Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On introductions and vocal delivery

Keeping the promise of elaborating on delivery I give two examples  of scientific talks. If speaker have awareness on their vocal delivery, their talks would immediately improve. 

Continuing the theme  better shown than tell, I look at Columbia University  physicists Janna Levin's 2011 TED Talk The sound of the universe makes (click here to go there). In particular, I look at her introduction  which takes roughly one minute.  In these  74 seconds there are 188 words, here is the transcript (I added the times with an offset of -15 s):
I want to ask you all to consider for a second the very simple fact that, by far, most of what we know about the universe comes to us from light. We can stand on the Earth and look up at the night sky and see stars with our bare eyes. The Sun burns our peripheral vision, we see light reflected off the Moon, and in the time since Galileo pointed that rudimentary telescope at the celestial bodies, the known universe (0:30) has come to us through light, across vast eras in cosmic history. And with all of our modern telescopes, we've been able to collect this stunning silent movie of the universe -- these series of snapshots that go all the way back to the Big Bang (0:50).
And yet, the universe is not a silent movie, because the universe isn't silent. I'd like to convince you that the universe has a soundtrack, and that soundtrack is played on space itself. Because space can wobble like a drum (1:06). It can ring out a kind of recording throughout the universe of some of the most dramatic events as they unfold (1:15).
Visualizing this portion of the transcript with a word cloud we see she is on track. The 5 most frequent words are:

Wonder  why light makes it to the top 5? Note the contrast. She introduces the topic of sound by comparing it with movies, i.e., light. She appeals to the audience's experience of looking at the sky at night. She paints an image with her words: "The Sun burns our peripheral vision", "The universe is not a silent movie", "Space can wobble like a drum".  There is crescendo: Our eyes, Galileo's telescope, today's telescopes; and then it cracks : It is a silent movie, but the universe isn't silent.   

She expresses her purpose brief and clear: "I'd like to convince you that the universe has a soundtrack," -- and then goes on-- and that soundtrack is played on space itself. Because space can wobble like a drum." And before we can ask so what? she tells us why it is important: "It can ring out a kind of recording throughout the universe of some of the most dramatic events as they unfold."

Here is are another example. This is a chemistry lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from professor Donald R. Sadoway. The lecture is called "Phase diagrams" and the overall course "Introduction to Solid State Chemistry" (click here to watch). Again, I'm focusing on the first minute of the introduction.
We are going to do  the first of three lectures on the last topic. We are going to talk about phase diagrams, starting today, Monday, and wrapping it up on Thursday. 
Phase diagrams are related to the question of stability and sustaining the solid state. And we've talked about the behavior of solids, and used solids to teach the rule of rudiments of chemistry. But today I want to talk about  conditions under which solids are stable.(0:30) And under what conditions do solids remain stable, when do they become unstable.
This is important in industry, for example. If you are running a cast shop (?), you are breaking auto parts if you want to know what the solidification temperature of a particular alloy is. It is important in failure analysis, something like the fall of the word trade center, looking at the metal specimens  to determine what was the motive failure. The temperature excursions leave a signature, a thermal signature indicative of the history of  what happened to that object. And by determining whether that  above the phase transformation temperature  we can retrace, reconstruct the incident.(1:03)
This is a great introduction. In the first 30 seconds he already stated clearly what the topic of the lecture  is and how it relates to the previous lectures. In the next minute he already explaining why this is important. Note how he increases the speed at the beginning of the last paragraph. That's call pace increment. He also changes the increases the pace between sentences: rule of rudiments of chemistry. But today...  That stresses the contrast between the past and the present. 

The examples are vivid because of the topic and narration: Temperature excursions leave a signature, a thermal signature indicative of what happened to that object. This is not science/engineering, this is storytelling.

Journalist and presentation consultant Carmine Gallo gives 4 tips to improve the vocal delivery in his book 10 simple secrets of the world's greatest business communicators:
  • Tone it up. Your voice should be like a stunning landscape portrait with peaks and valleys, variations in pitch, volume, and inflections.
  • Pick up the pace. Even research shows that listeners prefer a rate of speech that's a bit faster than average. 
  • Pause... for impact. Your job as a speaker is to "unlock" the potential of your presentation by respecting its words enough to take a breath every once in a while so your audience can soak in the message.
  • Punch key words. Stress the key words in each sentence.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Visual examples: Multimedia learning

I'm helping a friend with the visuals of a lecture on Multimedia learning based on the book of Richard Mayer of the same name. I asked if I could use some of the material to post here, so here we go:

2 traditional views of the learning process. Information aquisition (IA) + knowledge construction (KC). IA is better explained by the empty vessel analogy: The brain is an empty vessel and information is poured into it. KC refers to the sense-making process of the information that is presented. Ideally, good multimedia leads to KC allowing the learner to remember and apply the learned material. Traditionally, in the design of multimedia, this 2 concepts clash. An example is extraneous processing overload.
Extraneous process overload is likely to occur when the lesson contains attention-grabbing irrelevant material and/or when the lesson is designed in a confusing way. 
Avoid redundancy, i.e., presenting multimedia material in spoken text, printed text and pictures is likely to be less effective as multimedia material presented only spoken text and pictures or printed text and pictures.
Case for adding on-screen text to narrated animation is based on the learning preference hypothesis. 1 delivery path of presented information to the learner: Information may have a hard time getting through. Even worse, one available path may be block if the learner is not efficient in processing material in that form.
When 2 paths are available more information can still through the learner. However, there may still  more blockage in the inflow of information if the learner is unable to use one of the paths.
3 delivery paths allow to receive more information than is available using just 2 paths. The premise underlying  the learning preference hypothesis is that learners should choose the method of instruction that best suits the way the learn.
Inspired by Nancy Duarte's Scene not slides example, I created this :

I think of it not as an animation but as a long wide slide that doesn't fit into a single screen. For it to make sense, here are the slides with the notes:
Pictures, written text, and spoken text together in multimedia presentation overload the capacity of the human information processing  system. The big truck represent words: printed and spoken.
At the sensory registry printed words are separated from spoken words.

In addition to this separation the working memory is overloaded by the selection of images and words in both visual and verbal channels.

After being selected words and picture continue being processed.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Give a persuasive talk*

Inspired by a good book on public speaker, in this post I offer some advice on how to give a persuasive scientific talk. It turns out the ideal way of organizing a talk has been laid out by the Greeks. I used the updated version from Jay Heinrichs. 

I recently read that the format of a modern talk came be traced all the way back to the Greeks, in particular to Cicero. According to him, a persuasive talk follows the sequential set of steps: 
  • Invention 
  • Arrangement
  • Style
  • Memory
  • Delivery
Memory seems to be odd nowadays, so I would update it to Rehearsal.  Let's start with Invention.

Invention. An empty canvas or  page can be scary for fine art painters or writers, but what is worse is after the first stroke lands on the canvas or the first word on the page, a world of possibilities shrinks dramatically. After the second stoke or word there are no more possibilities, the path has been laid out.  This is no different in scientific talks, though here there is no canvas or page. I know what you are thinking, but no. No PowerPoint. Presentation Gurus like to use sticky notes (a.k.a. Post-It) to start the creative process because it allows a more flexible brainstorming process.  Whether you start with sticky notes, a blackboard, a whiteboard or window, or a scratch-book, remember that crafting your message involves the audience's needs, background and exceptions.  I have addressed this issue in  a past post.

Arrangement. Now that you have the content, give it some structure. The basic structure is the following: Ethos firstthen logos, finally pathos. Ethos refers to the reputation, logos to the rationality of the argument, and pathos to the emotions. In a scientific talk the ethos is leveraged by the moderator,  or at least should be. A quick sketch before of a guest professor or researcher citing patents, affiliations, number of published papers and books, and obtained awards is intended to raise the his/her ethos, basically saying that there is some level of credibility. For graduate students building his/her ethos is more difficult, but basically if the talk is not flawed in the content, s/he would have raised- or at least have not hurt- his or her ethos.   The purpose of the ethos is to have the audience on your corner. In the classical approach, narration follows ethos. You have entered the logos sector. You present your points and logically supporting them. You narrate in a scientific storytelling manner.

Allow me to elaborate some more on that term, scientific storytelling. If the term makes you feel uncomfortable because of the association of the word storytelling with the word fiction, i.e. not true, let me be clear. Science has nothing to do with "the Truth".  As professor Paul Grobstein writes
Scientific statements are not either claims or approximations to ‘Truth,’ but provisional stories, reflecting human perspectives, that get progressively less wrong. Science is therefore fundamentally not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism. Scientific stories are written not to be believed but to be understood, made use of as appropriate, and revised. [1]
 Narrate your finding and your observations as it were a story, a non-fiction story that this, but ultimately a story. 

Pathos is a complicated in scientific talks, for emotions in science are a misunderstood phenomena. However, ending your talk in a high note is something you want to achieve, that's where pathos comes in, moving the audience in the emotional plane in your call to action, whatever this might be.   

Style. Very close to narration is he story telling is style. Very scientific discipline and audience have their own set of stylistic parameters and rules.  Synchronizing these two is a challenge, but here are some guidelines. Proper language: words that suit the occasion, audience and scientific discipline. Let me give you an example. Reading this 5*(1/5) = 1 aloud, you would say at some point 'one over five', which is completely fine. However, if you replace the 5 for a matrix (a rectangular arrange of numbers)  named A, you don't say 'one over A' but 'A  inverse'. Proper language. However, watch out for jargon and not so common abbreviations.  In the field of linear algebra most people will know that SVD stands for Singular Value Decomposition, but the very similar Eigenvalue Decomposition is not always abbreviated as EVD.

