May 27, 2013

Daniel Dennett's seven tools for thinking

Daniel Dennett is one of the leading philosophers of our generation. Here he offers seven tools for thinking.

One that I thought especially good advice for young scholars was first offered by Anatol Rappaport: how to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: "Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way."

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport's rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…

Posted by jmm at 07:25 PM | Comments (0)

January 20, 2010

Simple schematic for a good talk

My colleague John King sent me the diagram below. It is an easy-to-remember schematic for how to organize a talk. Start with some context (we often say "the motivation"), drilling down until you get to your specific problem, then describe in detail your contribution in solving this problem. Finish by heading back up to the surface: return to the context, reminding your audience of the connection between your problem and the broader context, this time adding the implications of what you have discovered for the broader context. This would naturally lead into a description of your ongoing research programme on this topic, if you have one. (I advocate *against* a "future work" slide unless you are actually committed too, and probably already engaged in, the future work.)

I like this, but, at least for a seminar talk (50-80 minutes rather than the 12-18 typical at many conferences), I would precede the big donut with a smaller semi-donut, which is the left half of the big donut in miniature. That is, spend the first minute (and maybe one slide) quickly setting the scene (the context), then briefly but clearly introduce the problem you tackle, state your results (without demonstrating or supporting them, then sum up your contribution. After that brief intro, get with the more detailed context - contribution - context program.

This is very similar to the classic storytelling exposition I've elsewhere advocated. As in a typical (not post-modern) novel or movie, immediately set the scene, identify the protagonist and the conflict he or she faces. In stories the resolution (results) often aren't broadcast up front (though they may be foreshadowed), to build suspense. Sometimes that kind of suspense-building works in a scholarly talk, but often giving a sneak peak at the results is helpful / necessary in motivating the audience to be interested in what comes.

Posted by jmm at 06:13 PM | Comments (0)

October 06, 2009

Communicating, not presenting

I gave a "skills workshop" today to our students. I was asked to give a session on presentations. I told them the assignment had it wrong. We need to learn to become better communicators, and stop worry so much about presenting.

The take-home points were two: To communicate better, focus on story telling, and on story perceiving (or the application of standard human cognitive principles the way in which you tell the story). The focus on applying cognitive principles to design is fairly conventional these days, but I think the value of using a story telling approach is overlooked. I don't mean litter a presentation with personal anecdotes, but to consciously develop and design the entire presentation as a single story, following classic story structure and tropes.

I prepared a handout summarizing the points I made during the session, and adding some additional tips, citations to further reading, and an example of how I develop my stories (before I even open my slide software), following the method described by Cliff Atkinson. (Having a take-away handout is one strong recommendation for an effective presentation.)

I'm also putting up my slides, though the way I use slides to illustrate my talks, the slides are useless without the speaker notes, and even then they are not very effective as a PDF file. They do demonstrate my commitment to using media to illustrate and emphasize and stimulate, rather than as set of on-screen lecture notes. (I only checked the screen momentarily during the talk, to verify synchronization.)

(My bad: The images are all either Creative Commons licensed photos from Flickr, or shots found via Google Images on the open web, but I was behind in my preparation and I neglected to write down sources. Usually I try to be better about giving attribution.)

Posted by jmm at 06:10 PM | Comments (0)

October 02, 2009

"Don't, please, please, for God's sake, don't."

Deirdre McCloskey is an economic historian and rhetoritician at the University of Illinois - Chicago. She has written extensively on the rhetoric of economics and social sciences. One of her gems is a short (of course!) book called Economical Writing (2nd ed., 2000). There are a number of helpful books that guide and advise scholars on writing; this is my favorite.

