Thursday, December 29, 2011

How can you easily draw dotted chalk lines on a blackboard?

On Monday I discussed the hour-long video celebrating Professor Walter Lewin’s book For the Love of Physics. During the question and answer period (at 52:30), one of his former students comments:

“So, I sat in on your lectures here, I think about twenty years ago, and I’d forgotten one thing that I learned from you was how to draw dotted lines on chalkboards - which I actually used myself when I was a professor (at Northwestern) for some number of years , so very useful skill.”

Then he asks how did your lectures evolve over time? Professor Lewin replies:

“I think I was always eccentric. It’s true, and so from day one my lectures were always different from the mean. But, of course, they evolved in a way that grew substantially, and that is not because of the dotting of the line - because I could already do that in high school.

....But, it is amazing that many physics professors want to know how I make those dotted lines. There is a two-minute videotape which someone made. Someone looked at all the dotted lines I ever drew in 8.01, and put that in one videotape. It’s a riot!”

Here is that video:

Can you see how he makes those dotted lines? I had to look carefully before I saw what he does differently. When you pull the chalk along behind your hand. you get a normal solid line. Look carefully at 0:50 on that video, as shown in the following still photo:

When you instead push the chalk ahead of your hand you can get a dotted line. In a comment on another video by Walter Lewin someone said:

“I know chalk boards are hard to find nowadays. but it's easy to do: hold the chalk loosely in your hand and hold it at an angle so that it's ahead of your hand. Push it in the direction of your line and it skips making a dotted line. Too easy.”

Is it easy to explain in detail though? No! Look at this University of Bristol web page. (Benjamin Hall did both a web site and report about it). There also is a 28-page paper (Hall's Ref. [10]) on Periodic Motion and Bifurcations Induced by the Painlevé Paradox about all the math involved in this and similar situations.

Added January 4, 2012

Another place this trick would be useful is in laying out chalk art.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Does your use of jargon need tweaking?

One common definition for the word tweak is to make small changes in order to improve something. Back in 2008 Peggy Jordan blogged about Why Clarity Counts and mentioned an unfortunate specialized use of an acronym. An expert on short term disability insurance got into the bad habit of using the acronym STD - which most people would interpret as instead referring to a sexually transmitted disease. Another example of confusing jargon is death and dismemberment insurance, which really covers either situation rather than requiring both (like in the movie Fargo).

Tweaking has another meaning in the drug subculture:

“Methamphetamine use that goes on for day after day is called tweaking, and you really get into a very strange state. You might just sit there quietly and with all kinds of crazy ideas going through your brain. Nobody knows what’s going on. You have to deal with someone like that very carefully. They can go through repetitive activities. One of the favorite ones for people is to take things apart  - take the TV apart - take the cell phone apart - but not in any way be able to put it back together.” 

On December 15th I heard an early-morning radio interview of Erik Makrush, an education policy analyst (polite euphemism for lobbyist) at the Idaho Freedom Foundation. While discussing reform in the state he commented that:

“There’s going to be some tweaking by the legislature.”

I doubt Erik was thinking about that other meaning for tweaking, but I had a good laugh imagining those legislators. His word choice probably was influenced by one or two article headlines from the preceding day.

The image of a recording control board being tweaked came from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Finding and communicating wonder in physics

Back in junior year of high school my first physics teacher, Mr. Rankin, proclaimed that:

“Physics is fun, ‘cause you get to play.”

On the new books shelf in the Boise public library I just found Professor Walter Lewin’s recent book, For the Love of Physics. As the promo video shows, he communicated his sense of wonder to university students at MIT. A hundred of his lectures have been posted on YouTube, written about in the New York Times, and currently are being viewed by about 6000 people per day from around the world. There is a marvelous one-hour video showing him discussing several topics.

One is the above equation describing the period of a pendulum. Professor Lewin shows his audience a long pendulum, like a cannon ball suspended from the ceiling of the lecture hall. First he demonstrates that the period doesn’t change when you swing the pendulum five or ten degrees from vertical. Then he shows that it also doesn’t depend on the mass of the pendulum - becoming part of the experiment by riding that cannon ball. He also uses that pendulum to discuss the conservation of energy, and the topic of demolishing buildings with wrecking balls.

