Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Crash Course Astronomy - a series of short instructional videos by Phil Plait

In January Phil Plait began delivering a series of ten to twelve minute long introductory lectures about astronomy that were recorded by PBS Digital Studios and released as YouTube videos. They just released a humorous video of outtakes. Watch at the one-minute mark, as Phil tries different hand gestures for showing the orientation of the Earth’s axis.    

Topics so far in this series are:

#1    Introduction to Astronomy

#2    Naked Eye Observations

#3    Cycles in the Sky

#4    Moon Phases

#5    Eclipses

#6    Telescopes

#7    The Gravity of the Situation

#8    Tides

#9    Introduction to the Solar System

#10  The Sun

Back in 2011 Phil also gave a TED talk on How to defend Earth from Asteroids.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Floating fear statistics with no visible support

On March 16, 2015 at Psychology Today Beverly D. Flaxington blogged about Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking. She gave six good tips to build self-confidence.

But, I wish she had omitted her first paragraph which said:

“Afraid of speaking in public? If so, you are in good company. Statistically speaking, 3 out of every 4 people fear public speaking, and women are susceptible to it more than men, with 75% and 73% of self-identified sufferers respectively. Speech anxiety is so common that there is a formal term for it – glossophobia.”

I cringe every time I see phrases like:

“Statistically speaking...”
“Statistics say...”
“Statistics tell us...”

because they are followed by nebulous numbers floating above us with no visible support. Typically there is no explicit reference we can check on to see whether they are real or just nonsense. But, in this case I already know where those numbers came from  - a page at the Statistic Brain web site. In 2014 I blogged about how Statistic Brain is just a statistical medicine show, and that those numbers are not from where they claimed. There is no information about the sample sizes, and therefore no way to determine the margin of error, and to decide if the gender difference between 75% and 73% is significant or not.  

Back in 2013 I blogged about How scary is public speaking or performance? A better infographic showing both fears and phobias. I noted that for U.S. adults 21.2% have a fear and only 10.7% have a phobia, which are drastically lower than the ~74% Beverly mentioned.

In another blog post on December 11, 2013 I discussed why glossophobia is not a useful formal term for describing speech anxiety.

The image was adapted from one of Thurston the magician at the Library of Congress.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

What’s your speaking style more like: Teppanyaki, Flambé, or Flying Greens?

My last post, Sizzle or Steak? Both!, got me thinking about restaurants and how having a unique speaking style (perhaps involving props) can add to your presentations. At one extreme is teppanyaki, the Japanese steakhouse typified in the U.S. by the Benihana restaurant chain. The chef puts on a big show of grilling the meal in front of his waiting customers. (On Saturday Night Live John Belushi parodied it in a comedy skit called Samurai Hit Man). It takes a lot of equipment to manage this. The speech equivalent would be a motivational speaker doing a multimedia spectacular in a large venue.

Less equipment is required for flambé, a table side flaming style involving igniting liqueur like for the Crêpe Suzzette dessert shown above. (The Greek restaurant cheese version is flaming saganaki). Both still are fancy productions involving added equipment and fire risks.

The most minimal but ingenious style is a Thai stir-fry dish called Flying Greens. It was described back in 1989 in a book called Madhur Jaffrey’s Far Eastern Cookery. Reportedly a young chef in an open-air restaurant up in Phitsanulok had been preparing swamp cabbage (pak bung) with garlic and oyster sauce. He tried tossing the greens up in the air from his wok before serving them. Soon he was throwing them for 20 feet. Finally he began throwing them across the street, where his partner adroitly caught them on a serving platter, and grandly presented them to waiting customers. There’s no extra equipment here at all, just teamwork. 

During his lectures MIT physics professor Walter Lewin did something different by sometimes pushing rather than pulling the chalk in his hand. The fourth most commonly viewed post on this blog is about How can you easily draw dotted chalk lines on a blackboard?

Images of Benihana, Crêpe Suzette, and a wok all came from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Sizzle or steak? Both!

Suppose you’ve just been served steak fajitas on a hot comal, as shown above. What’s more important - the sizzle or the steak? That’s obviously a false dichotomy, since the sizzle can’t make up for if the steak is rubbery or has an off flavor.

Nevertheless, Diane DiResta posed the question in a March 17th blog post titled Public Speaking: Does Sizzle Matter More Than The Steak? As shown above, you really need both style and substance to make a great speech.

But it still is very amusing to see what can be done with style minus any substance. Watch comedian Will Stephen’s six-minute TEDx New York presentation, How to Sound Smart in Your TEDx Talk, which Diane pointed out in her blog post. It’s a brilliant parody of the typical TED style.   

Here is a transcript:

Hear that? That’s nothing. Which is what I, as a speaker at today’s conference, have for you all. I have nothing, nada, zip, zilch,zippo. Nothing smart, nothing inspirational, nothing even remotely researched at all. I have absolutely nothing to say whatsoever. 

And yet, through my manner of speaking, I will make it seem like I do. Like what I am saying is brilliant. And maybe, just maybe, you will feel like you’ve learned something. 

Now, I’m going to get started with the opening. I’m going to make a lot of hand gestures. I’m going to do this with my right hand. I’m going to do this with my left. I’m going to adjust my glasses. And then I’m going to ask you all a question. By show of hands, how many of you all have been asked a question before? Ok, great, I’m seeing some hands. And again, I have nothing here.