One of Deirdre's lessons I've embraced almost as much as William Strunk's "Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's" is her condemnation of the "table of contents paragraph" (known by others as the "roadmap" paragraph):

Still another peice of boilerplate, and one which kills the momentum of most papers in economics on the second page, is the table-of-contents paragraph: "The outline of this papers is as follows" Don't, please, please, for God's sake, don't. Nine out of ten readers skip to the substance, if they can find it. The few who pause on the paragraph are wasting their time. They can't understand the paragraph until, like they author, they have read the paper, at which point they don't need it. Usually the table-of-contents paragraph has been written with no particular audience in mind, least of all the audience of first-time readers of the paper. Even when done well it lacks a purpose. You will practically never see it in good writing, unless inserted by an editor who doesn't know good writing. Weak writers defend it as a "roadmap." They got the idea from Miss Jones: "Tell the reader what you're going to say. Say it. Say that you've said it." It's exceptionally bad advice, and the person who made up this memorable phrasing of it is burning right now in Hell." (p. 37)

Posted by jmm at 10:00 AM | Comments (0)

July 03, 2009

Effective bulletpoint presentations

I'm generally pretty critical of the traditional bulletpoint style for a presentation. But most people, of course, use them anyway. They might as well do it well.

Here is a presentation by former SI communications manager, Frank DeSanto, that he did for our summer undergraduate research program (REU) last year. He makes a number of good suggestions.

Posted by jmm at 02:36 PM | Comments (0)

March 23, 2008

My use of slides in teaching

Over the past two years I have drastically changed the way that I use slides while teaching. (Some students still see some "old style" slides because I haven't finished replacing all of my teaching materials -- it takes a lot of work!) I have noticed that in course evaluation comments many students appreciate my presentation style, but some criticize it. One of the criticisms I've seen a few times is that my slides are not very helpful *after* class.

I think, from the comments, that the students want me to provide them with a lecture outline that they can use as a set of pre-written notes to study. That sounds nice, and might be a good idea sometimes, though I worry that providing everything (the readings, the lecture, the lecture notes, the sample problems and sample exams with solutions) pre-written is not good for learning: where is the *active* learning that research has shown to be essential? In any case, I don't feel an obligation to provide lecture outlines and notes that I have written (though some student comments suggest that they think they are entitled to this).

Norman teapot: afforandanceThe obligation I do feel is to teach effectively, so that students learn successfully. And I have been convinced that the very standard approach to classroom slideware is ineffective. The standard approach, of course, is to provide a detailed set of bullet points: essentially, a lecture outline with notes. Many faculty more-or-less use the slides as their script, if not quite reading from them nonetheless going through each bullet as displayed. Gosh, as students sometimes say on a related topic: "I read the reading assignment in the textbook -- why just repeat it in class?"

The problem is deeper. First, putting a detailed outline and notes on the screen, and then talking through them creates a cognitive overload that decreases learning. Second, it promotes passive learning, which is less effective than active learning.

In my new presentation style I have worked hard (and believe me, it takes a lot longer to develop one of my new presentations than to prepare a standard bullet point outline presentation: I basically have to do the former first, to figure out what I want to say, then start from scratch to prepare the accompanying illustrations) to support learning by using multimedia material to complement the spoken words. I present material to illuminate, provide associative material, or provoke.

Leverage with incentives Some concepts are better understood (at least by some learners) visually, so I illuminate with a graph or a figure or an animation. Other times, I provide material -- often with cultural references (though I perhaps overdo this, since many of my students are foreign and may miss some of the cultural references) -- that I hope will trigger associative links, prompting students to more active processing and elaboration of the material. Yet other times I try to provoke them (with humor -- often self-deprecating since that's usually less likely to offend *others* -- sarcasm, surprising mental leaps or associations), again to get them to think differently and more deeply (or simply to wake up :).

I use a mixture of visual and auditory material. Get the good stuff in The visual includes photographs, words (but rarely more than one sentence per slide, and often just one word or phrase to EMPHASIZE a point, not repeat verbatim what I'm saying), paintings, graphs and figures, etc. I occasionally include a video clip, but I've not developed good skills at finding video illustrations appropriate to my lectures. Pity: dynamic visuals usually attract attention better than static. I do make use of color, contrast, size and other variations to increase the impact of my visuals. For auditory material I often use clips of popular music (sometimes classical or jazz), but have also created a few auditory demos.

These presentations do not make for good outline/lecture note handouts! I agree with the students on that. But I think they make the lectures themselves much more effective. I also provide the students with readings, sometimes supplemented with pre-lecture "reading guides". I put some lecture notes in the "presenter notes" section of my slide files, and then publish collapsed versions of the slides with the notes to provide partial lecture outlines.