In my senior year of high school, I recall checking that same equation by hanging a fifty-foot pendulum in a four-story tall stairwell. Back in our Advanced Placement physics classroom, we also proclaimed that physics works.

During the answers to questions at the 57-minute mark in the longer video, Professor Lewin reveals that it took him forty to sixty hours to prepare for each lecture. He did three full-length rehearsals (or dry runs) - one two weeks before, one a week before, and one at 5:30 AM the morning before doing those 10 AM and 11 AM lectures. However, for the book signing lecture he did six full rehearsals!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Would you rather be heard, or be able to read your notes?

That’s not a pleasant choice! Please check out the whole room setup before you speak - including both sound and lights.

If the light on that lectern needs to be on for your speech, then check to see it doesn’t generate a buzz that interferes with the microphone. Things might have been fine until when the incandescent lamp burned out, and it got replaced by a compact fluorescent bulb, as was discussed by a 2007 article in EDN magazine.

Images from the History of Medicine showed Margo Heygood speaking at the 1976 NIH Conference on DNA. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Three recent proposals for improving presentations at conferences

Communications of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) is one of the most venerable computer science magazines. In the September 2011 issue their editor-in-chief, Moshe Y. Vardi, proposed three ways to improve presentations:

“Conferences should, in my opinion, take active measures to improve presentation quality. A radical proposal would be to require authors to submit not only papers but also video recordings of their talks. The quality of those presentations would be considered in making program decisions. 

Less radical a move is to require authors to send draft presentations before the conference, and receive feedback from their session chairs. 

It should also be relatively easy to augment conference-management systems with feedback pages where conference participants can give speakers anonymous feedback on their presentations. (That would give attendees something constructive to do during poor presentations!)”

You can download the full text of his article, "Are you talking to me?" here (click on PDF).

I like his radical proposal of requiring a video recording. But, when Togrstent Grust approved of that he got comments with the expected objection that this would make it significantly more time consuming to submit a paper. Well, of course. Improved quality isn’t free. Back in March 2010 I blogged about how the quality of presentations at the annual conference of the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons had improved. A possible explanation was requiring submission of a written manuscript. I suspect also requiring a video would have a similar effect.

The image of a conference audience is from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Twenty useful blogs on presentations

In a December 13th post on his All About Presentations blog Vivek Singh asked for a short list (10 to 15) of useful blogs about presentation.  I easily thought of ten just from the United States. However, I read many more and thought it would be more useful to include another ten from the rest of the world. My list of twenty follows.

Nancy Duarte: Duarte blog

James Feudo: Overnight Sensation

Ellen Finkelstein: PowerPoint Tips Blog

Tom Fishburne: (Marketoonist)

Denise Graveline: The Eloquent Woman

Rich Hopkins: Speak and Deliver

Nick Morgan: Public Words

Scott Schwertly: Ethos3

Jon Thomas: Presentation Advisors

Jerry Weissman: Power Presentations

Andrew Dlugan: Six Minutes

Dave Paradi: Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint Blog

Vivek Singh: All About Presentations

Jan Schultink: Idea Transplant

R. L. Howser: Presentation Dynamics

Garr Reynolds: Presentation Zen

Olivia Mitchell: Speaking About Presenting

Conor Neill: The Rhetorical Journey

John Zimmer: Manner of Speaking

Max Atkinson: Max Atkinson’s Blog

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lessons on humor from the December issues of the Canadian Medical Association Journal

This morning National Public Radio had a three-minute Weekend Edition segment about how the December issues of that normally serious magazine poke fun at medicine.

In 2006 they explained how we are able to overeat at holiday dinners: Room for dessert: an expanded anatomy of the stomach.

Some articles parody dense jargon, like the 2010 one on: The anemic maternal proxy and the seven resident stakeholders (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), and a 2001 Case report: microcardia secondary to chronic adrenocortical insufficiency (Dr. Seuss’s Grinch).

Other stories for children were scrutinized generally in 2003: Head injuries in nursery rhymes: evidence of a dangerous subtext in children’s literature. Winnie the Pooh was analyzed both a decade ago: Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: a neurodevelopmental perspective on A. A. Milne, and more concisely last year: Pooh has an addiction issue.

Last year I blogged about their 2005 article analyzing: Incidence of and risk factors for nodding off at scientific sessions. In 2005 they also described using a Super Soaker to dislodge ear wax: A novel method for the removal of ear cerumen. (Don’t try this at home - a direct hit will puncture the eardrum).

