What are SPARK Talks: Scholars Speak About Research and Knowledge?

SPARK Talks, hosted by Cornell University Library, gives Cornell graduate students and post-docs an opportunity to present five-minute lightning talks to audiences they don't often get a chance to engage with.

It's more important than ever for scholars to be able to communicate their research, whether that's to undergraduates in the classroom, prospective employers, funding agencies, or the general public. The ability to communicate clearly is a critical skill in academia and outside of it.  SPARK Talks provides an opportunity to present to a wider audience, to get feedback on the presentation, and to network about research.

To learn more, take a look at the mission and vision of SPARK Talks, and read the Cornell Chronicle's 2015 article and the Cornell Daily Sun's 2015 article about the event.

Cornell's SPARK Talks were inspired by the success of Scholars' Studio at University of Washington.

Why is there a theme?

A theme produces a more coherent experience for the audience and pushes presenters to be more creative. A theme gets conversation started at the reception and afterwards. Each year’s theme helps give a cohesion to a program which is a series of talks from many different disciplines. Themed conferences or panels at conferences are common in academia. Proposing a paper or poster on a given theme sometimes requires a researcher to re-focus their research to incorporate a given theme, and sometimes this generates new and surprising insights. Proposing a SPARK Talks is good real-world practice in submitting a proposal to a conference.  Successful proposals for a given SPARK Talks theme will relate to the theme, possibly lightly touch on it, but don’t necessarily have to be specifically and completely addressing the theme.

Successful proposals will focus on the theme in stimulating and intriguing ways. Interesting, unexpected interpretations of the theme are welcome.

The theme for 2018 is Diversity. Previous Themes.

How can I improve my presentation skills in order to prepare for SPARK Talks?

Practice, practice, practice. Ask a librarian for help finding books on effective presenting techniques. Attend [free] workshops at the libraries and elsewhere on campus on giving presentations. Watch Ted-talks, attend the Three Minute Thesis Competition, and watch videos of its winners.

How do I apply?

We begin accepting applications in late August for the SPARK Talks event.

Do I have to present on my thesis or dissertation?

You are welcome to present on your thesis or dissertation research, but it’s not required. Any paper or knowledge could be a potential presentation. SPARK Talks is about communicating complex ideas in a clear, stimulating, jargon-free way to non-specialists. Research that was done for seminar papers, a poster, or possibly a research project that’s in its initial stages could be appropriate for a SPARKS Talk. The audience is likely to be more interested in broad implications of your ideas than the specifics your disciplinary colleagues might fasten on.

Thus SPARK Talks is great practice for a variety of situations you will find yourself in during your time at Cornell and after you graduate-- lectures aimed at a general audience, talks to schools and community groups, grant applications that are reviewed by a board of non-specialists, speaking with potential funders, interviews in newspapers and news sites, etc. It’s also great practice for Cornell’s Three Minute Thesis Competition held each spring.

Can groups present?

Sorry, no. SPARK Talks are intended for individual presenters only. This is an opportunity for individuals to practice communicating and get feedback on content and style.

If a group has content to present, elect one person to represent the group.

How are presentations selected?

 A cross-discipline group of Cornell librarians will evaluate the proposals. They will be looking for interesting titles, jargon-free abstracts, stimulating treatments of the theme, and participants from a wide variety of fields. No more than ten participants are selected.

If I’m selected as a presenter, what happens next?

If your proposal is selected, you will have two weeks to create a presentation of no more than five minutes.

Accepted presenters will also be expected to attend a workshop session with faculty.  Attendees will receive instruction and feedback on presentation skills, with take-home lessons to apply immediately and into the future. The workshop will introduce participants to performance techniques embedded in everyday interactions. Participants will learn how these techniques can improve communication, and promote more confident, expressive and effective public presentations in a variety of formal and informal settings. 

Sorry, failure to attend the rehearsal will result in elimination from the event.

What happens at SPARK Talks?

At the SPARK Talks, the presenters will be divided into two groups. The first group will present, followed by a brief Q & A and a refreshment break. Then the second group will present, followed by another brief Q & A. The event concludes with a reception.

Audience members will be given an anonymous feedback form for each presentation, which will be collected and distributed to presenters. Faculty guests with expertise in communication and presentation will be invited and will also provide written feedback and suggestions.

The reception provides everyone a chance to extend scholarly conversations beyond disciplinary boundaries.

What happens if I’m not selected as a presenter?

In the interest of time, we need to cap the number of presenters. If you apply but aren’t selected as a presenter, please do apply next time. Also consider attending as an audience member in order to learn from presenters, give feedback, and network at the reception. 

Does it cost anything to participate?

No! SPARK Talks are free events for both presenters and audience members. Please invite your friends, lab mates, advisor, committee members or family.

I prefer not to apply this time – can I still attend SPARK Talks?

Of course! The public is welcome to attend the event. Invite friends, roommates, spouses, advisors, and professors.

Can I present at SPARK Talks more than one year?

Yes, but the selection process is competitive. Don’t expect to rest on your laurels. Give us another great proposal and please do remind us you presented previously.

Do you accept late applications?

Sorry, no. All deadlines to apply to present are firm. If you miss it, please mark your calendar and plan to apply next year. In rare situations, we have a waiting list.