydney while we were in Johannesburg.

This is the very cool work by Gavin Blake at Fever Picture for the Social Media session – scribed in real time from Sydney while we were in Johannesburg.

All up, I’m better at being a person who talks and conferences for going to this conference. Of course, you’re only as good as your last gig. So do you leave on a high, or go around again?



As I mentioned above, I produced a post for each talk. I think this offers a lot more for the audience, as you can embed some references and links that might actually be useful and the talk can live beyond the 30 minutes. It was a bunch of extra work, but for conference sessions I think I’d try to do this again. My examples are:

The Liver Talk

The Aid Trip and Practice Development Talk

The Social Media Talk (this one also includes a link to the Livestream event we created for it, though we eventually broke the connection with a couple of minutes left).

The image for the thumbs up was posted to Flickr Creative Commons by the US Navy and is produced  unchanged.





Reviews of Everyday Things – A Conference

Part of the academic education is supposed to be about developing a critical eye for things. You should finish a PhD able to wrap your brain’s sulci around an experience or some sort of argument and arrive at a reasoned assessment of its many elements. Or at least an ability to drop sulci into a sentence I guess.

This faculty could just be employed while actively pursuing academic work or engaging in a mental wrestle with a Rob Schneider anti-vaccination rant. Job done you could sink in to the other experiences of life, relieved of the need to exercise your brain in any way.  A bit like when you watch a Rob Schneider movie.

[OK, we can both spot the flaws there. Obviously you don’t require any more brain flexing to demolish a Rob Schneider anti-vax rant than to watch one of his movies. And no one is watching one of his movies. Let’s leave the multiple fails behind and move on.]

Developing a critical eye shouldn’t be confined to desk time. Following a principle I’m sure someone on an infomercial has already turned into a wodge of money-making glibness, why not train that brain during the experiences of every day? What can you learn from examining every experience in disorienting detail?

So to a review of a conference, because academic life will be full of them, and I might as well learn from them.

The Conference Location

This conference was a gathering of anaesthetists. What’s the collective noun for a group of anaesthetists? A slumber, maybe? It’s a generalist audience run by the Australian Society of Anaesthetists. This time around it was run up at Darwin which has a lot of things going for it. Not least of those was a bit of bonus summer.

That said the Top End is supposed to have a reputation for fringe-dwelling extremes of experience. Scheduling the welcome event at a place called “Crocosaurus Cove” certainly had potential. So to end the night without a crocodile being led through the crowd on a lead was, honestly, a bit of a let down. I bet they wouldn’t let you down like that in Vegas.

In fact there wasn’t really anything particularly ‘out there’. It was just a place with an excellent vibe. Disappointing.

The Content

If a week or so later you can’t really suggest if it was a good conference for the academics bit, what does that say? Some of that is a result of the fact that my particular bit of anaesthetics is a niche, so it doesn’t get so much space on a program. In fact all of the things actually related to kids’ anaesthesia pretty much fell at the end of the conference.

There were a couple of standout sessions though. Some of those related to the quality of the keynote speaker (a bit more on that below). The reason they were standouts though is that a lot of the sessions felt pretty ‘standard’. The thing is I don’t quite understand why medical types don’t seem to make the link that if you made your standouts pretty much what all of the talks were like, everyone would benefit.

None of it is rocket surgery either. Most of it is reflected in things I’ve put elsewhere. But for an updated version, there were a few things that stood out:

1. Do Less

It’s never clear to me if the problem with those talks where people try to summarise all of time, space and the spirit world in their talk ended up there all by themselves or felt compelled because of a topic they were handed. Those talks that stood out generally did less though. They had a single point to get across and they made it stick.

2. Don’t Bury the Big Bit

One of the talks I went to from a really clever and excellent person was a review of all of a topic. They stuck to a structure. That structure was something like “Here is the landscape of this topic. Here is the stuff we were always told. Now I will walk through why that is all almost exactly unchanged. This will take some time. Oh, and in the last 90 seconds I will mention a genuinely new bit of something that didn’t use to be ranked as highly as those old things but will actually change your practice.”

The thing that will change everyone’s practice isn’t the afterthought. That’s a highlight.

3. Don’t Apologise

In one talk, a speaker actually said “I’m sorry you can’t actually read this slide because of all the details on it.” Don’t apologise for that slide. Ditch it.