Yes, I could do even more class preparation than I already do, creating in addition a lecture outline / notes document to handout (or post after class). But I don't want to do that instead of my more kinetic, dramatic, and complementary visual presentations. I think the loss in cognitively active learning in the lecture would be a much greater loss. So, I put the priority on trying to give effective lectures, rather than bad lectures accompanied by slide outlines to review after class.

And finally, I really do believe that students learn better if they take some lecture notes, take notes on the readings, and then after class, use those (and the slides, such as they are, and the audio or video recordings of lecture that I usually make available for my large lecture classes) to make one's own annotated outline. The activities of reviewing, distilling, organizing and summarizing are precisely the sort of learning activities we know are most effective.

I don't mean to claim that I have any special genius at lecturing in large classes, or that my way is necessarily best. I think (and my course evaluation scores over the years support this) that I am a better than average classroom teacher, but that there is substantial room for improvement. That's why I keep reading the research on teaching, and keep working to improve my pedagogical methods over time. I've put a lot of hours into analyzing, critiquing, and ultimately completely changing my visual presentation aids the past two years, and I'll keep putting time into improving my lecture skills.

Posted by jmm at 01:58 PM | Comments (5)

February 18, 2008

Time to write

Over the years, I have frequently seen advice from professional writers that to get writing done, it is best to:

One recent example was advice my colleague Yan Chen shared from a workshop she attended given by Jayne London, an "academic coach" who advises faculty members on writing. London advised that "Writing in short, regular sessions, e.g., 30-60 minutes every work day,leads to higher productivity than binge writing. Even ten minute sessions are better than binge writing."

Another academic coach, Mary McKinney, recommends:

The Tolerable Ten

If you've been putting something off, it helps to start small. Begin working for just ten minutes on the daunting tasks of your life.

Almost any task, no matter how unpleasant, or anxiety provoking, can be tolerated for a short amount of time.
When you are having difficulty sitting down to work, set yourself the small but significant goal of working for just ten minutes on the project. After you've fulfilled that promise to yourself, you are free to either continue working or to stop.

For more of Mary's thoughts, see "Overcoming Procrastination".

Yet another coach, who focuses on advising college students, is Cal Newport, who writes the "Study Hacks" blog. In a 15 October 2007 article, he extracted writing advice from interviews (by others) of ten successful non-fiction writers.

Posted by jmm at 12:47 AM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2008

Making presentations (not Powerpoint shows)

The Tomorrow's Professor mailing list sent out YAPPB (yet another PowerPoint bashing) today, but this is one of those I think makes some good constructive points about good presentation (whether for business or teaching or youth group programs, etc.), not just "don't use PowerPoint". (Mailing list items are not posted to the blog for a week or two, but see the link to Kaminski's lecture below if you are looking for this before early- or mid-February 2008).

The one sentence message: Slides are excellent for certain types of visual aids, but they alone are not an effective oral presentation (and too heavy reliance on them, for things they are not suited for, is the road to a bad presentation).

The essay is referenced by Tomorrow's Professor as being from a book by Laurie Richlin, but apparently she borrowed it wholesale (with attribution) from an outlined lecture by Stephen Kaminski. The lecture outline has more detail and more constructive bits of advice, so I recommend reading it and reviewing it from time to time. (Kaminski links to another useful lecture of his, "Some Tips for Using Visual Aids".

One very nice point about relying too heavily on a single, flat, static visual medium: "Presenters fail to establish ethos, their most powerful appeal."

Ethos is the personal appeal of the speaker. It is classified by Aristotle as an "artistic proof" that the speaker fashions in his presentation. It involves both verbal and nonverbal elements of the message and must be carefully managed for a presentation to succeed. With PowerPoint™, however, many of the elements that establish ethos are blunted or negated. Speakers don't look at the audience and the audience doesn't look at the speaker. The subtle nonverbal cues are lost such as eye contact, posture, etc. Presentations tend to be read off the slide or handouts, flattening delivery.

