Friday, February 25, 2011

A word on visuals: Where to start?

The preparation of slides is a task for graphical designers not for scientists. Scientists who prepare their own visuals should develop a sensibility for this art. I show examples of bad and good slides, some issues you should focus on, and some resources.  

The preparation of a presentation's visuals is work of design, and unless a scientist has some basic knowledge in the discipline of graphic design, he or she should  not prepare visuals. Now, the ruling culture of Powerpoint  forces most presenters to prepare a "presentation", so it would be unreasonable to ask scientist not to prepare slides for their presentations. What I'm asking is that you prepare your visuals with a basic element of graphic design taste. Bullet point list are to presentation visuals, what junk food is to a person's diet.

Take a look a this presentation I found at

and compare it to this one I also found at

Do I get my point across? You need to think like a designer when preparing your presentation slides.

So where to start on the discipline of graphic design? If I were to discuss the three more pressing issues that scientist should focus their attention on, I would suggest
  • White Space (also known as negative space)
  • Typography
  • Color theory 
You might want to check the Before & After Magazine website where you can find a selection of free tutorials in both video and pdf on these topics and more. 
I would also recommend Robin Williams' book (the graphic designer, not the actor) The Non-Designer's Design Book. It is just what the title says. It won't turn you into a graphical designer, but will change the way you look at a page.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Four questions to help you prepare your presentation

When preparing your scientific talk, your mindset should on the audience and how it resonates with the message you are presenting. When preparing your talk you should consider yourself, the message and the audience.

In many ways a talk is like a very short relation/friendship between you and the audience. This is no different in scientific presentations.  However, this relation is bizarre love triangle. It is a triangle because of made of you, the message/topic and audience, and bizarre because the only star in it is the audience.

Presentations are like a bizarre love triangle between you, the message and the audience. It is the audience who  gets to call the shots in this relation, not you.

The figure above shows this triangle along with 4 verbs that are essential when preparing: love and know, understand, and resonate. Let analyze them.

1. Do you love/care about the message/topic? If you don't, don't present. Or choose another topic. If you don't love/care the message, then you will prepare poorly, design your visuals the night before your talk, and be disconnected from the audience when you deliver. Ultimately the audience, the significant other, will notice you don't care.

2. Do you know what you are talking about? In scientific presentations this is usually not a big problem, however if you a graduate student there might be details on your research that you don't fully understand. If this the case, which is perfectly OK, and you are hopefully struggling to clarify those unknown details, don't hide them or come with false answers. If time is running out  and you still don't know the answer,  prepare to say "But/And this we/I don't fully understand yet, but we are /I am working on it." The audience won't hang you, on the contrary, they might help you. Consider following that sentence with "But if somebody knows, I would very much appreciate the help!"

Knowing your topic also means to be ready for the discussion session also known and Q&A. Andrew Dlugan from the Six Minutes website has an excellent post on it.  Click here to go there, but remember to come back and finish reading! Getting feedback from your peers, advisers and/or professors will help you to prepare for the Q&A. I discuss feedback here. Don't forget to use the knowledge of the Q&A to improve your next presentation.

3. Do you understand the audience? Presentation guru Nancy Duarte from Duarte Design  formulates questions about understanding (knowing) the audience in her book Slide:ology. Here are some of them in the context of scientific presentations.

  1. What are the like? Professors, students, industry researches? Mathematicians, biologist, lawers, musicians? How much or little knowledge do they have about the topic?
  2. Why are they there? Is it a lecture, where students are there because they have to? Are there to see what's been researched or just to get some idea from another topic they don't know.
  3.  How can you solve their problem? Imagine a member of the audience coming to you asking "Heard your talk, so what? What's there in for me?" How would you answer that question in your talk?
  4. What do you want them to do?  This is known as call to action and it helps you, among other things, to prepare the end of your talk. I personally want the audience to help me with ideas for my research, and figuring out if what I'm doing makes sense and where I else can my research be applied.
  5. How might they resist? This is an important one in research. Research is about change, and people have a natural tendency to resist change. Have previously similar approaches/Ansatz been tested and have failed or not been successful? Is the evidence you are showing not strong enough to support your point? Anticipate this and prepare accordingly.

4. Does the message resonate with the audience? Resonate is the name of Nancy Duarte's latest book.  This is a huge topic and I'll come to it again when I finish reading her book. For now, allow me  to just show you an example of what is meant by "The message resonate with the audience". Below is the speech of Martin Luther King "I have a dream". This message did not resonate with the audience, it continues to.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Presenting Quantitative Data Part 2

Last night sorting some pdf files I came across an article from A. Globus and E. Raible call 14 Ways to Say Nothing with Scientific Visualization. How appropriate! Although not all the 14 ways directly apply to presenting quantitative data, some of them do. Here is a quick summary:

1. Never include a color legend. Or for that matter no legend at all. Forgot the labels on the x, y and z axes? Does your data have units? Which ones are they?  Is your title clear and accurate? 

