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.

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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.

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Good design does not save bad content

November 13, 2007

You’ll often hear me pitch the idea

Quality = content * design

I do this to emphasize the importance of learning the basics of design. This is, after all, blog aimed at scientists. Scientists generally have to be convinced that design is important; they are all over content, obviously. When great content is combined with great design, the results are wondrous to behold.

Which brings us to the Creation Museum in Kentucky. Lots of money, and, apparently, some pretty good designers. All in the service of some questionable ideas, science-wise. If you haven’t yet seen this place, John Scalsi has a fantastic post introducing you to it, with a link to a flicker gallery, nicely annotated. It was at his gallery that I clipped this little gem.

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Whoa nelly.

Scalsi, a science fiction writer, has a keen eye for just how bad this place is. His post also demonstrates that one of the best ways to fight ignorance is with humor. And the soul of humor is…repetition:

Here’s how to understand the Creation Museum:

First, imagine, if you will, a load of horseshit. And we’re not talking just your average load of horseshit; no, we’re talking colossal load of horsehit. An epic load of horseshit. The kind of load of horseshit that has accreted over decades and has developed its own sort of ecosystem, from the flyblown chunks at the perimeter, down into the heated and decomposing center, generating explosive levels of methane as bacteria feast merrily on vintage, liquified crap. This is a Herculean load of horseshit, friends, the likes of which has not been seen since the days of Augeas.

And you look at it and you say, “Wow, what a load of horseshit.”

h/t Boing Boing

John Scalsi at Creation Museum


Bunch your obligations-earn yourself a “Big Idea Day”

October 19, 2007

OklahomaSunsetWe are big here on the notion that there are some activities, like reading and writing, you want to do every day. This kind of repeated attention builds good habits, allows you to get big projects done by breaking them down into little chunks, and keeps those projects in the forebrain, where you can cogitate about them.

But there is a case to be made that certain more mind-numbing activities should be allowed to accrue until you have a day’s worth of emails to return, forms to fill out, and papers to grade. This is the argument made by Cal Newport in a nifty discussion of “best practices” by professors and graduate students.

The gem here is the notion of carving out one day a week (or one more likely, one morning or afternoon) for “Administrative Nonsense Day“. This can be anything from doing your monthly bills to updating your web pages. The point is you want to maximize your creative time, uninterrupted by the (oft seductive) siren call of the piddly stuff. If you know that stuff will get done soon, it’s off your radar screen and allows you to concentrate on the stuff that matters long-term.

This leads to the doppleganger of “Administrative Nonsense Day” your “Big Idea Day” (sound of harp glissandos and angels singing). This is the day that you don’t answer your phone, hide at home and give yourself the luxury of a 15 hours of reading and sketching out the next paper, grant, or project. Nothing replaces large chunks of time to think. Nothing. You deserve them.

There is one more tactic that you may want to consider if you are one of the many grad students paying your way by being a Teaching Assistant. Say you are required to teach two (or, three) lab sections a week. Try to schedule them all on the same day. That’s right, the 9:00-12:00, the 1:00-4:00, and the 6:00-9:00 night lab. There is a good chance you will teach better (and be damned relaxed by the night lab) if you focus all your attentions on a subject in one day. If you maintain your proper balance of caffeine, water, Gatorade, and Cliff Bars, you will sail through.

Having done this myself at the ole UofA, the bonus comes with that gorgeous feeling of walking out into the cool desert air at 9:30PM, knowing that you have Big Idea Day waiting for you tomorrow and no teaching for six whole days.

Sweet.


Why you should manage your dissertation like a stock portfolio

March 9, 2007

We conclude our discussion of Ira Glass’s excellent podcast on broadcasting.

The message here is simple. Any person who wants to be innovative must try a lot of things that don’t work. Which is to say, you will frequently find yourself  one minute, one hour, one month into a project that in the end doesn’t pan out.  If you’re not failing, you’re not trying.

This also applies, on a longer time scale, to your dissertation.

The great thing about science as a way of knowing is that failure, properly managed, is still success. The more hypotheses you test in a given project, the greater the variety of evidence you bring to bear, the more interesting the paper will even if your supercool hypothesis bites the dust. And, at the same time, you have given yourself every opportunity to see why it did or didn’t work. You’ll know more than when you started.

