Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Brussel Sprouts and PowerPoint

Brussel Sprouts have a bad reputation. Many people don't like them, because the primary way of cooking them in the past was to boil them, and when you boil brussel sprouts it is not very pretty. There has been a renaissance in sprouts as of late as people starting roasting them with a bit of olive oil and salt. They taste (and smell) infinitely better this way. The problem was not the sprouts - it was how we used the spouts.

Powerpoint is in the same boat as brussel sprouts. Most of us have sat through egregious powerpoint presentations. Edward Tufte has railed against them and Saba.ology has touched on this subject. However powerpoint is a tool. It is not powerpoint that makes bad presentation, it is people that make bad presentations. John Foreman, on his blog, gives an excellent analysis of this, as well as the biases that informs Tufte's stand.

Having been a consultant to the federal government for a number of years, it was hard to not hear about Edward Tufte. The style of communication used by government consultants and their clients (particularly the military) are anathema to the longtime information design,data viz luminary. So when I was at Booz Allen, my team used to think about his perspective as a counterpoint to how we built data visualization products.
Today, I had the privilege of attending one of Tufte’s training sessions in person. I along with a few hundred other folks gathered in a hotel ballroom for a 6 hour tour of his many books and theories. 
He’s got awesome points. Let me summarize some that will be pertinent to this blog post:
1) Humans have a good vision system. So we shouldn’t hide data (especially related data) behind hierarchical layers. Rather, data should all be displayed on a single canvas where readers can delve into it and digest it with speed. If data points are related, then that relationship can be called out by allowing the data to share space. To emphasize these points he contrasted the National Weather Service’s  local forecast website with most corporate websites (using an XKCD comic to underline his point). 
The NWS uses simple, intuitive dumps of data, and they plop it all on one page, whereas many websites would hide this amount of info behind layers and layers that “disrupt the signal.” As Tufte puts it in one of his books:  
“Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when the relevant evidence is shown adjacent in space within our eyespan.” 
In order words, it’s the author’s job to serve up the data on a broad platter, and it’s the reader’s job to chop it up and make sense of it. Data should not be served precut in bitesize chunks a la Chinese food.  For what it's worth, I think the NWS website is ugly as balls, but that’s neither here nor there for this post.
2) The audience of a presentation should be given data and reading upfront (Tufte loves paper) and allowed to digest data at their speed.  As he puts it in his book Beautiful Evidence:
“It is helpful to provide audience members with at least one mode of information that allows them to control the order and pace of learning – unlike slides and unlike talk.” 
3) Visual adornment for the sake of visual adornment in data presentations should be avoided. He calls this “chart junk.” Amen! Here’s a great animation that drives this point home
Those were the three well-reasoned takeaways for me. But he had a forth point he kept hitting over and over...
PowerPoint is Evil
When I say that Tufte thinks PowerPoint is evil, I’m not making a joke. Tufte  argues that visual communication is a “moral and ethical” undertaking for the presenter. To chop up information between slides, force readers to drill down, hide relationships by separating them on disparate slides,  slow down information transfer by minimizing words on a slide (low information density and throughput) is to communicate dishonestly. 
The use of PowerPoint to split apart data and ideas and deliver them piecemeal to an audience is an amoral power play. I disagree. 
Brussel Sprouts & Why Slides Don't Kill People, People Kill People
Brussel sprouts have had for a very long time a bad reputation. On after school cartoons (Rugrats comes to mind), they always ranked up there with liver as dreaded food items. Why? Because if you boil them, they’re foul. And for years and years, that’s how they were prepared in the U.S. But these days, brussel sprouts are making a comeback. Every new restaurant I go to from hipster speakeasies to lawyerly steakhouses is putting them back on the menu. What changed? The preparation. They’re not boiled any more. They’re often split and roasted with olive oil  and served with salt, lemon, goat cheese, pine nuts, parmesan, etc. It's delicious. Brussel sprouts were never the problem. People were the problem. They were preparing them wrong. 
PowerPoint is the same.  