Finally, back in 2004 they considered many occupational hazards that Santa encounters during his annual circumnavigation: Referral request for S. Claus.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Can homeopathic gelsemium reduce anxiety about public speaking?

Gelsemium sempervirens (yellow jessamine or jasmine) is a homeopathic remedy recommended for fear of public speaking, and many other ailments (like flu). Very small amounts of the root are used to prepare remedies, because the plant contains three toxic strychnine-related alkaloids: gelsemine, gelseminine, and sempervirine. (Just because something is completely natural doesn’t mean that it is either harmless or safe).   

In The Complete Homeopathy Handbook by Miranda Castro (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1990) on page 91 she says that:

“Gelsemium is also one of the favorite remedies for people who become paralysed with fear prior to giving a talk or before an exam. This is not the active fear of Argentum Nitricum or Lycopodium; it is an acute anxiety which causes a person to seize up both mentally and physically.”

Similarly, in Easy Homeopathy: the 7 essential remedies you need for common illnesses and first aid by Edward Shalts (McGraw-Hill, New York, 2005) on page 139 he says that:

“Gelsemium is an excellent remedy for stage fright and test anxiety. People who need this remedy to perform better under various circumstances literally feel paralyzed, weak and dizzy. Their limbs become heavy. This is not a good bouquet of symptoms to have during performances or exams.”
For test anxiety he recommends taking three pellets of Gelsemium 30 C on the morning of the exam. He also suggests using what he calls the plussing method; dissolving three pellets of 30C in a small bottle of spring water and then sipping from it as needed. 

On you can find tubes of pellets from Boiron with potencies of 6C, 12C, 30C, or even 200C.

Is Gelsemium effective for relieving anticipatory anxiety? Apparently not. This year A. Paris et al. published the results of a detailed clinical study in a magazine called Fundamental and Clinical Pharmacology. You can read the abstract here. They compared the effects of Gelsemium at potencies of 5CH and 15CH with a placebo. The study began with 180 people split evenly among those three groups, but a few dropped out. Most of the co-authors are in Grenoble, France but two are with the Boiron laboratories in St Foy-le`s-Lyon (who also provided the remedies).    

What does the potency ‘5CH’ mean? (It’s the same as 10X). The material has been diluted by a factor of 1:100 five times, so the final concentration is 1 part in 10,000,000,000. Similarly, ‘15CH’ means diluted by a factor of 1:100 fifteen times, so the final concentration is 1 part in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

There also are some very preliminary (and curious) results from Verona, Italy with positive results for gelsemium on anxiety-related responses in mice. You can read the full texts on PubMed Central here and here. I’m not sure what to make of these, but did note that the reported response did not increase consistently with potency as was long ago hypothesized to occur for homeopathy. 

The plant image is from Wikimedia.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Avoid impending doom when opening your speech

On December 8th Doug Savage posted the fifth of his hilarious and thoughtful Savage Chickens cartoons about public speaking.

What should you do when opening your speech? Be prepared so you don't chicken out. If you’re nervous, then write out the first few sentences on a note card, so you don’t go blank.

What should you avoid when opening your speech? Don’t drink alcohol beforehand. Don’t imagine the audience naked. Don’t grip the lectern like you are driving a bus, or bang your fists on it (like Dwight did in The Office).

Monday, December 12, 2011

Will homeopathic lycopodium reduce your anxiety about public speaking?

Lycopodium clavatum (commonly known as club moss and pronounced like-o-podium) is a homeopathic remedy recommended for fear of public speaking (and many other ailments). In summer, spikes from the plant are collected and the very small spores are shaken out to produce a yellow powder (pollen dust) as shown above.

For example, in The Complete Guide to Homeopathy by Dr. Andrew Lockie and Dr. Nicola Geddes (Dorling Kindersley, London, 1995), under Emotional Problems in the tables on pages 190 and 191 they describe:

Anxiety with a loss of confidence

Apprehension about performing in public
Inability to sleep at night with continual reviewing of what happened during the day
Appetite is disturbed
A craving for sweet foods may accompany insomnia

A forthcoming event or performance
Most likely to occur in the very ambitious who have high standards

In cool surroundings
From hot food and drinks
After midnight
With movement

In stuffy rooms
After overeating
Between 4 PM and 8 PM

Lycopodium - take 6C every 2 hours for up to 10 doses

You can find pellets of 6C lycopodium clavatum online. For example, Amazon shows Boiron has packages with tubes containing 80 pellets for less than $8.

