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As a university professor, I attend a lot of scientific conferences and professional workshops. Those events provide some of the best opportunities for researchers to share the results of long hours in the lab or the field with their peers, stakeholders, and the public.

Unfortunately, too many research presentations are confusing, abstract, and boring. And those bad talks have real consequences. They hinder the exchange of ideas, they alienate potential supporters or partners, and they waste a lot of time, money, and energy.

Over the last 7 weeks, I've been working with an amazing group of graduate students who want to break away from 'business as usual' when it comes to presentations. We've experimented with a variety of presentation techniques, talked about what constitutes an effective visual aids, and used simple methods adapted from Hollywood blockbusters to plan our talks.

Next Wednesday afternoon (May 7), these students will demonstrate some of the skills they've developed in a series of rapid-fire 'lightning' talks about their research. They're going to discuss a wide array of topics - including animal conservation, jet engine design, and the future of energy storage. What they all have in common is a desire to communicate their ideas more effectively to several different types of audiences.

This event is open to the public and should be a lot of fun. Please join us!

WHEN
3PM to 4:30PM on Wednesday, May 6, 2014

WHERE
445 Blegen Hall on the University of Minnesota's West Bank campus

SCHEDULE
Times are approximate

3:00 PM
Melinda Kernik (Geography, Environment and Society)
Jon Schwenk (Civil Engineering)
Alexander Reich (Natural Resources Sciences and Management)

3:30PM
Brittany Bennett (Microbiology, Immunology, and Cancer Biology)
Salman Alfifi (Aerospace Engineering)
Laura Cesafsky (Geography, Environment and Society)

4:00PM
Yan Wang (Natural Resources Sciences and Management)
Amanda Meyer (Natural Resources Sciences and Management)
Kai Bosworth (Geography, Environment and Society)

Preparing for Pecha Kucha

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Hi everyone,

We're getting close to the end of the course and I know you're all busy getting your draft Pecha Kucha presentations ready for next week. Remember that the Pecha Kucha format only allows you 20 seconds for each slide in your set, which means you'll need to set your slides to advance automatically. Don't worry if you're not able to fix those settings prior to class; if anyone needs help, we'll set aside time at the beginning of class to get ready.

Of course, planning your talk and developing effective visual aids are just a part of what makes a successful presentation. The most important ingredient is still you, the speaker. And it's not always easy to control our own feelings before and during a talk.

It's easy to feel like 'stage fright' is something that affects only a few people. I think that's wrong and that everyone, to one degree or another, has to deal with nerves prior to any public speaking event. I can tell you that I feel more calm in front of an audience than I did a few years ago. That change is really due to (a) public lectures being a non-negotiable part of my job that I can't avoid and (b) having many chances to practice.

Everyone deals with some degree of anxiety before talks - even people that write books about presentations! You might want to read this recent post by Garr Reynolds on Presentation Zen, which describes his own experience facing down an intense bout of anxiety before a talk.

And remember - you don't need to be perfect to give a great talk. Every presentation includes little mistakes and awkward moments, and that's absolutely fine because that's the way real human beings communicate. Because you've all put so much effort into planning your talk and refining your story, I know we''ll be able to share something really special with each other (and maybe a few guests) next week.

Going off the grid

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Thumbnail image for Lecture 4, Going off the grid.001.jpg

You all get a break from 'presenter's mode' next week, but in lieu of preparing a presentation, I've asked you to start laying the foundation for your Pecha Kucha talk.

Remember, Pecha Kucha talks are organized around the '20x20' structure. There are not many Pecha Kucha-style talks online that deal with a science or research subject, but here are a couple of examples that might be helpful to review.

What, if anything, is Big Bird?

Scale and time

What color is your slide deck?
First, I'd like you to develop a color scheme for your presentation and prepare two slides (only two please) as exemplars. Your slides should include (1) a single quote and (2) a concept or definition (and both should relate to your research). Look at the portfolio of images you assembled last week to choose colors that match the subject of your presentation. Keep your scheme simple - you're only allowed to choose a background color, a main color, and a highlight color. As an aide, you can use this online tool from Adobe - just choose an initial color and it will help you select another one or two as a compliment.

Please upload your slides to the Google Drive (I've made a new folder) no later than 6PM Tuesday.

