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A "Russian style" seminar, as in the Israel Gelfand form, breaks from the traditional format of talk followed by Q&A and just opens the floor to questions at any time. I've seen a few professors who follow this format, so I definitely see its value.

What is the best way to start something like this, and how do you get the most out of the seminar?

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    The Gel'fand style is far more than allowing interruption during the talk. – Willie Wong Jul 5 '12 at 11:58
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    To elaborate: just let me note one aspect of the Gel'fand seminars. Seminar participants would often be called upon to go up to the board and re-explain what the speaker has just said. This to keep participants focused and make sure that the speaker isn't trying to hand-wave away some details. I doubt many (most?) of us will have the energy to keep up a seminar in that style. – Willie Wong Jul 5 '12 at 12:06
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I use a version of this in the weekly research seminar that I run. This format typically works best when

  1. the speaker knows ahead of time that he/she is likely to get questions during the talk and

  2. at least a few of the audience members feel comfortable asking such questions.

If the speaker is a regular attendee of the seminar, then (1) works itself out naturally; otherwise, I recommend that the organizer mention this ahead of time to the speaker. Generally, more experienced speakers are more comfortable with this model. As I'm asking questions during the talk, I watch the speaker's responses. If the speaker starts to get flustered or is unable to answer well a few questions in a row, then I often will stop asking questions. Actually, I usually talk a little with the speaker ahead of time about what I'm hoping for from the talk, who the typical audience is, how long the talks usually go, etc. I find that a few minutes beforehand can save you from the awkward experience of having a talk that is at too low or too high a level.

For (2), I am usually quite comfortable asking questions, and I generally find that at least one other faculty member in the audience is. As Jeromy mentioned, typically this model works best when the questions are asked by well-informed audience members (since they can more easily discern which questions will and will not be helpful to the rest of the audience). If you find that no one else in the audience is asking questions, I suggest that you talk with a few of the regular attendees and ask if they would be willing to start asking questions. (This conversation probably will work better outside of the actual seminar.)

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    One of my favorite conferences to attend (but not so much to present at) gives instructions along the lines of "Talks are 1 hour long and should consist of a single slide and 5 minutes of prepared presentation." Many people prepare more than 1 slide, but they never get past the second slide. – StrongBad Jul 4 '12 at 14:59
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    @DanielE.Shub I am curious -- which conference is that? – Federico Poloni Aug 27 '12 at 13:34
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    @StrongBad: Do presenters actually convey any information in that talk format, or do they just suggest a general topic (that seems a suitable content for one slide), from which point the discussion evolves into arbitrary directions unrelated to any publication? – O. R. Mapper Jul 5 '14 at 10:30
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I have seen this format work well in colloquia.

The speaker generally says at the start that they are happy to answer any questions during the talk. If needed at various points the speaker can also ask if anyone has any questions. Ideally, after asking the speaker pauses for a couple of seconds to give people a chance to ask before moving on to the next section of the talk.

It can also sometimes be necessary to close off a particular discussion if it is going on for too long and is not of particular interest to the general audience.

In general, I think the format works best when the presenter knows the material well, and the audience is reasonably well informed.

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    I have rarely attended talks where this is NOT the case. Wasn't aware that it was called the "Russian" style. – Suresh Jul 4 '12 at 19:54
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    @Suresh: it shouldn't be. Allowing interruptions is just the tip of the iceberg that is the Gel'fand seminars. It often lasts in excess of 4 hours (with no breaks), with Gel'fand doing as much of the talking as the seminar presenter. From what I've heard it has on occasion been more like a non public thesis defense that somehow gathered a large peanut gallery. – Willie Wong Jul 5 '12 at 12:01
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    Right. but "usually" the questioners understand the difference between things that need clarification NOW and things that can wait till the end. I can see how the system can get abused though. – Suresh Jul 5 '12 at 17:30

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