Constructive advice: use multiple aides to demonstrate and illustrate: people, objects, models, figurative representations, maps, charts and graphs, spreadsheets, web pages, animations...

Posted by jmm at 10:09 PM | Comments (0)

October 03, 2007

"Quick thinks" for active learning

A leading communication objective for scholars is to persuade; another is to inform. Often the goal of informing is to make the audience aware: I have a new result, it is interesting, go read the paper to learn the details (the typical 15 minute conference presentation, for example). Sometimes of course, we want our audience to learn more deeply.

Though I mostly intend this blog to focus on scholarly activities other than classroom teaching, the line between classroom teaching and communicating our research ideas is blurry, to say the least. Yesterday I read a good 1997 essay aimed at classroom teachers; I'm reporting it here because I don't want to forget its advice, and because techniques to increase active learning are useful in seminars, conferences, and even in written scholarly communication (though the techniques need modification for different contexts).

Suzanne Johnston and Jim Cooper wrote about "Quick-thinks: The Interactive Lecture" (in the Cooperative Learning and College Teaching newsletter Vol. 8, no. 1 (Fall 1997)). They offer a good summary of then current research on the importance of active learning in the classroom, for those not already familiar with the ideas and their empirical support. Then they offer eight "quick-think" strategies, particularly for large audiences for which it is difficult to engage in whole-group discussion or even to break out into small groups:

  1. Select the best response (multiple choice)
  2. Correct the (intentional) error
  3. Complete a sentence starter
  4. Compare or contrast (two important parallel concepts from the lesson)
  5. Support a statement
  6. Re-order the (jumbled) steps (when teaching a procedure)
  7. Reach a conclusion (from proposed facts, assumptions, opinions)
  8. Paraphrase the idea

Via the Tomorrow's Professor (SM) mailing list (2 Oct 2007); all entries are archived (with a two-week delay).

Posted by jmm at 08:33 AM | Comments (0)

May 25, 2007

Writing for non-scholarly audiences

Practicing scholars, and those trained as scholars but employed in other professions, often need to write for non-scholarly professional audiences. This is not pejorative: these are simply audiences with different objectives and needs. Because one of the first universal principles of communication is to formulate the communication so that it is understandable by and useful for the intended audience, scholars need to learn to write differently for professional audiences than they do for scholarly audiences. A 25-page journal article replete with careful footnotes simply won't do when the boss has time to read a two-page decision memo.

Writing is so important -- and so rarely successfully taught while students are in school -- that there are an enormous number of manuals, courses, coaches, etc. Indeed, there are far more aimed at writing for professional audiences than for scholarly audiences, since the former is a bigger arena. I am not an expert on this vast literature, but I relied on a variety of sources over the years.

One I currently find useful and recommend to my graduate (including doctoral and professional master's program) students appears online in two forms. The first is shorter, but has the intriguing feature of being part of the Wikibook project, so anyone can edit it: Business Writing. The longer version, on which the original edition of the Wikibook was based, not only includes more detail but also offers templates and other useful tools: Writing for Results.

These emphasize a four-phase approach to preparing written communication. This framework is sensible and unsurprising to experienced writers, but the less experienced often pay attention to only two of the phases (the second and fourth):

The first (frame of reference) I generally think of as the most important underemphasized phase of professional writing. It includes deciding explicitly what your communication objective is, thinking about and understanding who your audience is, and understanding what your authority is (which should affect, for example, your voice and the warrants or evidence you need to bring to bear to support your claims).

Posted by jmm at 11:51 AM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2007


Stories, Humor, Analogies, References and Pictures/Visuals -- SHARPS -- are anchors for the details, facts and figures of our presentation – they make our message relevant, entertaining, and memorable to our audience.

Posted by jmm at 08:58 AM

January 03, 2007

Tomorrow's Professor blog / mailing list

Rick Reis at Stanford's Center for Teaching and Learning has been running a quite nice mailing list for some time, also now available as a blog (with commenting): Tomorrow's Professor Blog. If you want the mailing list (old fashion RSS :) you can subscribe. And a searchable archive is available.

