Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An editorial about presentations

In this TED presentation, molecular biologist John Bohannon, PhD share his views about (scientific) presentations. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Focus to prevent unnecessary detail

Detail clutters a presentation, and in scientific talks this gets even worse. Scientist and researchers think that detail convinces an audience. I disagree. In this post I discuss how focus helps avoid unnecessary detail.

After I wrote about the problems with too much detail in presentations, I have started to grow more and more wary about it.  Two things that lead to too much detail are lack of preparation and unfamiliarity with the content. One solution to these problems is focus. Focus on the audience, where do you want to take to audience? Why should they come with you? What's in there for them? Be ready to answer the "so what?" question. In case you are a graduate student or a professor at a conference, you might want the audience to spend their time analyzing your idea, to alert on possible errors or to suggest possible improvement; you want to raise awareness about your research.

If you dip your audience in detail and clutter, they might not be able to differentiate the important from the not important. Take a look at this video about awareness.

The video is trying to prove how hard it is to focus on many things going on at once.
You need to help navigate throw your topic to avoid this type of distraction.  For that you need to know your material.  Knowing your material is essential your presentation but it is not all. The key is to focus: focus on the preparation, focus on the audience.

Distill your material to get the core message and the supporting points, three supporting points are enough. Segment your presentation to favor focus and your supporting points. Forget the Introduction- Motivation- Body- Conclusion scheme, that's laziness, not focus. That scheme doesn't help to navigate. That is the same thing the other 99 presenters are doing. So if you are trying to raise awareness, you are just one more doing the same thing. Maybe that's what you want, but if it is, then do yourself and the audience a favor a don't present. Present to make a difference, and free people for the evil detail that pollutes scientific talks.
You have heard this before, less means more. Of all the simplicity quotes out there, this is my favorite one:
It seems that perfection [or simplicity] is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry
Talk preparation is so much about what to leave out as much as what to leave in.

Now, knowing your material makes you separate detail from supporting point. You cannot present without supporting your argument.  This can't be emphasized enough. In scientific talks details are confused with support, we think that if we show overwhelming amounts of detail, we will convince the audience. Not true, this will only overload the audience working memory and thus will cause you to lose it. You are having trouble deciding whether a piece of information  go back to the audience and what they already know. Will that piece of information  resonate with the audience enlightening them to grasp my core message?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Visual examples: The grid

Last month I was in Brazil for two week, and among other things I helped designing visuals. I thought I might post the process of a particular one:

Thankfully they knew better and asked me to get some images from the internet. After searching for some pics on Wikipedia I came up with this one
which is always much better than the first slide. However there were some things I didn't like.  The text is misplaced, the cassette image is shitty, the picture on the upper right is suppose to be a book, but it doesn't look like one, because it isn't,  all in all the whole visual could be bolder.

So this week I decided to work on it some more and I came up with this

using a grid. Let me explain. The normal slide is 1024 pixels wide and 768 pixels high. This give a ratio of 4:3. A natural grid is this one
which works great because I need to place 8 images. Each cell has a ration 1:1 (is a square). So I cropped the images to make squares.  Now you might be wondering what if I have less than 8 pictures or an image can't be cropped to fit a square? I'm glad you asked! Coincidentally, because I wasn't that crazy about  the black background and oval shape, I replaced the CD for a CD ROM. Unfortunately, the new image didn't fit in a 1:1 ratio, but in 3:1. So, for exercise purposes I threw away some images and place the CD ROM and got this
  This is a more dynamic slide than the one with the 8 images, but now the CD ROM is floating on the top and it is too dominant. Because that is not what I want, I moved it to the bottom, and the result is even better!
Now I have a new problem, the text has to be moved. An option that works quite well is to align the left of the text to the white line between the tablet and the TV.  Take a look now the slide changes.
So that's it for the design exercise. You might have noticed I also moved the tape recorder and the textbook to the top. I did this to balance the whole slide. As I mentioned I cropped the images I got from Wikipedia. Let me show you how I did it.
  • First, I downloaded the images in its full resolution. The original size of the CD ROM is 3072 by 1084. I strongly recommend you work with full resolution images and size down later. 
  • Now, open the image in GIMP. One way to view the image's size is by pressing Alt+Return to open the Image Properties dialog box. 
  • Next, select the crop tool by clicking on the knife icon, or by pressing Shift+C. You should now see the crop options window. If not go to the Windows menu > Dockable dialogs > Tool options to make it visible. 
  • Once you have the crop tools visible, active the Fixed checkbox by click on it and select Aspect Ratio in the dropdown menu. Select the ratio that you want, in this case 3:1.
  • Finally, click and drag to select the part of the image you want to crop. By default GIMP will highlight the selection. If not, active the Highlight checkbox. Optionally, you can turn on the guides from the dropdown menu below. When you satisfy with your selection click inside the selection to crop.  
The image below summaries all this.
So let me recap:

The very first slide using images communicates much more efficiently than the one with pure text. One can dwell in a slide improving detail after detail, but that's not the idea. This post was a pure exercise. Obviously, if I had thought about using the grid when I first launched on this slide, I would have done it. Hopefully, the next time such an opportunity shows up I'll know better.