2.  Avoid annotation. Draw line and arrow to point at important features you data shows. This will help the audience understand your data better. But don't over do! Here is an example of a good annotation. During his 2011 State of Union Address Barack Obama used an enhanced presentation on the White House webcast. After 10 minutes and 30 seconds the first graph containing data appears. It is about the recovery of the Dow Jones after he took office. Now, I can say there has been a recovery because of the annotation on the chart. That is the point of annotations.

7.  Never learn anything about the data discipline. As I said in part 1, the books from Tufte and Few are good ways to get started.

8. Never compare your results with others. I also talked about this yesterday and here is another example.  In their State of the Mac October 2010 event Apple's Chief  Operating Officer Tim Cook discusses the financial issues of the Mac putting them in context. Click here to see. Sorry,  Quicktime require.

10. Never cite reference for the Data. No further comments require...right?

And let me add one more that sadly I have seen often

15. Never check how the visualization looks when projected on the canvas. The problem with no checking your charts and graphs is that you don't know if the width and color of the lines will be seen when using a LCD projector. If you had practice and got feedback this shouldn't be an issue.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Presenting Quantitative Data Part 1

Science is based on experiments and experiments give us data. The correct visualization and presentation of that  data is key in scientific presentations.  To get started in the topic I present some references on the visualization of data.

Visualizing data looks easy, but it isn't. There are different kind of techniques and tools to produce data visualization, not to mention the different type of data. Even creating a clear and accurate time series requires knowing what we are doing.  We need guidance.

So, where to start? Two great books are The Visual Display of Quantitative Information from Edward Tufte and Show Me the Numbers from Stephen Few. I encourage you to look at their homepages. Another two interesting blogs are David McCandless' Information is beautiful and Andrew Vande Moere's Information Aesthetics.

Now, charts, graphs and tables don't say much by themselves. Data needs context, and that's why you there for.  Don't let people alone get their own conclusions about your data, help them.  What are the implications of the displayed data?  What is the knowledge behind that data? What is important? What's not?

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Scientist's Talk

Getting inspiration outside the office is an essential element to improve public speaking skills. The new film The King's Speech is a great inspiring history on the struggle with this skill. 

Inspiration is not a word you hear often coming out from a scientist.  The word evokes the mental picture of artists, not scientists. But if you really want to improve your presentation skills you will need it.

Back in high school I had really lousy history and geography teachers. But when the school finally found an exceptional one, it was already too late for me. Sitting on those classes was a drag. However, watching the History Channel was another thing.  Could history teachers get some inspiration from it? Curiously, the only fun activity I remember from my history class was a half-day trip around my town visiting churches. See? Inspiration.

One way to get inspiration for scientific talks in to watch science documentaries and cool movies. One of these movies is The King's Speech. Based on the true history of King George VI of England struggle with public speaking in the midst of the World War II, the film's trailer is already inspiring enough to improving public speaking skills. I'll be patiently waiting for DVD since here in Germany is tough to get movies on their original version. OK, you might not be the King of England, nor be fighting a war. You might not have to give The King's Speech, but you might have to give The Scientist's Talk.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Presentation Gurus: TED Conference

Watching outstanding scientific presentations is a good way to improve our own. In this first installment of the Presentation Gurus series I introduce a source of such talks, the TED conference. 

Described as "As they say in Boston it's like the Discovery Channel with beer", last night I went to Nerd Nite in Leipzig, Germany hoping to have a good laugh at science and some good German beer, but sadly I  only got good beer.   I came late to a talk on proteins and bacteria, which was good and I thought the night was just getting started. But I wasn't ready for what was about to come.

A woman taking about mythology in Peru  started reading behind the lectern. Reading! But it wasn't even poetry or prose.  It was more like a term-paper. Do some people still read their presentations speech-like? I'm told this no that uncommon in humanities and that the word Vorlesung (lecture) literary means reading-aloud. Clearly, the speaker had learned to present by looking at the professors and peers. This left me wondering if we learn to present by imitation.

If this is the case, welcome to the TED (Technology Entertainment Design) conference where good ideas are spread. TED is a great source of great talks, there are over 800 of them online. If we learn to present by imitation, this is the kind of people I want to imitate. Here is one talk on math that I like.

Mathematician Steven Strogatz on the science of synchronization
Steven Strogatz is a professor of applied mathematics at Cornell University and  was until recently a occasional columnist for the New York Times.

I like Strogatz's interaction with the audience and the how he narrates while the video is playing. The video is an active part of his talk, not just decoration. Though there is no much mathematical depth in his talk, when I watched I kept craving for more, and yes, more mathematical details. If  instead he had gone directly to the math, maybe he might have lost his audience or least part of it. This craving for more is exactly what I think should be the feeling left on the audience after a scientific talk.

What are your thoughts on this talk? Do you have a favorite TED talk? Leave your comments below.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

3 things to check before your presentation

Getting familiar with the venue, looking at your slides on the "big screen" and paying a quick visit to the mirror before your talk help reduce anxiety and stress among other things. 