Grab your pencils and draw
In class we discussed the importance of planning out your talk before you start making visual aids. To help you get started making that plan, I've asked you to roughly sketch out slides for your Pecha Kucha talk. Please keep the unusual format of Pecha Kucha in mind when thinking about your visuals. Remember that each image will only be on screen for 20 seconds, so it will need to be simple enough for you to explain quickly. And because you are only allowed 20 slides, you will have to be judicious in your final selection. (But remember, in your initial plan, you may include a few 'extra' slides to help clarify your argument).

I've attached a 'storyboard' template here to help with this exercise. Please bring two copies of your storyboards to class next week (one to share with a partner and one to give to me).

What's your point?
Finally, the most important part of the planning process is to work out exactly what your main point is. Please write one or two sentences that encapsulates the single most important idea you want your audience to take away from your talk. Bring a printed copy of that too and be prepared to explain that idea to your partner.

We are visual animals

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Your next presentation challenge is to prepare a 5-minute talk on one idea related to your research using only photographs as visual aids.

One idea. Five minutes. 20 photographs. No charts or data visualizations please (that's coming later).

Please do not grab a bunch of pictures through Google Image Search (let's not commit any mass acts of copyright infringement here). Instead, I recommend either obtaining images from a creative-commons site like flickr.com or (and this is the preferred option) use your own photographs to illustrate the places, people, or ideas you study. I hope this exercise will give you the opportunity to build or extend a portfolio of images that will help you explain aspects of your research in this class and beyond.

Like last week, please upload your presentation files to our shared Google Drive no later than 6PM on Tuesday. I'll create a specific folder for your photograph-only presentation files.

I also asked you to complete three other tasks before our meeting next week. First, please read Garr Reynold's blog entry on 'Brain Rules for PowerPoint and Keynote presenters'. I think the section describing the importance of visuals as memory aids will be particularly helpful when you're putting together next week's talk.

Next week, we're going to build upon some of the messages from Todd Reubold about the importance of design. To get prepared for that topic, please read the story of 'Bill Gates and visual complexity'.

Finally, at the beginning of class, we'll be visited by two people from the University of Minnesota's Media Services. Before class, please read one or two recent stories featured on the UM News site. This visit should give us a good opportunity to ask what strategies professionals use to share academic research with the broader society.

Thanks to everyone who's already sent me feedback for the Takahashi presentations. If you're still waiting, please give me your comments no later than 6PM today.

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Lecture 3, How constraints stimulate creativity.040.jpg

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Next week, each of you will give a brief presentation using the 'Takahashi method'. I first learned about this approach through a the 'Presentation Zen' blog, which featured a short post about the method and a nice story about its development.

For your version, I'd like you to focus on one important idea related to your research. Because you'll only have 5 minutes to give your presentation, you'll need to select an idea that is sufficiently narrow to be discussed briefly but is also also accessible to non-experts (the rest of us). Please try your best to respect the constraints of the format: one idea, 20 (big) words, one word per slide, 5 minutes.


Can I use colors, gradients, backgrounds, or other visual flourishes?
In a previous semester, a student asked "I'm writing for clarification regarding the use of font properties for next week's presentation. Do outlines, italics, fills (gradient, texture, image), or other adjustments to the font properties including using brackets or other punctuation overlook the purpose of the exercise?"

My short answer is that I'd prefer you to concentrate on (1) distilling one idea about your work that can be shared in only 5 minutes and (2) the choice of words that will help you reach that goal. If you're able to sort out those two issues to your satisfaction, feel free to experiment with design issues but try not to introduce any elements that will be too distracting. Keep it simple this time. You'll have the chance to unleash your inner designer very soon.


What font should I use?
I mentioned using 'standard' fonts can help avoid common formatting problems that plague presenters using PowerPoint or Keynote. You can scroll through a list of 'safe' fonts that are installed on all Windows or Mac machines right here. If you use construct your presentations using one of these fonts, you should be less likely to run into 'font problems'.


Where do I put my files?
I've just given all of you access to a shared folder on Google Drive. Please upload your presentations (either PowerPoint, Keynote, or PDFs) there no later than 6PM the night before class. Please remember to include your name in the file name (we don't want to end up with a dozen files called 'Takahashi.ppt).

If you run into any problems uploading your file, just post a comment to this entry and we'll likely be able to fix it as a team.


Other jobs for next week
If you followed my suggestion and have a copy of 'Presentation Zen' (remember - better person!), please read Chapter 2 ('Creativity, Limitations, and Constraints) before our next meeting.