About halfway through Tufte’s presentation, I noticed that much of his time was spent flipping through slides. He showed a slide of this beautiful graphic beautiful graphic from the New York Times and then he flipped to a slide of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposalfor creating the internet and so on. His slides were single, information-dense graphics. Nothing that couldn’t go on a PowerPoint slide.  So really his problem isn’t with PowerPoint then is it? It’s with how the enterprise uses PowerPoint. What he’s really criticizing is not PowerPoint as a tool, but rather the default use of PowerPoint by an old guard. When I create a new PowerPoint deck, the first thing I do is delete the title and text box of the default sheet and start with a blank slate. Then I build up slides not much different from those I saw Tufte present.  
“But wait!” you might say, “The fact that the default slide in PowerPoint has a bulleted list PROVES that it’s intended for evil!” The default preparation instructions on the side of my bag of store-prepped and washed brussel sprouts are to boil them. Does that make sprouts inherently evil? Nah. Just ignore it and use the tool/vegetable how you wish. 
What’s wrong with POWER?
In Beautiful Evidence, Tufte calls PowerPoint “pushy” and “tends to set up a dominance relationship between speaker and audience, as the speaker makes power points with hierarchical bullets to passive followers.”  I heard a lot of language like this today. PowerPoint in its default use was equated to no less than the figurehead of hegemony himself – Dick Cheney.  
Hey, I get it. I’m all for active listening, especially in film and television. That’s why I’m such a huge fan of reference-based rapid-fire dramadies like Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars. They make the reader work and pay attention in ways that inane laugh track garbage can't. 
But let's follow some other bits of Tufte's logic and see where we end up. One thing that Tufte kept saying was “if you want to play with the big boys,” you’ll get rid of PowerPoint. And his biggest boy of all was Apple. Tufte loves him some Apple products. He feels that the iPad in using a touch screen (doing away with interface elements such as pointers and scroll bars) has freed up more visual space for data. Good point. That’s awesome. Tufte pointed out that, naturally, Apple does not use PowerPoint in their meetings. Indeed, Steve Jobs dropped the f-bomb four times in one sentence when discussing PowerPoint with him. Go Steve! 
But wait.  
How can Tufte align himself with Steve Jobs? Jobs is the antithesis of open-canvas, all-on-one-slide, read-ahead data communication. While Tufte criticizes PowerPoint presentations as “aggressive” and “over-managed,” there is no more over-managed presentation than a Jobs presentation. Don't believe me? Read here. 
There’s even a word for Jobs' highly controlled, authoritarian presentation style: the  Stevenote.
And the hallmark of the Stevenote was one more thing.” 
The act of declaring “one more thing” at the end of a presentation is inherently opposed to Tufte. It’s all about keeping information back, not laying it on a canvas, not putting it in front of the audience. The relationship is not one of "respectful teacher and student" but one of king and awestruck subject. But if Jobs’ method of presenting is so reprehensible, as I'd hope Tufte would admit, then why is he lauded as one of the most effective presenters of all time?
We Present to Convince
For Tufte, the objective of a presentation is maximum data throughput. The speedy, digestible transmission of data to the audience. Hierarchy and layers just get in the way of a data buffet.
But for Jobs and indeed for many presenters, this is a secondary concern.  The primary concern is to make an argument. (A sales pitch is an argument). Tufte is an academic. He said over and over again that the best examples of his philosophy can be seen in scientific and mathematical literature. In these contexts, data speaks for itself. 
But in Jobs’ context, an argument is made not by vomiting data before the audience but by teasing it out in just the right way. Save the best for last. This is no different than a comedian timing punch lines perfectly. A comedian would never give you the jokes on a “high density paper read-ahead.” That’d spoil the presentation! 
Wrapping This Up
So those are my two main reasons for why Tufte is wrong about PowerPoint:
  • He uses the enterprise's typical use of PowerPoint as a straw man for PowerPoint itself
  • Not all presentations are given for the sole purpose of transmitting raw data. And when this is not the case, the style of information delivery can affect the outcome of the meeting.
That said, Tufte seemed to like Excel. Which we all know I freaking love. So I’m still a fan. Now on to make some PowerPoint slides for my talk in Arkansas next week.

