Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Storytelling using scientific data

Data is at the heart of the scientific discipline. Turning quantitative information into visual storytelling is done everyday by newspapers. We can do the same for our scientific presentations. Here is an example.

Last week I was reading in the New York Times the story about GE and how they avoid paying taxes.  Shocking, I know, but politics aside, the interesting fact about the story was the complementary article using visualization of data, also known as infographics. It is visual storytelling at its best: A script, words, and pictures (or in this case graphs). See below a screenshot.

Now,  this is  engaging and compiling because of the visual evidence of the graphs and overall Gestalt.  Each of these panels makes for great  a slide. Sure the panel in the middle-right would need some adjustments because of the quantity of the text, but that is a minor detail. I'm sure you know where I'm going. These infographics complement the main text-based article, just as slides complement a talk.  

Allow me to go back to the idea of words and pictures.  Biology professor Zen Faulkes has a great scientific blog, where he covers the presentation talk issue. I highly recommend it. It was reading this blog what I found the work of Scott McCloud, a comic writer. Scott has at least two non-fiction books on the arts of comic, and visual storytelling. We usually associate comics  and animated film with children and fantasy stories, but this is not always the case. Consider Slavar (before continuing reading click here to see for information on Slavar) an animated documentary.  As you can see this is not for children. I had the chance to ask the director why did she go animated. I thought the topic was too serious to be presente in that way. Her answer surprised me. It was precisely because the topic was so serious, so brutal that she thought the best way to present it was through animation.    

Learning more about comics (and for that matter documentaries) is a great way to move from bullet lists to visual storytelling. Actually, the list of suggested reading from presentation guru Nancy Duarte is full of on references on storytelling. In scientific presentations, the visual on visual storytelling can naturally come from the data.  Just like the infographics on the story of GE:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Worse than Really Bad PowerPoint

In some presentations the use of mathematical formulas helps to amplify and clarify the message. In mathematics the use of the TeX's package Beamer is unfortunately widely spread. In this post I make a case to avoid using Beamer and instead use TeX to only produce snapshots of these formulas.
Seth Godin is an American entrepreneur and blogger on marketing of ideas in the digital age. Seth knows one of two things about presentations. He is an all-time TED favorite. He also wrote a booklet call Really Bad PowerPoint (click here to get it!) where he briefly talks about the birth, problematic, and possible solutions of the Death by PowerPoint. I strongly encourage you to read it.

Bad presentations (aka bad PowerPoint) are all around, not only in sales, but also in education, science, and even in the military! Check out this article from the New York Times about use of PowerPoint in the US military. Just when you thought it couldn't get any worse you meet Beamer.

If you are a mathematician, physicist, or a computer scientist you might know Beamer, a LaTeX document class for creating slides for presentations. Allow me to explain. According to Wikipedia LaTeX is a document preparation system for the TeX typesetting program.  In simple language, TeX is a computer program for the purpose of writing beautiful mathematical texts such as articles and books. In other words, very ugly computer code in, beautiful pdf file out.  Beamer is a set of instructions that allows users to create slides using TeX.

Let me show you what I mean. I took this example for the Beamer user guide. In the picture below is the Beamer input.

Beamer/TeX input. Marked in gray is the code corresponding to the slide below

Now behold the result!

It is not a coincidence that this slide resembles Seth's Bad PowerPoint.  Forget Death by PowerPoint, Beamer  is the Thermo-Nuclear Winter of presentations. Beamer promotes clutter in slides. It does not facilitate communication, on the contrary it hinders. Using Beamer to create slides is the analogous of using a silverware knife as a screwdriver.

In spite of  how toxic Beamer is to presentations it is very popular among mathematicians, partly because TeX is the standard when typesetting mathematics.  TeX produces beautiful mathematical formulas.  So use it for that purpose, not to create presentation's visuals. If you need mathematical formulas for your presentation there is an efficient way to use TeX.

Avoid using Beamer to create slides,  instead use TeX to create snapshots of formulas and together with your favorite slideware create visuals that amplify your message. I contributed to the LaTeX wikibook on how to generate png snapshots of formulas (click here to go there). If you have a Mac you can use Latexit.  Here is an example using Keynote and Latexit.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A tip on books for presentations

Finding the appropriate books to get started on better scientific talks might be a slightly difficult task. In this post I offer my top three books on delivery and message and visuals design.

Maybe you have always felt that there was a problem with the presentations you gave in college as an undergrad. Maybe you even got bad advice from your peers when preparing a talk, without knowing it was bad advice. So, you know there is a problem and you want to fix it (maybe that's why you are reading this post/blog,) but the question is where to start. So, here is a list of books on message design, visuals design and delivery.
  • Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun. This is by far the best public speaking book I have read. But don't take my word for granted, check out the reviews.
  • Presentation Zen Design by Garr Reynolds.  I have mentioned Garr's work and expertise before. He is the author of three great books on presentations, though the first one, Presentation Zen, is quite popular, my favorite is this one. It's about design of visuals, it deals with font and color matters, photography and gestalt.
  • Make to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.  This one blew my mind! This is about message design, that is, how to present an idea so that your audience not only remembers it,  but also acts on it. What makes this book even more appealing to me are there (few) references to message design for schools and universities.
These are my top favorites (10 points out of 10,) sadly,  I must say there is very few content on scientific talks in them. The fact of the matters is that most public speaking books are more target to business/sales people. There are a couple of presentation books for scientific content/audiences. Here are two of them.
  • The Craft of Scientific Presentations by Michael Alley. Although I disagree with some of his ideas, this is a good book with lots of common sense for scientific presentations. It addresses error done at the critical steps and offers solutions on how to solve them.
  • Dazzle 'em with Style: The Art of Oral Scientific Presentation by Robert R.H. Anholt. I haven't read this book, but the fact that there just a second edition, might be taken as a good sign. I stumbled across this book at the webpage  the syllabus of a public speaking course on the physics department of the Ohio State University. Click here to go there. Judging for the content of the course, I would say the book is on the right track.