Related to proper language is clarity. Should be obvious, shouldn't? Sadly, in many scientific talks clarity is the exception rather that the rule. Working yourself through clarity you might step on the Curse of Knowledge:
This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind. [2]
Also be mindful that in a multimedia presentation, such as today's scientific presentations involving  a stack of visuals, details clutter rather than clarify. Let the KISS principle guide you: "Keep Simple Stupid!"

Another aspect of style is vividness. Can your words recreate imagery in the audience minds? A good way to achieve this is using metaphors and analogies. Here is an except from Sir Winston Churchill's book The River War
  The Soudan is joined to Egypt by the Nile, as a diver is connected with the surface by his air-pipe. Without it there is only suffocation.
Rehearsal. I already talk about it. Check out this past post on the topic.

Delivery. It's your turn. Your name has been called. It's delivery time.  I'll dedicate a whole post to this topic soon.


[1] Grobstein, P. Revisiting Science in Culture: Scienceas Story Telling as Story Revising. Journal of Research Practice, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Article M1, 2005.
[2] Heath D. and Heath C. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House, 2007.

* Based and inspired on  the book Heinrichs, J. Thank you for arguing.  Three Rivers Press, 2007. Chapter 23: Give a Persuasive Talk.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The commonsense disaster

Commonsense doesn't always make sense. Sadly, in scientific presentations bad commonsense is too often. In this post I talk about some counter-commonsense practices and how to improve them. 

Let's get honest, most scientific presentations suck mostly because people don't have the time to design them. Some do know that knowing their material is just not enough. In fact, some professors tend to expend a considerable amount of time preparing a course's material the first time. If time is the issue, the best way to solve that problem, is to present less times. It is also true that for giving a lecture a stack of visuals is not always necessary. In fact I wonder, how were the lectures our professors listened to?

The abuse of PowerPoint led to the idea that preparing a presentation was almost the same as to create the visuals stack. That's when the commonsense disaster was released. In a broad sense, a presentation that incorporates a PowerPoint/Keynote/OpenOffice/Beamer stack is a Multimedia Presentation. But instead of using the Multimedia Possibility, most of us use or have used on-canvas visuals as presenter notes, or Slideuments, as Garr Reynolds calls them. That is, slides that pretend to be documents, but that ultimately fail. The idea of Slideuments is a noble one: Kill two birds with one stone and save the presenter time. Noble in the eyes of the presenter, but a very powerful soporific for the audience. So, my advice is this: if a presenter is unwilling and/or unable to create meaning visuals that enhance his/her message, present without them, or even consider not presenting.

Allow me to be more precise on the commonsense disaster. Add to Slideuments disaster the commonsense of how the human information processing system. According to psychology professor Richard Mayer the design of some multimedia material is based on the false assumption that the human information processing system is singled-channel, has unlimited capacity and it is designed to process isolated pieces of information. In fact, the processing system looks more like this:

In scientific conferences, the most commonly attacked part of this system is the working memory. Working memory -that place in  memory where information just needed to solve a problem or solve a task, such as remember a phone number, not to have to keep looking at the phone book[1]- has limited capacity. A 90 minute PowerPoint driven lecture / presentation / pitch is most will overload the system if it is not carefully crafted.

Another commonsense disaster is the introduction given by a speaker. Common practice at the beginning of a conference is to explain the change of affiliation, involvement in a joint project or company. This is information that can be very well be given by the moderator, actually it should, for it will leverage your Ethos. The problem with this useless information is that it competes with the information / time you have to grab the audience's attention. The rule of thumb used by professional speakers is that if you don't grab the audience by the end your first 30 - 40 seconds, it will be very difficult to do that later on. To make matters worse, if you successfully grab their attention it will steady decrease over time, and after 10 minutes it is gone and you must relaunch.  

In her book Better Beginnings, professional speaker Dr. Carmen Taran explains seven ideas to begin a presentation. This are
  • Anticipation
  • Specificity
  • Inquiry
  • Incongruity
  • Novelty
  • Uncertaintly
  • Complexity
In the scientific context Anticipation (Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em)  and novelty are easy to incorporate.

Very related to the beginning is the ending. Professional speakers say "Begin strong, end stronger".  Ending in a high note is very important, even if the talk was bad.  Deleting the 'thank you' slide, and instead saluting the audience at the beginning is sound advice from MIT Computer Science professor Patrick Henry Winston. Saying "Thank you for coming" at the beginning is enough. A good way to achieve a strong ending is by practicing your talk.

Consider avoiding the commonsense disaster in your next presentation!

Notes and references

[1] Cowan, N. (1997). The development of working memory. In N. Cowan (Ed.), The development of memory in childhood. Hove, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press