Monday, January 27, 2014


One of the most powerful techniques in making our talks flow and removing hesitation is chunking. Many of might do this instinctively. However if we focus on this and make a concerted effort to do even more of this, it can make a quantum improvement in our speaking. Here is the explanation from SciBlogs.

Listen to past and present world leaders like Barack Obama, Tony Blair and even George W. Bush and you’ll hear a particular speech-making tool in action – chunking.
I was introduced to chunking today at a presentation at the Foo Camp “unconference” held at Mahurangi College just out of Warkworth by Olivia Mitchell, a speech expert with Effective Speaking.
She had a room full of scientists and technologists who had similar hang-ups when it came to getting across often highly-technical concepts in speeches to laypeople.
Many in the room talked of getting tongue-tied, using fillers like “um” and “ah” to fill awkward silences and talking too fast due to nerves. For myself, I’m definitely familiar with the latter, particularly in front of large crowds, when the presentation can feel like a hurtling train ride to the final slide. The only time things seem to slow down is when there’s a glitch with the presentation or your computer crashes – in which case a few seconds can feel like a minute.
Enter the method of chunking, which is designed to slow down your speech, give you time to think and your audience time to absorb what you are saying.
The key to chunking is to think about how you want to break up your sentences to deliver aspects of the concept you are explaining. Talking for a few seconds followed by a pause of a second, then another burst of speech and so on, is an effective way to deliver an impactful speech without becoming flustered and adding in those clunky and noticeable fillers.
It takes a bit of getting used to, but after a few tries in the session today, I was talking fairly smoothly in chunks about a fairly complex science-related topic. The regular pausing means you can collect your thoughts to find the right words to start your next sentence and means you are lest likely to ramble on just to fill dead air, which the public speaker naturally dreads.
Chunking teaches you to make good use of regular pauses, which also allows you to pause for impact as you let your audience absorb your words.
Tony Blair is apparently the master of chunking, as numerous Youtube clips illustrate. Blair earns in the region of $600,000 per public speaking engagement, such is the effectiveness and impact of his speeches. He had extensive training in the art of chunking early in his political career.
Mitchell touched on an aspect of speech delivery that is particularly distracting and unfortunately, fairly common among public speakers in New Zealand – the high rising change in tone at the end of a sentence. It’s particularly common among females apparently. Here’s Mitchell’s tip to avoid doing it – think about the end of the sentence – where you want to end up with this particular chunk of speech. If you know the final words you are going to deliver in the sentence, you will have more confidence in the style in which you delivering, eliminating the uncertain, questioning tone that the rise in tone suggests.
We only had a short workshop with Mitchell, but I’ll be working on my chunking ahead of my next presentation!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Made to Stick in Bal Mandal - an Example

A young bal sanchalak wrote up how he used the SUS principles to give a talk on yoga (from several months ago) in Bal 2. Notice the creative use of unexpected and using activities along with stories to drive the point home. This sounds like a great Bal 2 sabha. 

I started with displaying a quick video of Austin Rivers’s buzzer beater and then  another small video of the Top Ten Dunks in the NBA. After these clips we had a discussion on which video was more enjoyable and thrilling. The answer of most of the balaks was what I expected: The Austin Rivers’s video. That was my unexpected. I had them discussing things with me and they were not really sure what the main topic was going to be. 
The tough part came next when through the discussion I introduced the SIMPLE of my presentation. First was to understand why the buzzer beater video clip was more enjoyable. One of the older balaks had a very straightforward response, it is harder to do and thrilling to watch. He also mentioned that it was harder to do because in the NBA many people can dunk the ball, but not many people can perfectly time their shot to make it a buzzer beater and beat their rival team. After this answer I asked them as to why Austin Rivers is able to do such incredible feats. Most of the answers were very common such as practice and hard work.
However the simple was introduced through another video clip of Austin Rivers giving an interview in which he mentions  that he listens to concentration music to enhance his abilities to focus and to keep his mind calm and collected during pressure situations.
The next section was stories and exercises to enhance this main point of concentration and focus. I asked all the Balaks to list some things people do to keep calm. The foremost answers were concentration music and exercises, leading into my next assignment. I put on some concentration music, and gave them a yogic exercise to complete, the Bee Posture. After the completion of this, I invited a few kids up to the front of the room to attempt to complete some yogic postures. These yogic postures are now also completed monthly during our BST sessions. Lastly, I concluded my presentation by informing the balaks that when you want to do anything, be it play sports or concentrate for studying, it is always best to calm your mind before you start. I also mentioned that the procedures learned were not the only procedures for calming the mind, and that there are many other things one can attempt to do so. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Presenter Pointers #6: SMS in Sabha

Every Sunday (or Saturday), Sabhaologists are on the field monitoring, observng, and analyzing presentations. This series brings to light their observations and points of improvement in a bite-sized blog post.

This week in kishore/kishori sabha, we looked at the concept of upasana. One presenter wanted to see how much his message would be perceived by the audience, so he started off his sabha with a common scenario:

One of your classmates asks you, "What do Hindus believe?" Answer this question in one sentence, and text me your number (or e-mail if you don't have data).

Most of the audience had smartphones and happily obliged at an unexpected chance to interact with their phone. It also made the presentation personal when the presenter read off some of the responses he received.

At the end, he repeated the same question to see how individuals changed their responses, and of course, he included Swamishri's response in Cleveland when asked the exact same question by a local newspaper reporter in 1984,

"To live a pure life of good character, believe oneself as atma (the soul), and then worship God. (Paramatma)."