It seems like there’s only a couple of explanations for leaving a slide like that in. One is that the speaker feels they need it as some form of support. Putting up something I can’t read doesn’t support my positive impression of the speaker. The other is that rather than digest it themselves and turn it into something useful the audience can take away, they took the shortcut.

Don’t say sorry thanks.  Just fix it.

4. The Extras

This might seem a really small point but some of the little traditions should be allowed to slowly wheeze out their existence in the corner. Like the conference bag. Most people who make their way to a conference probably have access to a bag they could use. They are unlikely to need a bag of dubious quality extensively branded with the logo of a meeting that was anything but the planning and simultaneous launch of the first manned Mars mission.

Enough with the shoddy extras that don’t need to be extras. Ditch the bags. Human people can probably adapt. And didn’t Darwin teach us that those predisposed not to adapt will just become extinct? No? That’s a complete misrepresentation? Let’s move on anyway.

Here's that amazing little text - couldn't be better.

Here’s the amazing little text by John West – couldn’t be better.

5. The Legend

I wrote once before about all the things ways John West impresses me.  All too often you shouldn’t meet a hero. Not this time.

He is 86. He needed some questions repeated. He doesn’t walk so fast. And he was endlessly patient and engaging. People would come up and mention a topic and he’d latch on and ask them to e-mail more information. There’s more than a few people in the game that could learn from that example.

Then there were his talks. In a time where everyone with a TED fetish thinks that’s where the history of presentations started could have done with seeing this. He told stories. He showed the personal within the science. He didn’t rely on dot points. He surprised.

All those other people didn’t invent the rules of presenting. There were good people already doing it.

Oh wait. Yes it can.

Oh wait. Yes it can.

The critique? Some bits were good. Even the talking to people bits. Some bits were just as ‘meh’ as other conferences. There’s at least a few of those items that could be fixed by clearer direction and support from organisers. But it’s clear that changing the template for conferences is a bit like turning an ocean liner with a kayaker’s paddle.

Which coincidentally is in the plot of the next very unfunny Schneider flick.



New Invites

Invites are pretty great. Or sometimes pretty awful. If I was to be completely honest most invites I get, which I could probably individually list, come with at least a moment of [insert Sideshow Bob grumble].

It’s not that being invited somewhere isn’t excellent. It’s just that invites usually come attached with meeting people and people … well, I’m a big fan of humanity but having to meet new humans who happen to make up the humanity is the worst. (I know, it’s my flaw to fix.)

It’s part of the academic routine though so I’m actually pretty pleased to be invited as a speaker for the first time. Not that I’ve never done a speaking thing before. This time I’m one of the speakers who has to work though. It’s a bit daunting.

So as part of the ‘documentation of new academic things’ purpose of having this site, following is the brief list of “things being invited to speak has taught me about life, the universe and cephalopods throwing things at each other“. Actually there isn’t much it’s given me on the topic of “thing throwing cephalopods”. I’ll just have to settle for less excellent life lessons.

1. Embrace Things You Did Not Want

Early on I was given the opportunity to nominate things I might like to chat about. This is a conference for people who do the sleeping thing for kids remember. My list included anaesthesia for heart and lung operations, liver transplant stuff, trauma care and prehospital medicine.

My main topic, the one for my solo 20 minute talk is “Anaesthesia in patients with hepaticopancreaticobiliary disease having non-hepaticopancreaticobiliary surgery”. That milkshake should bring all the docs to the yard.

So at first I was a little lost. The thing is it’s their show and I’m there to contribute. This is a topic that actually has a lot of worthwhile stuff in it. Some of that stuff might also be a new title though.

2. Speaking is Hard Work

I have had the chance to do a single talk or workshop at a conference before. It takes time. In total I’m up for 4 sessions over 3 days this time around. That’s a huge step up in preparation. Apart from the session above there’s a 3 hour workshop that I’ll pitch in on, a breakfast session to chat about stuff you learn on aid trips and a joint talk on social media stuff. It’s really driving me to prepare a lot harder.

3. Do Better Talks

I’ve been to a few conferences. Sometimes there are a few speakers who leave me wondering if the conference mints could be manipulated to make them corrosive enough to burn a hole in the floor to allow an early escape. I do not want to be one of those speakers.

So for now I’m going to try to do better. I think some of this relies on not starting with the slides but starting more broadly with an arc that works for the audience. There’s a bunch of stuff I like about a blog I came across via a paediatric surgeon working in the UK who does a lot of the writing, Ross Fisher. It has short snippets of ideas for better presentations. A lot of it is heavily less is more. This could best be described as not my natural turf.