So make sure you build the chapters of your dissertation with the eye of an investor who is in it for the long haul. Combine sure fire, more conservative and descriptive work, with projects where you shoot for the moon.  Because, rest assured, some of those gambles will pay off.


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.


The learning curve: a psychological hurdle to creativity

March 4, 2007

In our second installment from a podcast by Ira Glass, we learn about the steep learning curve in becoming a professional storyteller. One consequence is that you learn to recognize good work sooner than you learn to do good work.

This is a huge insight into one of the great banes of graduate student existence. You are a grad student because someone has recognized your raw talent, because you have a latent barometer for distinguishing good science from bad, and because you have a passion to do good work. Yet unless you are extraordinarily lucky, your first efforts, your second efforts, your third efforts, will be pretty bad. And the painful fact is that you will recognize it as not very good because, as Glass points out, you have good taste.

Remember that this is a common dilemma in mastering any creative skill. If you don’t have the tenacity and the work habits, it will grind you up.

But if you fight through it, and resolve to apprentice yourself to the task, you will move forward. As Gideon said in some earlier comments, you have to immerse yourself in grad school, absolutely drown in it.

Also, note Glass’s little diversion on how you speak to your audience. You don’t underline every third word for its emphasis (i.e., the “BBC voice”). Speak with the tones and inflections as if you were telling a story to friends around the table.


Why a lecture is not a manuscript read aloud

March 3, 2007

Have you ever listened to a lecture that was read from a manuscript? Even a beautifully written text can somehow fall flat when read from a podium. Why is that? Ira Glass, of This American Life, gives us a clue in the first segment of this remarkable podcast. We’ll be spending some time this week with Glass, as his tips for beginning podcasters resonate far wider.

The upshot: public lectures are structured differently from writing. In a public lecture, your audience can’t zoom forward or back through the text. They are living, with you, in the moment. Public lectures are intimate conversations writ large. So even scientific lectures have a large component of storytelling. And a story is made up of two parts.

Read the rest of this entry »


Al Gore: Quality = content * design

March 2, 2007

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As academics we go to a lot of seminars. And in those seminars we can get a lot done. The most obvious thing we can accomplish is to learn something of what the speaker is trying to convey. But many of us relish the dim quiet of a seminar room for other reasons. It allows the mind to settle a bit, free of phones and email. It allows us to open the blank page of our notebook (an almost erotic experience for an academic) ready to scribble some thoughts down. Sometimes, inevitably, we even close our eyes for a few minutes…

This is much harder to do when the speaker goes out of his way to keep you eyes riveted to the screen by modulating his voice, pacing his presentation, and showing gorgeous, apt, visuals.

Which is to say, I just saw Al Gore’s global warming presentation. Live. A few rows back from the stage. In a rocking sports arena more than half filled with 9000 cheering undergrads along with a few professors and local dignitaries. As good as the movie An Inconvenient Truth is, the talk in its entirety, live, with audience reaction, is pretty damn special. Gore’s talk is so successful because, if I may stretch a metaphor, it is a perfect storm of compelling content presented with drama, humor, and passion. Read the rest of this entry »


Celebrate skepticism

February 26, 2007

We live in a wondrous time, when anybody with passion and creativity can put something like this together and reach an audience of millions.

It gives one a modicum of hope.

UPDATE 27Feb07: This is one popular video.  If its not showing up above, you can find it here.


Flowcharts, how do I love thee?

February 25, 2007

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I haven’t used flowcharts much in my teaching or research, but this may change soon. First, there is this marvelous mashup of flowcharts with web pages to teach copyright law. Biologists have long used keys to simplify identifying critters, but I can easily imagine using flowcharts to teach, for example, the experimental results that would allow you to identify different kinds of population regulation.

Perhaps the real utility of flowcharts for graduate students may lie in the underused but powerful practice of Strong Inference. SI endorses building a logic tree when planning your research so that each experiment tests as many different hypotheses as possible. The end result is that each experiment produced maximum bang for your research buck. I am seeing more and more flowcharts in the NSF grants I review.

How would you flowchart your dissertation research?

Finally, flowcharts are effective ways of detecting patterns in otherwise seemingly inscrutable behavior.

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