What does the potency or dilution ‘6C’ mean? (It’s the same as 12X). The material has been diluted by a factor of 1:100 six times, so the final concentration is 1 part in 1,000,000,000,000. 

Is lycopodium effective? In 2006 Karen Pilkington and her colleagues published a long article in Homeopathy magazine titled Homeopathy for Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders: A Systematic Review of the Research. You can read the abstract and conclusion here at PubMed. They found no clear and compelling evidence that homeopathy was effective for treating anxiety. Lycopodium only was mentioned near the beginning of the article, where they referred to it being mentioned by Dr. Lockie  in another more recent book, the Encyclopedia of Homeopathy (2001).

Does lycopodium have undesirable side effects? A web article by Susan Kaye noted that:

“The book Synoptic Materia Medica I points out that Lycopodium may cause lack of self-confidence, feelings of inferiority and insecurity, and the possibility of a person developing bullying behavior which acts like a cover-up for these feelings of being ‘lesser-than.’ A person may be bossy, dominating and downright nasty to those who know him best, like family, yet act meek and fearful in public. The remedy may cause a fear of public speaking and even the inability to stand up for oneself in a conflict.”

I have not read that rather obscure book, so I’m not sure if this is a problem only with this remedy, or an example of a general problem with homeopathic remedies noted on the Dr. Lockie web site:

“The homeopathic equivalent of an overdose is when a remedy is ‘proved’ or begins to cause the symptoms that it is intended to cure. This can happen when a remedy is taken for very prolonged periods, so don’t continue with a remedy once it has worked in order to prevent a relapse, it’s quite unnecessary and actually counter-productive.”

Images of the plant and powder are both from Wikimedia.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

‘Tis the season for Christmas Camouflage in graphics

For most people the festive Christmas color combination of red and green shown above has excellent contrast. Unfortunately, for a mostly male minority (up to ~10%) with red-green color blindness, it has almost no contrast. In a February 2009 blog post I called that Christmas Camouflage. An online tool called Vischeck lets us see a simulation of how someone with red-green blindness (a deuteranope) would see it. Now both Santa and his elves look like they’ve joined the army and have been issued identical olive drab uniforms.

Unless you ask them, you won’t know if someone is color blind. People with that problem usually adapt by having others help them color coordinate their clothes. In a cafeteria line they will be careful to ask for the soup by name, because otherwise they might get served split pea soup (green) instead of cream of tomato (orange).

The Santa Claus icon (recolored to make the elves) came from Mizunoryu on Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bridging the Uncanny Valley

On November 19th R. L. Howser blogged about how painful it was to watch a speaker use carefully prepared gestures that failed to connect with the audience. He titled it The Uncanny Valley, which is a term from robotics.

When we watch a robot behave, initially the more human-like it looks the more familiar it seems. But, at some point (when it looks like a human but still acts like a robot) our reaction reverses to it seeming unfamiliar and downright creepy. 

C.S. Lewis had Mr. Beaver say something similar in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (my italics):

“But in general, take my advice,
when you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now,
or ought to be human and isn’t,
you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.”

The following YouTube Video with James May’s reaction to a Gemenoid robot illustrates the problem.

What makes a human speaker seem inhuman? How can we bridge over the Uncanny Valley? In a November 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review on How to Become an Authentic Speaker, Nick Morgan revealed that trying to make our gestures conscious gets the timing wrong. The solution is to practice making them unconscious. That idea is described in detail in his 2009 book: Trust Me four steps to authenticity and charisma. Nick did a series of podcasts about the book, which I blogged about in August.

Human reactions to robots (and robot reactions to humans) are a running gag in the alternative universe envisioned by J. Jacques in his online comic strip Questionable Content (QC). He refers to them as AnthroPCs or AIs. A recent series, #1994 to #2010, chronicled Momo-tan going to the local Idoru dealer at a mall to get a new chassis. Two very curious signs on their wall read:

AJos 4.0.
The all-new artificial intelligence paradigm.
Guaranteed not to go insane
and kill your loved ones.