Check the room. One good to reduce the anxiety before given a presentation is to visit the room or lecture hall where your talk takes places before it takes place. This has several advantages. First, visiting the room prior to your talk will show you the way to get there. Doing this you will have answered the question "How do I get to that room?" reducing uncertainty and stress. Second, getting familiar with the unknown room will also reduce anxiety. So take some minutes, walk the stage, look at the empty sits, and make yourself familiar with the place. Third, deciding where is  the best place to stand and how loud or soft you should talk will make you look more in control (because now you are more in control) giving you confidence. Bring someone along and ask him/her to stand on the back of the room and make a sound check. The human body absords sound, so your voice will be heard softer when people come in to hear you.

Check your slides. In most conferences organizers will ask you to copy your presentation into their laptop. Try to do it one session before your talk, or even better one day before. Ask if you can project your slides on the screen and see how they look. Most likely the colors you chosen on your computer screen won't be the same on the projection canvas. Or even worse, their version of Powerpoint can mess up your layout and/or font. One quick fix is to export your presentation deck as a pdf file.

Check yourself on the mirror. Is your shirt dirty? Do you have food-rests on your teeth? Does your hair make you look like a mad scientist? If you do, chances are your audience will focus on those things instead of your talk. To avoid that, check yourself on the mirror right before you hit the stage.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Feedback after practice

Practice by itself is not enough. Getting feedback from your peers, advisers and professors on your talk is a great way to improve your it. However getting the right feedback is not as easy as one might think.

Before giving a talk at a conference, some of us at my research group rehearse in front of our peers and sometimes in front of our advisers. After the rehearsal we spend some time giving feedback and discussing it.  The idea behind this feedback session is that the audience and our peers have a similar foundation knowledge and thus you are able to anticipate many of the audience's concerns and questions. Rehearsing in front of your peers and adviser also helps you to spot content errors on your  presentation's visuals.  However, before you rehearse in front of other people, you should have already practiced on your own, otherwise the feedback is not as useful as it can be.

The problem of asking for feedback is to get people to tell you what they really think. So before you start your test talk, tell me that only their most honest positive feedback will help you. It happened to me last year. I rehearsed in front of two very smart guys, M. and A. Although I  had frequently rehearsed in front of A., I hadn't do it in front of M.. So I told him, "M., only your brutal honesty will help me". He nodded and I started. After I finished and we were discussing the feedback, M. told me "I don't like that blank slide!", and following that he said "You told me to be brutal!". I thanked him for that. We discussed why the blank slide was not appropriate and moved on. Then, we got  to another point, something content-related. M. asked  me why my Ansatz would work, and suddenly A. said: "Yeah, why? I have never understood it."  I answered their questions, but I was left with a strange feeling on why A. hadn't asked me about this issue before.  After all, he had heard similar talks where this point was mentioned. My guess is that he felt more confident asking now that M. had the same question.  I was glad I had M. on board and that I had explained the kind of feedback I needed.

If you can, try to gather as many people as you can for your feedback session and explain what you expect from them and ask them to write down their opinion, suggestions, comments and questions on a piece of paper. But asking for people about their real opinion is not enough. I have found useful that somebody registers the time I take on the different sections of my talk. This helps me to keep track of time when I'm on stage. After you are done, let each person give you his or her feedback and discuss it. Finally gather their notes and adjust your presentation and visuals accordingly. I have found that it is impossible or inappropriate to take all the positive feedback into account. But I do listen to my adviser, after all she's more experienced than me.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Presentation sin: Overtime

Going overtime in a presentation is a common failure in scientific presentations. However practicing your talk should prevent this from happening.

The scene is unfortunately quite familiar. A professor or student has 90/60/25 minutes for his or her presentation and it goes overtime. While the speaker keeps talking, the students need to run to another lecture, the next speaker is annoyed, or the audience wants to go to the break. Although we know this shouldn't happen, we see it often at conferences and lecture halls.

I thought it happened because people  did not practice enough. But a friend of mine, who also happens to be involved in academia, told me two weeks ago that is not always the case. She said professors and students go overtime to show that they have more say, that it shows their passion for the topic.  At first I was skeptical, but I started thinking about some  of the talks I have heard/ and delivered in the past, and realized it is also true. People overtime to show they could say more. I guess some students overtime thinking the more time, the better the grade /the more impressed their professors will be, but I would bet in some cases those 5 or 10  more minutes actually hurt their credibility. Maybe your professor thinks you could have said in less time, or that those details were not relevant.

In any case, speakers who overtime fail in two major fronts of public speaking: Practice (or the lack of) and thinking their talk is about them (when in fact is about the audience).  I have seen people preparing their presentation visuals the day and/or night before their talk. Let's face it, if that is the case, you'll have almost no time to practice. And like it or not you need practice! Even Richard Feynman did. Practice without paying attention to the clock until you feel comfortable with your material. Once you are comfortable, practice some more until that material fits in the presentation's time slot. Finally practice some more until you deliver  your material in less (1 or 2 minutes) than the original time.  When you are onstage your time perception is not the same as  your audience's.  You might  feel you have only talked for 5 or 10 minutes, when in fact the audience has been listening for 20 or 25. One last thing, all this practice will hopefully lead to further trimming and editing of your talk and visuals. Don't worry, that is a good thing.