by Whit Gibbons

September 9, 2012

I was talking recently with a college student who had the jitters about a presentation she was to give the next day. I told her she had an important message to deliver and would do a fine job. And she did. If she had done poorly, I would have consoled her with words one of my colleagues uttered to me years ago: "No matter how many talks you give, one will be your best and one will be your worst. Think of this one as your worst and move on."

The conversation prompted me to reflect on presentations I have given that might be contenders for a Worst Talk award. I quickly dismissed talks that just hadn't clicked, chalking their lackluster reception up to unappreciative audiences. But two presentations came to mind that, at the time, seemed to be candidates for Worst Talk Ever. They have since evolved into treasured memories.

I am not likely to forget my banquet talk to state science fair contestants in Arkansas. I had color slides (this was a very long time ago, children) and had prepared a logical and orderly talk about native wildlife. As I was being introduced, a student handed my tray of 80 slides to the projectionist. Actually, he started to hand them over but dropped the tray. Slides went everywhere.

Reorganizing a slide presentation while 200 restless teenagers watched was not really an option. Telling the clumsy student I would see that he never got to play football in the state of Arkansas seemed pointless. Instead, concealing my despair, I asked the projectionist to fill in the slots with slides any which way and we would see what came up. Field ecology, I told the students, was exciting because you never knew what you might find, so we would introduce a bit of real-life unpredictability into this presentation.

These kids had been listening to two days of scientific presentations. Sitting through yet another one was not their idea of a fun way to spend Friday night. But when the first slide was an upside-down bullfrog, they perked up. When the next one was an inverted word slide of my conclusions, they had fun trying to read what it said. An inside-out map of Arkansas was for some reason hilarious, and ad-libbing became easy with such an amused and involved audience. I don't know how much they learned about ecology, but they learned that sometimes you should enjoy the unexpected.

Another memorable talk was to a group in Jacksonville, Fla., who had brought their pet snakes for a trading session after the program. They met in the city museum, and I was to give the talk in the planetarium, the only room this group was allowed in. The planetarium operator, however, couldn't be at the meeting and had handed over the keys to someone else.

Surprise. Not everyone knows how to turn on the lights in a planetarium. Someone finally managed to turn on sidelights that encircled the room--all red. Someone else figured out how to get the slide projector operating--on the curved ceiling. Nothing else was operable and the crowd was getting restless.

I was introduced at the podium in the glare of a red spotlight to an audience that was also bathed in red light. I felt like I should be wearing an Elvis suit or hawking products that are almost certainly illegal in Florida. Undaunted, I clicked on the first slide and began my presentation. When the baby albino turtle's image appeared on the ceiling the size of Godzilla, I knew this would be a talk to remember.

The seats were tilted so people could only watch the ceiling. No one was able to see me at the podium, lecturing in the eerie glow of the red spotlight. When the presentation was finally over, audience members climbed out of their recliners and began to show and trade snakes while I took a last look around at the red-tinted people and slipped out a side door.

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