Now, I’m going to react to that, and act like I’m telling you a personal anecdote. Something to break the tension, something to endear myself a little bit, something kind of, uh, embarrassing. Ha, ha, ha, ha. And you guys are going to make an aah sound. It’s true, it really happened.

And now, I’m going to bring it to a broader point. I’m going to really back in. I’m going to make it intellectual. I’m going to bring it to this man, right here. Now, what this man did was important, I’m sure, but I for one have no idea who he is. I simply Google Image-d the word “scientist.”  And now, you see, I’d like it to seem like I’m making points, building an argument, inspiring you to change your life, when in reality this is just me buying time.

Now, if you don’t believe me, let’s take a look at the numbers. This is a real thing that’s happening right now. The number of talks that I’m giving is one. Interesting facts imparted thus far in said talk, well that’s going to be a zero. My height, in inches, is 70.5. Note the 0.5 there.

Two times six equals twelve, and then interestingly enough six times two also equals twelve. That’s math! 352 is a three-digit number. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and then almost immediately following that we get 6, 7, 8, 9,10. Now, to add more filler here, I’m going to give you another couple numbers to consider. 18, 237, 5,601, 2.6 million. 4, 4, 24, staggering. These are real numbers, all of them.

And, to follow that up, let’s take a look at some graphs. Now, if you take a look at this pie chart, what you’re going to see is that the majority far exceeds the minority. Everybody see that? Cool, isn’t it? And, let’s take a look at this bar graph, cause it shows similarly irrelevant data.

Now, I’m doing this because I’d like to make it seem like I’ve done my homework. If you were, say, watching this on YouTube with the sound off, you might think, ha, ok, this guy knows what he’s talking about. But I don’t. I’m floundering, panicking. I’ve got nothing. I’m a total and utter phony. But, you know what, I was offered a TED talk. And, dammit, I’m going to see it through.

Now, if you take a look behind me, these are just words paired with vaguely thought-provoking stock photos. I’m going to point at them like I’m making use both of my time as well as your time, but in reality I don’t know what half of them mean.

And now, as these continue, I’m just going to start saying gibberish. Wagga-wa, gabba-gabba, turkey, mouth-in-a-mouth. Chip, trip, my dog Skip. Rip it and dip it, Richard. I’m an itty-bitty-baby-bopper, and I’m hungry in my tum-tum. Brad Pitt, Uma Thurman.

Names, things, words, words, and more things. And, see, it feels like it might make sense, doesn’t it? Like maybe, just maybe, I’m building to some sort of satisfying conclusion. I mean, I’m gesticulating as though I am. I’m pacing, I’m growing in intensity. I’m taking off my glasses, which by the way are just frames. I wore them to look smart, even though my vision is perfect.

And now, I’m going to slow things down a little bit. I’m going to change the tone. I’m going to make it seem like I’m building to a moment. And, what if I was? Amazing, isn’t it! What can you do? Life’s a roller coaster! You know, if there’s one thing you take away from my talk, I’d like you to think about what you heard at the beginning. And, I’d like you to think about what you hear now. Because it was nothing, and it’s still nothing. Think about that. Or don’t, that’s fine. And now I’m going to stop talking.

The image of Chi-Chi’s Fajitas Beef by Mehlen Romain came from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Lecterns are not foolproof

John C. Maxwell has written a bunch of books including the 2010 Everyone Communicates, Few Connect: What the Most Effective People Do Differently. Watch this 4-minute YouTube video in which he struggles with ~$50 music stands provided as lecterns. Ad copy for similar stands claims:

“Easy, automatic no-knob friction-tilt neck delivers constant tension at any tilt position.”

But, it doesn’t say there will be enough tension to handle a one-pound Bible, and there isn’t. John finally gives up and tries something else (since even healing didn't work). He never gets around to finishing the joke he started to tell. Of course, the guy who complains about getting the bologna sandwiches packs his own lunches.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Writer’s block is like getting your car stuck in mud up to the axles

What comes next? First you need to get unstuck and somehow write a first draft. Why might you get stuck? In a 2013 blog post titled Speech Preparation #4: wrestling writer’s block to write the first draft Andrew Dlugan suggested that the deadly combination is a lack of direction plus perfectionism.

In a March 18th post on his Speak & Deliver blog Rich Hopkins discussed Shatter Your Writer’s Block Pt I: Speechwriting in Reverse. His approach is to practice a speech from a mental or written outline and record it. Then he transcribes to produce his written draft. That’s not how I do it, but there is no best way for everyone. I have blogged about how to Use a storyboard to organize your presentation

Then you can begin editing your draft. In her 1995 book Bird by Bird writer Anne Lamott reminds us that:

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something - anything - down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft - you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft - you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even God help us, healthy.”

Along the way, ask yourself:

A)   Do I have too few points or too many?

B)   Did I cover them with too little detail or too much?

C)   Does the structure for my speech make sense?

The mired car image came from the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Can you get over fear of public speaking by taking up skydiving?

Perhaps. That interesting suggestion was the topic for last Wednesday’s Savage Chickens cartoon titled Fear Cure.

The other chicken countered that you could just as well get over fear of skydiving by taking up wrestling grizzly bears. (But, they might bite your head off).

The 1896 poster of grizzly wrestling came from the Library of Congress.