Better talks. It’s a work in progress.

4. Actually Do The Conference

I’ve read things elsewhere about the way people who really “do” the conference thing approach it. They check the program, figure out particular highlights, do electronic introductions ahead of time, arrange to meet particular speakers in advance and a range of similarly terrifying proactive things.

If you’re going to make the effort to go though I’m sure that’s a way to get a lot more out of being that close to all the stimulating people there. This time I will try to actually talk. To people even.

I guess I'm partly worried I won't make a good first impression. Like Kaiju here.

I guess I’m partly worried I won’t make a good first impression. Like Kaiju here.

5. Seek Opportunities

Moving on from point 4, one of the good things about being an invited speaker is there’s been a fair bit of chat in advance about particular sessions. That degree of chat will hopefully make the talking to people bit easier.

The challenge might be to broaden that conversation. Ideally it would be good to get the chance to find other people working in similar bits of research. It’s a slightly lonely part of the world, noninvasive tissue oximetry monitoring.

Otherwise there will hopefully be all sorts of people I meet and given that this time I plan to talk to these people, it’s about time I took those chats to seek new inspirations and maybe a few chances to work with bright sparks from elsewhere.


All of which brings me to the informal point 6. I wrote this all down partly because it’s out there now. Which means I’m sort of committed to doing it.

It doesn’t mean I won’t have a back-up escape plan that somehow relies on the mints.

Note: That turtle hangs out on flickr in the Creative Commons area. It was posted by Rodney Lewis and is unaltered here. 






The TEDx experience

TED is a heck of a phenomenon. There are good reasons too – not only do they clearly focus on great production which shames any similar event I’ve been to, the central organisation has done a very powerful thing by providing free licenses to run independent events –  TEDx events – around the globe and, above all else, the speakers are great (if you need any reinforcement of this point, just go to the website at or check out the app).

So, fresh from my first TEDx experience in Sydney yesterday, here’s a summary of the whole thing, including the hits and misses (yep, misses).

The Preamble

More than any other event I’ve attended, the team at TEDxSydney do a spectacular job of disseminating information and building anticipation. The real masterstroke though is the application process. The need to apply for your spot, the knowledge you’ll be screened before you get a ticket and the final appearance of the coveted e-mail has to be one of the most effective ways imaginable to get people excited about going to what is essentially a one day conference.

It pays off. It is hard to imagine a crowd could be more pumped for a one day event from the moment it kicks off in earnest.

The Venue

I’m sure The Carriageworks had a bunch of great things going for it, but it’s a Sydney event, and you can’t get more Sydney than the big sails. The Opera House seemed like a great fit – as noted, a great demonstration of the power of an idea realised despite hardships. (As a sidenote, you do have to wonder if a similar undertaking would have any hope of success with the current political class.) It also offers a lot of flexibility for staging, and the use of the Studio as a lounge area was a great idea (although lacking the vibe of the main auditorium for the speakers, it was worth the visit). To have the option of imbibing the harbour between sessions is hard to beat.

The Hits

Alright, this section could be a little long, because there was kind of a few.

The Food Adventure

Of all the great ideas at this event, the idea of crowdfarming all of the food was inspired. Inspired, absurd, improbable and spectacularly successful. The logistics of this are hard to get your head around, but there were about 2200 attendees, and all the food came from attendees – some with a farming background but plenty of it from people growing in their backyards, on their balconies or in any other nook and cranny they could cram a pot. Special mention to the Neutral Bay balcony beekeeper. Outstanding.

So kudos to Food Curator Jill Dupleix, the team at Grow It Local, and the team at Aria Catering (who sat around and waited to see what turned up before planning what they’d do). They are to be commended for pulling off the most amazing feat of the whole thing.

The Speakers

From the moment the lineup was announced you knew it was going to be hardcore. Each one of the speakers did a fairly stellar job. The first standout for me was Prof. Ron McCallum covering the technology that has seen the experience of reading evolve for those lacking sight over his lifetime. More than just the technology though, it was a celebration of the role of community and people in that story. The day started with a standing ovation, and he really was amazingly inspiring.

I’d been expecting Jennifer Robinson to be similarly inspiring and I wasn’t wrong. Initially throwing the obvious carrot of Wikileaks, she instead introduced Benny Wenda and the struggle of the people of West Papua for self-determination. Forgotten, unlike East Timor, there is a serious tale of injustice still emerging in West Papua and the story of progress in the face of fierce opposition, and a steadfast belief in the power of justice to prevail was a pretty compelling tale to tell. That the good advocate topped it by actually bringing Benny Wenda to the stage was the unexpected highlight of the day. He’s a hero.

