27 January 2006

The Zen of Presentation, Part 2: It's all about you

If ever there was a presentation where the visual would completely dominate the presentation, it was a talk I saw at least ten years ago at the University of Victoria by one of the people who was closely involved in the cleaning of Michelangelo's frescos on the Sistine Chapel. The slides (and this was still before PowerPoint had killed slide carousels; these were real 35 mm film slides) were, of course, glorious. When the first one went up, showing one of the frescos before and after cleaning, the whole audience let out an audible gasp.

The speaker paused and said, "You are a good audience."

I remember him. I remember his dry sense of humour, his Italian accent, his self-deprecation. At one point, he showed a video of the cleaning where he was seated, watching someone else work, and joked when he gestured in the video about the hard work he had to do supervising. (He had lifted his hand, pointed, and set it back down.) I remember an answer he gave to a questions from an audience member about how remove plaster that had been added to censor nudes; he said they would not even try it, because that would not be true to the spirit of Michelangelo's work.

I wish I could remember his name, but that's not really the point. I remember him and what he had to say.

Extraordinary talks are almost never extraordinary because of the slides. They're memorable because of the personality of the speaker and the story he or she has to tell.

It's not just me saying this. About this time last year, I was teaching a seminar class. I asked the students to name someone that they thought was a good speaker, and tell me why they admired that particular person. It was very interesting. Their responses fell into a few broad categories. Enthusiasm. Humour. Expertise. Sincerity.

"Great visual aids" or "great slides" never came up. Not once.

The point came up again when I was at the SICB meeting earlier this month. One of the most popular talks was by Steve Vogel, who studies biomechanics, and is well-known for his intoxicatingly clear writing on books like Life's Devices. I had never seen him speak before, though I was always impressed by his prose. I was not surprised that there was standing room only for his talk, which was in one of the bigger rooms. He was talking about ballistic trajectories, and how biological organisms don't really follow classic physics of things being shot. And it was an excellent talk, delivered with a great sense of fun.

In discussing talks with some of the people I met, I mentioned my theory that the visual aids are really secondary. Dmitri (a Russian grad student now in Canada) commented on Vogel's talk, "If you just looked at the slides, you'd think it was a pretty ordinary talk." And he was right; none of them really stood out. It was his personality and clarity that shone through when he talked.

I'll explore a variation on this theme in part three of this erratic series.

26 January 2006

Is the eleventh time the charm?

I just had my eleventh proposal to the National Science Foundation submitted. I've had nine rejections so far, but maybe this will be the lucky one. Though I doubt it, as I was so strapped for time that I just never quite got around to phoning the program director, which everyone tells me is key to getting a proposal funded.

Yet I persist anyway.

Also whipped together an internal proposal for equipment money. Also spent a good chunk of today trying to fix a mess concerning graduate student pay and experimenting with a new voice recorder for podcasting and getting tomorrow's lecture up and running... and so it goes.

The fun never stops.

21 January 2006

The Zen of Presentations, Part 1: You’re showing, not editing

A blog I’ve really been enjoying late – and the title has nothing to do with my enjoyment – is Presentation Zen. I’ve already found much of use, and such thoughtful writing is always a delight. In my business, I think a lot about presentations. I have to lecture somewhere between three to nine times a week, and I have to admit, being able to give a talk at a conference or at a seminar or someplace is one of the things that sometimes keeps me going.

The funny thing is, I’ve often said to students, “Giving a good talk is not one of life’s great mysteries.” There are certain traps that can be easily avoided, so I am always puzzled by why so many talks I’ve seen suck. Yet while I do believe giving a talk isn’t a mystery, mastery of presentation skills is much trickier.

One of the things you have to do as an academic is to figure out what you do not suck at. I’m reasonably certain I do not suck at giving talks. My recent experience at the SICB meeting is the sort of thing that makes me believe presenting is something I’m reasonably good at. I had quite a few conversations about presentations with fellow attendees at that meeting. I thought I would use this journal as a way to start putting some of these down as a resource. So thoughts on presentations will be a semi-regular feature for a while.

On to this entry’s tip. A real simple one (because I’m up late and should probably go to bed or something).

1. Take advantage of *.pps

Much has been written about the ubiquity of PowerPoint, and how badly people use it. Edward Tufte, for instance, published a little pamphlet on just that matter that’s already sold through once. Since PowerPoint isn’t going away, I do wish that people would take a little more time to learn how to use it.

When you save a PowerPoint file, there are actually several options. 99% of people that I’ve seen save the file with the default extension, *.ppt. But if you scroll down a few, you find a very useful option: PowerPoint Show (*.pps). You can open this file in PowerPoint and edit it just like a *.ppt file. But if you double click the file or shortcut directly, something wonderful happens.

The slide show starts.

That’s it. Simple. But I wish more people would take advantage of it.

If you double click on a *.ppt file, it opens PowerPoint, in some configuration of editing panes. You can typically see a whole bunch of slides on the sorter tray, menus, and more – which I as an audience member don't care about. Sometimes, as a presenter, I don't want someone to have the slightest clue about what my upcoming slides are until they see them – but opening up a *.ppt file often blows a surprise out of the water.

