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I've been asked to give a seminar at an other research center about my work. Specifically about a device which was installed in an experiment.

I have an early prototype of it (Size is about 20x5x2 cm). The prototype was and never will be installed and as such safe for people to touch it.

I was pondering to bring it along flashing is shortly in front of the audience for them to better visualize it when I go over the layout of it. After that I would leave it on the table during the talk, as not to distract the audience by circulating it, and let everybody who's interested come to have a look afterwards. There is no subsequent speaker after me.

I was wondering if this is a good idea or considered unprofessional, since showing the device doesn't add any content per se (as it is too small to see for the audience) and only tries to engage the audience.

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    I've attended talks where a device was passed around. In the most recent case I can remember, the device was for military use and the reason for passing it around was to let people see and feel how it had been ruggedized. Is there something concrete like that, that you expect your audience to learn from seeing and touching your device? – ff524 May 27 '16 at 18:32
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    Thanks, for the comment. I don't think they will actually learn something by having it in their hands, the specifications of it and a photo of the installed device are on the slides. Its more on the line of showing - this is something we have really done - not just simulated. Some people (me included) can relate better to an abstract concept when they see its physical manification - and even better touch it. – magu_ May 27 '16 at 18:42
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    I wonder what your experiment was about that only a prototype that was never "installed" would be safe for people to touch. I can think of a few fields, but still curious. – Mindwin May 27 '16 at 20:20
  • @Mindwin What I got out of the prototype being "safe" is that, if it were to be damaged while being passed around, there wouldn't be a need to a replace it, so there's no risk of losing a lot of money. – Kevin - Reinstate Monica May 27 '16 at 21:34
  • @Mindwin. Kevin answered already half the question. The other side would be radioactive activation as it will be seeing plenty of electrons passing by at upto 15 GeV. Normally only a few stray electrons should hit it, but still... We didn't measure the activation level of the installed device yet but it might be too high to measure it free. – magu_ May 27 '16 at 23:01
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The goal of your seminar is to educate and inform your audience about your work. If showing the audience a prototype of your work will help them to better visualize and conceptualize what you are doing, then why wouldn't you want to take advantage of that during your talk?

So long as you properly integrate into your talk—make it an essential part of it, rather than just "for show" while you talk—then the prop will do its duty.

What you might want to consider is taking some high-quality photos of the prototype that you can show on the screen as you talk about the prototype while holding it. Then you can get the best of both worlds.

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    +1, though in fact I think it's fine to do this even if it is just "for show". As an audience member I tend to appreciate this kind of thing, as it helps me imagine the work more clearly, as well as breaking up the format of the talk, thus making it easier to maintain concentration. – Nathaniel May 28 '16 at 3:57
  • Agree with Nathaniel, very likely the audience will remember you as "the guy who passed that magic box around". – yo' May 29 '16 at 16:20
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This is a terrific idea, and moreover you should also strongly consider passing the device around so that people can inspect it and hold it in their hands. The idea that the opportunity to have either visual or tactile contact with a scientific instrument or device "doesn't add any content" is simply false. At the very least, including a prop of this sort in your presentation will add an unusual and memorable element to your talk that would set it apart from the hundreds of other talks that come and go in a university department and are easily forgotten; at best, the prop will actually give the seminar participants some actual insight into your experiment and the related science. Either way, it can only work to your benefit.

As a small illustration, I recently brought some 3D-printed objects to a math seminar I was giving. Although one can make the same argument that showing pictures of the objects (which I also did) would contain exactly the same information as you could get from handling the 3D models, the psychological effect of being able to handle the 3D objects, and the reactions I got, were both very positive.

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    Thanks for your answer. I'll think about passing it around, probably depends on the seating arrangement. If it is on a horse-shoe style I'll pass it around, if it is a sparsely populated row arrangement I'll probably not do it. – magu_ May 27 '16 at 20:10
  • I really liked both of your answers. But had to decide in the end for one of them, I hope you don't mind. – magu_ May 27 '16 at 23:02
  • @magu_ no problem. – Dan Romik May 27 '16 at 23:18
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    There is a potential problem with passing an object round: while that is going on, people may not be paying much attention to what you are saying. Try to structure the presentation so that the audience doesn't miss anything critical while it is being passed round. – alephzero May 28 '16 at 0:02
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Personally, I've always been unable to clearly understand the arrangement of a complex device from pictures or drawings, and I much appreciate the possibility of observing directly a device after its description.

In addition, since you've been invited to talk specifically about this device, the audience should appreciate your idea of bringing it along.

Therefore, yes, I think it's a good idea.

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There are several points to consider:

  1. Is it safe to pass it around? If the answer is "no", then it's "no".

  2. Can you pass it to all? It would be annoying to let only the front row get it in their hands, so consider this.

  3. Do you mind people getting distracted? In general, most audience does not pay attention to the speaker anyway at a seminar, so from my experience, unless you're talking something extremely important, you just shouldn't care that people are distracted, but you may see it differently.

In general, the more different senses get involved the better, so passing it around has a big value. Actually, I even think you can be remembered as "the guy who passed around that funny yellow thingy" if seeing prototypes is not common at this seminar.

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