Reis sends out about two mailings/postings a week. The focus is quite similar to this blog: the archive and blog are categorized as: Academy; Graduate Students and Postdocs; Academic Careers; Teaching and Learning; Research. Most of the postings are written by scholars and other experts for various forums; Reis gets permission and re-posts them. So, lots of viewpoints and multiple expertises. There are several hundred articles in the archives (including articles from a Chronicle of Higher Education column Reis writes, such as "Interdisciplinary Research and Your Scientific Career", and "The Scientific Job Talk").

I find quite a few of these stimulating (and many irrelevant to what I do). I'll blog specific articles from time to time, but wanted to highlight the overall resource, too.

Posted by jmm at 02:05 AM

December 31, 2006

Multimedia learning

I just ran across a book that looks interesting:

Richard Mayer: Multimedia Learning Richard Mayer: Multimedia Learning

From the description on the Amazon site:

For hundreds of years verbal messages have been the primary means of explaining ideas to learners. Although verbal learning offers a powerful tool for humans, this book explores ways of going beyond the purely verbal. An alternative to purely verbal presentations is to use multimedia presentations in which people learn from both words and pictures--a situation the author calls multimedia learning. Multimedia encyclopedias have become the latest addition to students' reference tools, and the world wide web is full of messages that combine words and pictures. This book summarizes ten years of research aimed at realizing the promise of multimedia learning.

Posted by jmm at 02:03 PM | Comments (0)

Digital storytelling

Dana Atchley was a pioneer in digital storytelling, and an evangelist for the use of rich storytelling techniques for business and professional presentations. He died in 2000.

Stories are how we connect on the most fundamental, human level. Stories are the best way to embody, share and remember knowledge. Before the advent of the written word stories were the only way of communicating history.

He was one of the early critics of bullet-point presentations, which he referred to as "corporate Sominex". You can get a sense of his talents and style from the website of the Digital Storytelling Festival he ran.

I have long understood that storytelling is one of the most effective ways of communicating complex information. I learned a fair bit from a little-known book by one of my former Ford School of Public Policy colleagues, Martha Feldman. In Reconstructing Reality in the Courtroom (with Lance Bennett; Rutgers Univ. Press 1981), she argues, based on field case studies, that juries navigate the maze of evidence, rhetoric, body language, and legal tactics by organizing them into a story, and that the side that presents the most coherent, internally consistent and compelling story wins.

Posted by jmm at 01:50 PM

December 05, 2006

Books on writing

Can't overemphasize how important good written communication is. It is usually the most durable form in which we transmit our ideas to others, and is naturally asynchrononous which relieves coordination problems across time and space. Oral presentations at conferences play a crucial role in building our social networks and gaining the attention and recognition of other scholars, but our written publications usually play a larger formal role in our career advancement.

So, I'll be making posts about written in addition to visual and oral communication. Today I'll start with a list of books that I have found helpful over the years.

Strunk and White: Elements of Style Strunk and White: Elements of StyleThe true classic. Pithy set of style rules that, applied firmly, almost always improve clarity and vigor in your writing.

William Zinsser: On Writing Well

William Zinsser: On Writing WellAnother classic (just released in revised 20th anniversary edition). He preaches stripped-down simplicity. Has chapters on audience, usage, etc., but also a chapter on scientific writing.

Lyn Dupre: Bugs in Writing

Lyn Dupre: Bugs in WritingSimilar to Strunk and White in that it's a collection of style principles, but not short (some 140 terse chapters). Focuses on writing in technical fields, especially computer science.

Gary & Glynis Hoffman: Adios, Strunk and White

Gary & Glynis Hoffman: Adios, Strunk and White -- A Handbook for the New Academic EssayA writing guide specialized to academic writing. Goes beyond dogmatic rules to discuss features of good writing (flow, pausing, disarming, intensifying, etc.).

Deirdre McCloskey: The Rhetoric of Economics

Deirdre McCloskey: The Rhetoric of EconomicsNot really a writing guide, but an excellently well written inquiry into the rhetorical (persuasive) methods used in economics writing, and how these serve to obscure the nature of knowledge and learning. Reading this will help almost any social scientist write more effectively.