So all that before morning tea and the loss of all lawyer jokes from the repertoire.

Those were the 2 talks most about inspiration (although Damien Mander, former sniper turned protector of animals, cast out a pretty serious challenge for the crowd and Paul Pholeros describing ways to improve health through building would be my other two high points). All the talks engaged in different ways though. I had never pondered the archaeological value of space junk before, nor considered the ramifications of digital storage of our history. Special mention of the motto for the day from Simon Jackman – “In God we Trust … all others must provide data” (yep, there’s a research theme there too). There really wasn’t a flat spot.

If I was to try to reduce it to a couple of  messages for the day, the most obvious recurring theme was the fact that a good idea takes time and nurturing to take hold. Many of the speakers were talking about big things that started out in a small place, without necessarily appreciating the scope of where it would end up. So I guess if you’re doing a PhD, it’s reassuring to know that persistence is a pretty vital component of serious success. One other theme that emerged was the success had by building from the ground up (meaning building things with the people affected) rather than imposing big ideas from on high. Suits me, seeing as I’m not in a position with any elevation.

The Music

Breaking it up with music has to be one of the best innovations of this conference. It reinforces the idea that inspiration is to be found across all genres and outside your own little part of the world.

The only thing to say here is that all the performers were stunning, and that I will never listen to a high note at the opera the same way again.

The Production

The production team did a spectacular job. A particular shout out for the excellent video bits between, particularly this one, which had everyone smiling. And if you’ve ever tried to give a kid a new food, you’ll enjoy this, which made my daily battles seem like a much nobler pursuit than they are.


The crowd turned up ready to be engaged, and they weren’t forgotten. The plan to get people entering through different doors was a good way of getting people to mix. The queues for food and the like were also a fair bit more congenial than other trips to the opera house. TED promotes the idea that chance meetings at these events could lead to big changes. I suspect not in my particular case, but I hope so for someone.

Great tradition to get audience members up to share a big idea too.

The Misses

So this section is shorter, but I think there is a tendency to provide nothing but glowing praise. There’s no need to be an echo chamber for the good vibes, they’re there. There’s a couple of things I have no doubt the organisers would like to do even better (and it’s not like they’re not pros who would know this anyway, but to the casual reader, it’s worth knowing it wasn’t conference utopia).

The Timing

The timing was a big fail. The schedule is packed. But if you’re doing an event like this, it’s your job to get through it. There was not a session that finished on time, nor did they generally start on time. There were some speakers who blew way through their allotted time (glancing at the counter). And it’s fair to say that if you ask people to be in a session at 45 past the hour, opening the doors at 42 past the hour is probably not going to do the job.

Now, it being TEDx and the vibe being of the glass half full variety, you definitely get a little leeway. And I’m sure no one wants to tell anyone to wrap it up before they’ve reached the end of their narrative. The thing is it felt like those in the last session, particularly the final musical act of John Butler and Jeff Lang, were a bit short-changed as everyone fatigued through the one hour overrun. Likewise, do you walk out of Kate Miller Heidke to get to the session in the Studio?

You have the sense that as it grows into the space, this will get resolved.


It seemed like there was a bit of a theme of sustainability running through the event. So having a sponsor handing out the toiletries bags they give to their first class passengers seemed like a false note. Or maybe I’m overthinking it, but given the attention to detail, it was jarring.

The Grinch

This one’s out of the control of the organisers. As great as the crowd was, when you overhear “I preferred it when it was just us and more intimate”, it’s fair to say that there might just be a couple of people who don’t get the whole “Ideas Worth Spreading” bit. If you were going so you could hang out with the cool kids at an exclusive party, I don’t think it was the event for you.

The Wrap

Yep, it was pretty great. There’s a bunch of inspiring people to hear from, and pleasingly, they weren’t all people who had to leave Oz to produce ideas. Would I go again? Probably, although not necessarily every year. It would definitely be interesting to know what proportion of people actually take the inspiration and make some adjustments. Does the group hug on the day translate into behavioural change? Hopefully there are people with more smarts than me looking at it.

And now, I’d better go and start planting a bee plant, or whatever you do to make that honey.


If there’s one cause worth taking up in the wash-up, it’s absolutely support of the Free West Papua movement. Check out and spread the word.