Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Images are Powerful

Using images in your presentations is a powerful way to impart information.  People react emotionally to images, which means they tend to remember information longer than if it is presented as text.  You could list on a slide, for example, various methods you used in your illustrated below.

Or, you could illustrate each of the methods using a photograph, as I've done below.

In the second example, the audience not only gets information about what methods you used, but also additional information about what those methods entailed, which is illustrated in each photo.  The second example takes the same amount of space and time to show, but imparts a great deal more information and is more memorable.  Also, you can more easily explain each method because you have an image that shows the method being used.  In this case, I would animate each image to be brought in sequentially as I described each technique.  This approach works especially well when the information is complex and/or difficult to envision.

Images are very useful for comparing and contrasting information, as shown right.

I recommend building a good library of photographs that illustrate methods, concepts, habitats, events, and various other things that you might need in a presentation.  I usually spend hours in the field simply taking photographs of various aspects of the environment and organisms that might prove useful later.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Preparing for Your Talk

How do you begin to prepare for your conference talk? Do you jump right into Powerpoint and start typing/inserting graphs? Or do you work with pen and paper first?  If you always start at your computer, you might want to try getting away from it in the beginning.

Try using post-its, a whiteboard, or a pen and paper to sketch out your ideas and get them organized into a logical flow. The reason is that often ideas come to you when you are not at your keyboard. Looking at a series of post-its or pages pinned up on your bulletin board tends to jog some neural pathways that may not be stimulated while sitting at your computer.

I will often draw sketches on a notepad of each slide I wish to make or a point I wish to illustrate.  I can get things diagrammed out and organized in a more logical order before attempting to set up the slides in Powerpoint.  The mere act of sketching can trigger ideas or even point out some problems with your initial plan.  I find that these ideas don't necessarily occur to me if I'm just sitting and staring at the computer screen.  There is something about holding a pen and doodling on a piece of paper that works some kind of magic in the brain (maybe it stimulates the other side of your brain from the one you normally use).

The next point to consider when planning your talk is the decision to actually prepare a talk, not a document.  People tend to try to create a Frankenstein mixture of document and presentation.  The slides are crammed with text, dense tables, detailed figures that are more suited to a paper that can be scrutinized at leisure.  This document/presentation does not work for a talk, particularly one that is only fifteen minutes in length.  The audience simply can't take in that much information; the more information you cram onto a slide the lower the audience's understanding and retention of that information.  What you want to strive for is to create a real presentation, one that is only understandable with you present to deliver it. You can use Powerpoint to create documents--but don't try to use them as presentations.

Powerpoint can lead you into some bad habits (for giving talks), so it's important to be aware of this as you begin to design your talk. The templates that Powerpoint encourages you to use are not necessarily the best way to present your information.  Think for yourself and decide whether the default design will really work to get across your points.  One of the biggest issues is with bullet points.  If you must use them, keep the list short and the points briefly identified.  Don't write out each statement you will make and then read them. Your audience can read faster than you can speak, so they will be way ahead of you and will quickly get bored and stop listening.  If possible, use a photo or a diagram or some visual image to illustrate each point you wish to make. This approach will provide a memorable visual image that helps the audience understand and remember better the points.

Using visuals rather than text alone is consistent with a live talk, not a document to be read.  The visuals also make your points more interesting and memorable.  You may even be able to reduce the length of your talk this way by simultaneously listing points and showing images that provide additional information that you don't have to spell out (the audience can see what your laboratory apparatus looks like).

Next post, I'll talk more about the use of images in presentations.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Gaining an Edge

I'm preparing a talk on how to give outstanding presentations entitled, "Rise to the Occasion". So I thought I would mention some of the ideas I will be presenting.

First off, there are a lot of books and articles that focus on techniques, but my talk is less about techniques and more about ideas and approaches to giving presentations. Many people view preparation of presentations as a mundane chore, and, not surprisingly, it shows in the product. My view is that being an effective speaker is a way to differentiate yourself from the crowd. Science is very competitive, and being an effective speaker gives you an advantage.  There are so many things in science that we cannot control, but learning to be a better, more effective speaker is entirely within our control.  Of course, many science practitioners fail to see the importance of being giving excellent talks (some of the older crowd seem to deliberately give poor talks, as if it is expected of a top scientist).  They can get away with it, but if you are a student or post-doc, giving a poor presentation at an important conference or job interview is the kiss of death.

When you stand up in front of an audience, it is your chance to tell the story of why your content is important and why it matters.  Giving a memorable talk is a way to gain an edge over others who either don't bother to develop their speaking skills or who are too fearful to do so effectively.  In some cases, people don't want to stand out and be different and so remain mediocre so as to "blend in". 