Also, at the beginning of next class, we'll talk about the work of Todd Reubold, who is the director of communications and public affairs for the Institute on the Environment. Todd is one of the driving forces behind IonE's online magazine Ensia, and has worked very hard to help scientists at Minnesota become more effective communicators. His presentation 'Fight The Power(Point)' has lit a spark under many of us here and elsewhere. Please look over his slide set (great visuals, but no substitute for his in-the-flesh presentation) and come prepared to discuss his approach to creating presentation superstars.


Bonus
If you're curious what 421 slides in less than 40 minutes looks like, you can see for yourself here: Internet Is Freedom.

Lecture 1, The art of presentations.113.jpg
Hi everyone,

I think we got things off to a great start today. Your comments in the 'welcome' post were just great (if you haven't read the entire set already, you should go check them again) and it's clear everyone is keen to get a little bit better at sharing the things you know best. I'm excited to see what you come up with for next week.

As a reminder, here's a brief description of the two exercises I asked you to complete prior to next class:


Exercise I: Write a biographical sketch of your audience
We talked about the importance of understanding our audience, and the challenge of envisaging our research from someone else's perspective.I'd like each of you to write a brief (300 words or so) biographical sketch of a real audience you may have to face in the future. Alternatively, you can also consider an audience you've addressed in the past and want to reach more effectively.

In your sketch, try to address the '5 big questions' we reviewed in class. What's the setting of your presentation, and who are you addressing? What do they already know about your topic? Are they experts or novices? Where sources do they rely on to get information about your research? What issues are important to them? What preconceptions about your topic or tools that you'll need to fight against?

To support our discussion, you should read 'Communicating Effectively With Politicians'. This article (it's really a speech) was given by a prominent retired politician in Canada who wanted to help scientists get their point across to people who think very differently. [PDF]

Please bring printed copies of your audience sketch to class. We'll exchange them and have a discussion in pairs. After class, I'll ask you to turn them in to me so I can get a better idea of what presentation situations you're likely to find yourself in.


Exercise II: Science poetry slam
I've asked each of you to write a haiku-style poem (5-7-5 structure) that sums up one aspect of your research. As further inspiration, here are a couple of examples of poems shared by students in prior years:

No one knows the law
when half of it is divine,
and half is belief.
- Ben (Geography)

Unable to adapt,
within montane coves they wait
for warmer climate.
- Amy (Ecology, Evolution and Behavior)

In case anyone wants to see the complete haiku version of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the full set of 19 poems can be found here.

Please (i) post your haiku as a comment to this blog entry and (ii) bring a printed copy of your poem to share with a partner in class.

See you next week!

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At some point, all of us are faced with the challenge of talking about our research in public. Whether we're speaking to our colleagues, an audience at a professional conference or even our family and friends, it can be a struggle to get across the results of months (or years!) of work in only a few minutes.

In this seminar, we'll talk about ways to improve scientific or professional communication. More importantly, students will have the chance to experiment with several different presentation methods and see what method works best for them. By the end of the semester, I hope that we'll be better equipped to discuss our research with both experts and non-specialists. I also expect that students will have put together a set of visual aids that they'll be able to use later in conference presentations, job interviews or public outreach.

As a 'pre-work' assignment, I'd like you to read two articles on presentations and professional communication.

The first article is called 'Let there be stoning' [PDF] and was published by the journal Groundwater in the mid 1980s. The tone of the article is pretty aggressive but it makes several good points about problems that you often see at professional conferences.

Second, have a look at 'The cognitive style of PowerPoint' [PDF] by Edward Tufte. Tufte is an Emeritus Professor at Yale University who is widely respected for his writing on information design.

Please read both articles prior to our first meeting; they should provide a sneak-peek of some of the themes we'll discuss over the next few weeks and help you decide if this course is right for you.

See you on March 26, Room 445 Blegen Hall on the West Bank of the Twin Cities campus.

As a university professor, I attend a lot of scientific conferences and professional workshops. Those events provide some of the best opportunities for researchers to share the results of long hours in the lab or the field with their peers, stakeholders, and the public.

Unfortunately, too many research presentations are confusing, abstract, and boring. And those bad talks have real consequences. They hinder the exchange of ideas, they alienate potential supporters or partners, and they waste a lot of time, money, and energy.

Over the last 7 weeks, I've been working with an amazing group of graduate students who want to break away from 'business as usual' when it comes to presentations. We've experimented with a variety of presentation techniques, talked about what constitutes an effective visual aids, and used simple methods adapted from Hollywood blockbusters to plan our talks.

Next Thursday morning (March 7), these students will demonstrate some of the skills they've developed in a series of rapid-fire 'lightning' talks about their research. They're going to discuss a wide array of topics - including animal conservation, jet engine design, and the future of energy storage. What they all have in common is a desire to communicate their ideas more effectively to several different types of audiences.