Then after you’ve opened up PowerPoint to start your *.ppt show, you then have to start the thing. Then I, as an audience member, have to wait through the boring process of watching someone trying to hit a little tiny icon in the lower left hand corner of the screen, or run around trying to find a menu option. (Very few people know you can just hit F5 to start.) It always seems like the operator is fumbling to get the thing started.

Finally, because you don’t have to fiddle around trying to start the show within PowerPoint, you’re saving a few precious seconds. That doesn’t sound like much, but in a conference situation where there are many speakers and time limits are enforced, those few seconds of efficiency should not be underestimated.

Credit where it’s due: I have to thank my colleague Bob Edwards for drawing my attention to this little trick.

19 January 2006


I have felt very reactive this week, particularly the last couple of days. It seems like there's someone walking into my office wanting to talk to me. And while I don't mind talking to people, lots of things are just not getting done! This graduate program thing in particular is taking up far more time than anticipated.

Well, I guess that's what weekends are for: to catch up...

16 January 2006


Not yet. But I am spending a lot more time than I expected trying to get everything updated for General Biology, and introductory course I've done many times before. This time, though, we have a new textbook, and I'm working hard to try to pull a lot of available resources from the publisher into my class website, for instance. And that isn't easy.

There's a grant deadline due next week, too.

Going home now. I think. (I was planning to leave an hour ago...)

12 January 2006

Lab photo from SICB 2006

Zen's lab at SICB 2006I was very pleased to finally be able to take students with me to a meeting. This picture shows our SICB poster, Sandra (first author on the poster) on the left, and my HHMI undergraduate student Veronica on the right. I was very pleased that for once, the instructions gave the exact right size of the poster boards! Our massive poster fit like a hand in a glove in its space, as you can see. I haven't always been so lucky, and have had poster edges dangling off poster boards before. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Third International Tunicate Conference organizers!)

Besides boasting about our poster and my students, posting this picture gives me a good excuse to test Blogger's picture loading, which seems to work fairly well. Click on the picture to enlarge.

Who's the joke on?

Our current provost, Rodolfo Arevalo, starts his new job at Eastern Washington University on April 1st. Hmmmmm...

10 January 2006

Ah, Rudy, we hardly knew ya...

A guy goes away for a few days, and suddenly everything is topsy turvey.

Our provost, Rudolfo Arevalo, is leaving to become the 25th president of Eastern Washington University. I wish him a speedy transition to his new institution. While Arevalo has done some very positive things for our institution, he's done it in an amazingly heavy-handed manner that he alienated a lot of people.

New president a couple of years ago, now a new provost. With Arevalo's departure, only a few of the "old guard" at our campus is still around. We'll see if the revolution continues.

Home again, home again, jiggedy jig

I spent the last week in Orlando at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology conference. I gave a talk which went very well. First, almost everyone I talked to remembered my talk title -- "Do shovel-nosed lobsters shovel with their noses?" -- so I can take some pride in finding a title with a high stickiness factor. My presentation also was very well received, with one person calling it "inspiring," (or perhaps inspirational, I can't exactly remember) and another person saying, "I hope you teach," and saying she thought my passion "went through the room" and infected others. I have to say that after spending almost two months thinking about that presentation, and then boom, having it all over in 15 minutes, you milk those compliments for as long as you possibly can.

Also, my grad student Sandra gave a poster which was also well received. We did quite a bit of useful networking, including with an associate editor of the journal to which we plan to submit the paper, who gave us some very good and helpful advice. It will be a while before we find out if she managed to make her way into the finals of The Crustacean Society's best student poster competition.

I have been back in town now for a little over 12 hours after about a week with only one brief internet session, and am playing the inevitable game of catch-up. More on the conference later!

02 January 2006

Was 2005 real?

It's seems a bit of a shame that a couple of the biggest science stories of the year were about fake science. The year closed out with accusations of massive scientific fraud in Korean stem cell research (see articles here). Another big science-related story was the continuing fight over intelligent design. I make no bones that I am excited about the results of a recent court case (extensively covered at The Panda's Thumb) which says (among other things) in no uncertain terms, "Intelligent design ain't science."

Although it's easy to be cynical about the widespread peddling of -- I was about to type "disinformation," but I think I'll be blunt and call them "lies" -- that these stories represent, there is good news to both of them. Systems in place to check these thing worked. Investigation uncovers possible fraud. A trial recognizes when people are trying to push religious belief under the disguise of science.

Looking at the evidence seems to work -- although there are certainly times I wished it worked a bit faster.

2006 so far

I was over in Wal-Mart looking for some stuff, and they had taken down all the Christmas decorations in one section of the store that I walk through. What's replaced it? Barbecue supplies. I kid you not. It seems utterly appropriate considering that the temperature was 30°C on New Year's Day. Just a portent what I have to look forward to this year: heat, heat, heat.

On the other side of looking forward to 2006, though, I have two papers to be published in the next couple of months, which means that 2006 is already shaping up to be a decent year for me, publication wise. My all time record was four papers in one year, and that was the year after I finished my Ph.D. Two is about average, so I'm hoping I can push things above average in the later months of the year.

Meanwhile, I'm just getting my goodies ready to fly to Florida tomorrow to attend the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting. I've been to this conference once before and liked it a lot. So I'd better get back to putting a couple of final finishing touches on that talk!