For women, who are often at a disadvantage in science fields and find it difficult to "promote" themselves without being criticized, becoming a really good, even great speaker is a way to excel, to surpass expectations, and to surprise people.   

My talk is divided into three parts: preparation, design, and delivery.

There are two important questions to keep in mind when preparing any talk, and you should ponder them from the start.  The first is: what is your central point?  This may seem obvious, but it's surprising how many presentations you will hear that do not answer this basic question. The second is: why does your message matter to the audience? This may also seem obvious, but some speakers find it difficult to answer.  Pondering these two questions is the beginning of putting yourself in your audience's shoes.  They are thinking "so what?", and if you don't answer that unspoken question, they will likely conclude that your information is irrelevant to them.

Another "big picture" point to keep in mind is to strive for simplicity, brevity, and clarity in preparing your presentation. Resist the temptation to cram lots of information into your presentation, clutter up your slides with decorations, excess text, glaring colors. The more clutter, bulk, and erudition confuses the audience's perceptions and stifles their comprehension. Simplicity allows clear and direct attention to the point being made--and that point is more likely to be remembered later.

To check the clarity and brevity of your message, imagine yourself in an elevator with a stranger explaining what your talk is about. Can you get your core idea and why it's important across in 30 to 45 seconds? If you do this before starting to design your slides, it forces you to make your presentation content tighter and clearer; it also gives you a quick spiel to use at the conference mixer.

Next post, I'll give a few more broad guidelines to keep in mind when preparing your presentations and then move on to design.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Administrative Dominance

Academic institutions were once run according to a model in which the faculty had unchallenged authority over areas such as curriculum, research, and hiring.  Professors were considered to be the experts on what should be taught in courses, what the academic standards should be, what research to conduct, etc.

Nowadays, universities are mostly run according to a bureaucratic model in which authority is delegated from the top down, leading to what some have termed "administrative dominance".  This model has crept in from the corporate world and is exemplified by universities that hire administrators without academic backgrounds and who proceed to run academic institutions as if they were businesses.  In the latter model, authority to make decisions (and even to be involved in the decision-making process) is delegated along a chain of command....with the faculty and staff sitting at the bottom.  

Is the bureaucratic model compatible with academic freedom?

If you've been reading the previous blogs about the recent events at Louisiana State University, you will know where I'm heading with this discussion.  Recently, a senior tenured professor at LSU, Dr. Dominique Homberger, was relieved of her position as instructor of an introductory biology class over concerns about her strict grading.  The dean of the school though that her class had too many Ds and Fs and decided to replace her mid-semester.  The relevant aspects of this event were that an administrator 1) intervened in an academic matter, 2) made the decision to remove the professor without any discussion with her and 3) changed the mid-semester grades without her knowledge or input.

The AAUP (American Association of University Professors) has gotten involved in the issue, since this is a blatant violation of academic freedom in the classroom and due process.

The recent issue of Academe, the magazine of the AAUP, has an article about the erosion of faculty authority and the concept of "shared governance".  In the article, the authors Jenkins and Jensen attribute the loss of faculty authority to the bureaucratic model of governance.  The article was focused on community colleges, which was the emphasis of this issue, but their discussion could just as easily have been about 4-year universities.

The problem with the bureaucratic model for academic institutions is that it can interfere with "faculty participation in the decision-making process, even in academic matters." The situation at LSU is obviously the result of the administration not only interfering in academic matters, but doing so without consultation with the faculty member.  The individual administrators were presumably following the bureaucratic model and thought they acted appropriately (based on their interview comments).

Faculty members and the AAUP, however, see this as a violation of academic freedom and are outraged.

This is where "shared governance" comes in.  According to Jenkins and Jensen, true shared governance is based on four principles: faculty authority, inclusiveness, a commitment to tenure, and commitment to the process.  Faculty authority in academic matters is essential because members of the faculty are the experts.  Inclusiveness means that everyone who has a stake in a decision should be at the table: administrators, staff, and students. Commitment to tenure is important because tenured faculty can speak out without fear of losing their jobs, whereas contingent faculty are vulnerable to political manipulation by the administration. Commitment to the process represents a willingness on the part of all participants for shared governance--not just lip-service to the idea by administrators.

Interference by administrators in academic matters is serious and will likely increase as more tenured faculty are replaced by contingent labor who are more vulnerable to coercion--especially likely with the impending future budget cuts by legislatures.  Organizations like the AAUP defend academic freedom and argue that the academic workplace is unique and unlike the for-profit corporate world.

Even though I no longer work at a university, I find this threat to academic freedom scary...because the ultimate result will be a lowering of standards and scholarship, which will eventually affect all of us.