This event is open to the public and should be a lot of fun. Please join us!

WHEN
10AM to 11:30 on Thursday, March 6, 2014

WHERE
Learning & Environmental Sciences, St. Paul campus, Room 350 (the IonE Commons Room)

SCHEDULE
Times are approximate

10:00 AM
Pieter Gagnon (Mechanical Engineering)
Beth Wenell (Soil, Water and Climate)
Carl Stenoien (Ecology, Evolution and Behavior)
Vanessa Perry (Natural Resources Science and Management)

10:30 AM
Keith Pelletier (Natural Resources Science and Management)
Yixuan Li (Aerospace Engineering)
Megan Kobiela (Ecology, Evolution and Behavior)
Jon Czuba (Civil Engineering)

11:00 AM
Anand Kartha (Aerospace Engineering)
Alexandra Swanson (Ecology, Evolution and Behavior)
Jim Klassen (Natural Resources Science and Management)
Masanori Honda (Aerospace Engineering)

Preparing for Pecha Kucha

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Hi everyone,

I have not yet heard back from IonE about my room request, but I hope to have the location of next week's talks sorted out by the end of today. Once that's been confirmed, I'll post a notice (with a speaker order) on the blog.

In the meantime, I wanted to share the post I mentioned about dealing with anxiety. It doesn't get talked about very often, so it's easy to feel like 'stage fright' is something that affects only a few people. I think that's wrong and that everyone, to one degree or another, has to deal with nerves prior to any public speaking event. I can tell you that I feel more calm in front of an audience than I did a few years ago. That change is really due to (a) public lectures being a non-negotiable part of my job that I can't avoid and (b) practice.

But everyone deals with some degree of anxiety before talks - even people that write books about presentations! You might want to read this recent post by Garr Reynolds on Presentation Zen, which describes his own experience facing down an intense bout of anxiety before a talk.

And remember - you don't need to be perfect to give a great talk. Every presentation includes little mistakes and awkward moments, and that's absolutely fine because that's the way real human beings communicate. Because you've all put so much effort into planning your talk and refining your story, I know we''ll be able to share something really special with each other (and maybe a few guests) next week.

Going off the grid

| No Comments

You guys get a break from 'presenter's mode' next week, but in lieu of preparing a presentation, I've asked you to start laying the foundation for your Pecha Kucha talk.

Remember, Pecha Kucha talks are organized around the '20x20' structure. There are not many Pecha Kucha-style talks online that deal with a science or research subject, but here are a couple of examples that might be helpful to review.

What, if anything, is Big Bird?

Scale and time

What color is your slide deck?
First, I'd like you to develop a color scheme for your presentation and prepare a single slide (just one) as an exemplar. That slide may include either a single quote or a concept (that should relate to your research). Look at the portfolio of images you assembled last week to choose colors that match the subject of your presentation. Keep your scheme simple - you're only allowed to choose a background color, a main color, and a highlight color. As an aide, you can use this online tool from Adobe - just choose an initial color and it will help you select another one or two as a compliment.

Please upload your slide to the Google Drive (I've made a new folder) no later than 6PM Wednesday.

Grab your pencils and draw
In class we discussed the importance of planning out your talk before you start making visual aids. To help you get started making that plan, I've asked you to roughly sketch out slides for your Pecha Kucha talk. Please keep the unusual format of Pecha Kucha in mind when thinking about your visuals. Remember that each image will only be on screen for 20 seconds, so it will need to be simple enough for you to explain quickly. And because you are only allowed 20 slides, you will have to be judicious in your final selection. (But remember, in your initial plan, you may include a few 'extra' slides to help clarify your argument).

I've attached a 'storyboard' template here to help with this exercise. Please bring one copy of your storyboards to share with a partner next week (and make a copy to give to me).

What's your point?
Finally, the most important part of the planning process is to work out exactly what your main point is. Please write one or two sentences that encapsulates the single most important idea you want your audience to take away from your talk. Bring a printed copy of that too and be prepared to explain that idea to your partner.

Next week's guest
Finally, as a reminder, next week we'll be joined by Professor Jim Hilbert from the William Mitchell College of Law. Jim is a lawyer and law professor who is one of the main drivers behind an NSF-sponsored workshop aimed at making scientists communicate more effectively. Jim is really excited to meet you guys next week, so please think about what questions you'd like to ask a lawyer about communication (for free, even!).

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