Maxine Hairston and Michael Keene: Successful Writing

Maxine Hairston and Michael Keene: Successful WritingAnother writing guide for academics, focusing on the process and structure of writing (adapting to audience, revising, polishing, etc.).

Martha Davis: Scientifc Papers and Presentations

Martha Davis: Scientifc Papers and Presentations

Vernon Booth: Communicating in Science

Vernon Booth: Communicating in Science -- Writing a Scientific Paper and Speaking at Scientific Meetings

Michael Alley: The Craft of Scientific Writing

Michael Alley: The Craft of Scientific Writing

Posted by jmm at 09:37 AM | Comments (0)

November 29, 2006

PowerPoint tip: Presenter View

Quick tip I just discovered: Presenter View in PowerPoint (available since at least the 2003 version). This solves a long-standing frustration of mine: I want to write speaker notes, but I want them on my laptop screen (not in hardcopy, and of course, not on the big screen). Turns out Presenter View shows the slide presentation on one monitor, but a presenter's view including speaker notes, a black-out button, etc., on another screen).

This article describes how to set it up.

Posted by jmm at 09:52 AM | Comments (1)

Laws of simplicity

John Maeda has a book, and a follow-on blog, called The Laws of Simplicity. His encapsulating law ten gives an idea of his thoughtfulness: "Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful." In other words, simplicity is a balance between information that is helpful and clutter that is not. Garr Reynolds has written a nice introductory discussion of the book.

Posted by jmm at 09:13 AM | Comments (0)

Ah, PowerPoint

An enormous amount has been written (including many books) on the evils of PowerPoint presentations, and how to make the best of them. I don't know a "best" distillation, so I'll drop various useful items in here. One that got me started in writing this blog is this blog entry from a physics blog.

Tufte's 32 page booklet is a classic in this genre.

Posted by jmm at 09:07 AM | Comments (0)

Books on presentation

Some books about designing and giving prseentations that might be useful. The initial items for this list I harvested from Presentation Zen but I am adding more suggestions to it.

Robert Anholt: Dazzle 'Em With Style : The Art of Oral
Scientific PresentationRobert Anholt: Dazzle 'Em With Style : The Art of Oral Scientific Presentation
Vernon Booth: Communicating in Science: Writing a Scientific Paper and Speaking at Scientific MeetingsVernon Booth: Communicating in Science: Writing a Scientific Paper and Speaking at Scientific Meetings
Richard Olivier: Peak Performance Presentations:Tools & Techniques from the World of the TheatreRichard Olivier: Peak Performance Presentations:Tools & Techniques from the World of the Theatre
Michael Alley: The Craft of Scientific Presentations : Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to AvoidMichael Alley: The Craft of Scientific Presentations : Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to Avoid
Martha Davis: Scientific Papers and PresentationsMartha Davis: Scientific Papers and Presentations
John Daido Loori: The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic LifeJohn Daido Loori: The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life
Edward Tufte: The Visual Display of Quantitative InformationEdward Tufte: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
Edward R. Tufte: Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and NarrativeEdward R. Tufte: Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative
Edward  Tufte: Envisioning InformationEdward Tufte: Envisioning Information
Edward  Tufte: The Cognitive Style of PowerPointEdward Tufte: The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint
Alexis  Gerard: Going Visual: Using Images to Enhance Productivity, Decision-Making and ProfitsAlexis Gerard: Going Visual: Using Images to Enhance Productivity, Decision-Making and Profits
Cliff Atkinson: Beyond Bullet Points: Using  PowerPoint  to Create Presentations That Inform, Motivate, and Inspire Cliff Atkinson: Beyond Bullet Points: Using PowerPoint to Create Presentations That Inform, Motivate, and Inspire

Posted by jmm at 08:27 AM | Comments (0)

Presentation Zen

Presentation Zen is a blog that focuses on "professional presentation design", oriented mostly towards business presentations. But it also seems to have useful thoughts and advice for scholarly communication (in which I include at least communicating with other researchers, and with students, the latter broadly defined).

Posted by jmm at 07:53 AM | Comments (0)