Telling a story: from the creator’s of South Park

September 9, 2011


In this video clip, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan, Matt Stone and Trey Parker of South Park talk about how their writer’s room works. Their two steps are just as valid as you design your talk or outline a grant proposal.

Step 1 is random brainstorming. They use a huge whiteboard to jot down scenes and situations they think would be funny. At this point its all about getting down the ideas. Structure comes later.

When your designing an essay, take a notebook and pen and just scribble down things you think should go in. Don’t censor yourself too much. If it sounds interesting, it probably is. Without compelling bits, you won’t have much.

Step 2 links the ideas together. The classic formula for South Park is three Acts, strung together make a show. How do they recognize which bits go together? It’s definitely *not* Act 1, and then, Act 2, and then Act 3. Act 2 can’t just follow Act 1, it has to be introduced. They way they put it, it’s Act 1 therefore Act 2 but Act 3. That’s when Matt and Trey know they have something interesting.

When you’re presenting a seminar, you don’t want the first thought in their mind “why did they put that slide there?”.  You want, instead, to create a tension. In the seconds before you hit that clicker, create the anticipation of your next slide. Likewise, in the introduction to a paper, the best writers make sure that each paragraph is foreshadowed by the one that came before. For example…

There is increasing evidence that the globe is one really gynnormous turtle. What we think of as mountains are the ridges of the turtles shell. When we see flat plains, we are seeing the smooth plates, arching subtly to the horizon. Valleys are, of course, the sutures between the plates. Our turtle world hypothesis is complete and consistent with known facts as presented by geologists. Astrophysicists, on the other hand, have raised the logical question as to how “Turtle-earth” is suspended in known space.

Here we present the hypothesis, backed up by Hubbell satellite photos, that it is “turtles all the way down”….

Remember its all about…


Na Na Na Na…Na Na Na Na…hey hey hey…goodbye

July 14, 2008

What a perfect use of You-tube: a different short video for each chemical element. Kudos to the science geeks at Nottingham University and their Periodic Table of Videos channel.

Now imagine all the ways that  you and your colleagues, with a $100 Flip video camera, can begin to change the world.

Sodium rocks!

ht Boing Boing.

Three brain rules to improve your presentations.

June 2, 2008

Garr Reynolds, of the ever-insightful Presentation Zen, has put together a great slideshow on John Medina’s Brain Links: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.

Every presentation by Garr Reynolds is a great example on how to communicate. See how he takes three of Medina’s rules to introduce three valuable lessons from neurobiology toward making you a better teacher and lecturer:

1) Exercise-Making your body a lean, clean, aerobic machine, besides giving you time to think, ensures that your brain gets the oxygen it needs. It also gives you some empathy for the poor schlubs that must sit through your lecture, inert brains encased in a desk. Make their time worth it.

2) The 10 minute rule–Your audience fades after 10 minutes. If you have to lecture for 50 minutes, conscientiously change-up every 10 minutes or so. Turn on the lights, show a blank screen and tell a story, have your audience stand up and stretch, anything to reset the 10-minute boredom clock.

3) Pictures beat text–We remember a good image far longer than a string of text. During your talks, show images, speak words. If you need blocks of text for your talk, use handouts.

Rules of Thumb: the 50% rule

May 31, 2008

We are often the worst judges of our own work. For manuscripts, we have a remarkably effective, if somewhat brutal, corrective called peer review.

But academics also perform live in classrooms and seminar halls where it is difficult to get a read on just “how we did”. This is partly due to the mind-clouding adrenalin that takes some time to be flushed from our blood stream. By the time we are thinking clearly, the audience has drifted away. Sure, you can somewhat plaintively corner a friend in the hallway to get the scoop, but if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of such an inquiry, you know that the critique will be, let us say, somewhat filtered.

Luckily, the problem of getting good feedback is widespread, and we can turn to the Bay Area bluegrass community for one valuable rule of thumb. This is Larry Cohea’s 50% rule. Larry is the banjo player for the long-running band High Country, and, as such, is keen judge of the human condition. Once, when a good friend of mine was complaining about her live performance, he gently lifted her spirits with an evocation of the rule:


if you think your performance was really, really, bad,

chances are it was 50% better than you think it was;

and if you think it was really, really, good,

chances are it was 50% worse.

This rule, like a nice dose of lithium, does wonders for post-performance anxiety. More to the point, it often seems to be true.

Any other RoT’s out there that guide you through the academic life?

The brain from the inside out

March 13, 2008


(Actually, you have to click here to go the TED site and watch this video).

Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who experienced, and recovered from, a stroke, gives an impressive talk. Her insights on right and left brain function, and their meaning to your life, are worth considering. I’m just sayin’.

The TED site is a terrific place to browse if your 1) want some fascinating talks on a variety of topics, and 2) want to learn/steal some tips and techniques on giving excellent presentations.

On the Power of a Slide Show

December 5, 2007

Quality = great content * great design.

Cookbook for a great presentation

November 16, 2007

I recently gave a talk about communicating in science. Hoo boy, if I had only known about this slideshow by Alexi Kapterev (view the whole show via the link below).

Two of the “money slides”:

1) What is it about repetition by threes? Maybe my neurobiology buddies can tell me. All I know is it works.


2) A great presentation

  1. conveys with enthusiasm why it’s important
  2. is built with repeated elements
  3. each of those elements is simple, uncluttered, and catchy
  4. is so well rehearsed it seems spontaneous.



| View | Upload your own

5 ways to screw up your talk

November 10, 2007

ra-ra-ra.jpgSo, bubby, you’ve been tagged to give a seminar. How often do colleagues turn their undivided attention for one hour to your view of the world? What an opportunity to talk about your work and polish your personal brand!What can you do to impress your audience and leave them wanting more?

Well, it’s Friday night, a martini awaits, so I’m turning this one over to Dr. Mephisto… Read the rest of this entry »

5 essentials for that committee meeting

October 4, 2007


Congratulations. You now have five academics that have agreed to mentor you as work toward your degree. Although not usually the most socially adept barnacles on the rock, academics expect to occasionally find themselves dragged from their lab benches, their desks, and their comfy “thinking-chairs”, to work with you, as a group, to advise you on your path. Here are a few tips to make the meeting go smoothly.

Read the rest of this entry »

How to lecture: two beginner’s mistakes

March 5, 2007

We continue our exploration of Ira Glass’s excellent broadcasting podcast, adapted for science graduate students by placing it on a piece of wood and banging a few nails through it.

1) Learn from the experts, don’t mimic them. All of us go through an acolyte stage. It is perfectly OK to steal, err, sample from folks you admire. But you are ultimately creating your own style and approach in the way you write, lecture, and do science. If your colleagues recognize your behavior as an imitation of professor X, or, worse yet, do imitations of you imitating professor X, you need to back off a bit.

2) Don’t be a narcissist. Show some empathy. Don’t talk down to your audience, draw them in. (Corollary: You have to be really talented to lecture like an asshole.) When I was a beginning lecturer, my wife kindly assented to sit in the back of the classroom. Note that this was the second time I had taught Principles of Ecology and I thought I was getting reasonably good at it (I wasn’t). I caught up with her at the end of class and we walked back to my office. Eager for feedback I asked “Well, how did I do?” and then braced myself for the effusive torrent of praise to come.

“Not bad, I guess.” she said. “But do you have to lecture like you have a stick up your butt?”.

So we end today’s post with that simple bit of wisdom, courtesy of Zeladoniac:  Don’t lecture like you have a stick up your butt.