Make Your Robot Happy.
That isn’t a euphemism.

A more recent comic claimed that humans sometimes acted creepier than robots.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Should you put haikus in your handouts?

On Saturday morning I heard a story on National Public Radio about a dozen new traffic warning signs in New York City that were written as haiku poems. That’s an interesting approach to a typically dull subject. My versions for two of them are shown above.

Haiku might be used as headlines or titles for graphic slides. Better still, they could be used in handouts. I Googled the combination of public speaking and haiku, and found the following excellent one in an August 2009 blog post by Angela DeFinis.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

What’s the story on valerian and anxiety?

On November 28th Joe and Teresa Graedon’s People’s Pharmacy had a brief article titled Public Speaking Phobia Dissolves with Herbs. Someone wrote them about how taking a valerian capsule had reduced her anxiety, which let her speak at her retirement party. If it worked for her, will it work for you?

People’s Pharmacy articles also appears as newspaper features. Sometimes the articles get different titles. The Durham, North Carolina Herald-Sun and the Athens (Ohio) Banner-Herald both used the same title. The Houston Chronicle said that Valerian takes the edge off public speaking, while the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger just said Capsule may relieve anxiety. Which title is closest to the truth?

When we look up valerian at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, we find their summary web page says that:

“* Research suggests that valerian may be helpful for insomnia, but there is not enough evidence from well-designed studies to confirm this.

*  There is not enough scientific evidence to determine whether valerian works for other conditions, such as anxiety or depression.”

In September 2009 I blogged about herbal remedies for anxiety, and mentioned two review articles about valerian - one by Ernst and a Cochrane review. Both concluded there was no clear evidence for it reducing anxiety.

Ten years earlier Carolyn Mar and Stephen Bent published An evidence based review of the 10 most commonly used herbs. They also said the evidence for valerian being effective then was inconclusive. (See the summary table in the full .pdf file version. It was printed too light to show in a scan for the single page.) In 2008 Stephen Bent took a look at the current top ten herbs in Herbal Medicine in the United States: Review of Efficacy, Safety, and Regulation, but valerian wasn’t on that list.

What can we learn from this? Just because something is popular doesn’t mean that it is effective (or completely safe). Do your own homework. Don’t uncritically believe someone else’s story, even if it got whispered right in your ear.

The image came from here at the Library of Congress.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Detailed advice on how to overcome the fear of public speaking

 If you are among the 1 in 5 of us with a fear of public speaking, then you should read an excellent book by a clinical psychologist, Peter Desberg, PhD. Speaking Scared Sounding Good: Public Speaking for the Private Person was published in 2007. You can look inside it at This book contains lots of exercises, stories, and even jokes. Each of the 14 chapters begins with a brief paragraph describing the big idea. They are:

PART ONE: Understanding Your Fear of Public Speaking

1. WHAT REALLY CAUSES STAGE FRIGHT?: Your emotions are a direct result of what’s on your mind. If you think you will give a bad speech, you will be afraid to give that speech. Just thinking about it negatively weeks before the scheduled date can make you tremble. This is because your negative thoughts cause your fear. 

2. IDENTIFYING YOUR FEAR-PROVOKING THOUGHTS: The thoughts that lead to your feelings are not always easy to identify. But once you are able to identify them, they will become the foundation of your plan to control your fear.

3. EVALUATING YOUR FEAR-PROVOKING THOUGHTS: Your fear-provoking thoughts might be based on real-life experiences and may actually be reasonable. On the other hand, they might be the result of exaggeration and/or shaky logic. Identify the thinking process that fuels your fear-provoking thoughts.

4. CONTROLLING YOUR FEAR-PROVOKING THOUGHTS: Reality-testing strategies and positive self-statements can give you a firm handle on your fear-provoking thoughts and can help you get them under control.

PART TWO: Tools for Reducing Your Fear-Provoking Thoughts

5. SETTING GOALS: Set goals that are completely under your control and identify ways to measure how effectively you have met them.

6. LEARNING TO RELAX: Relaxation exercises can help you combat anxiety - your internal response to danger - by lowering it to more manageable levels while making you more alert.

7. DEALING WITH AVOIDANCE AND PROCRASTINATION: Avoidance can lead to missed opportunities in your career and personal life, and procrastination reduces your chances of adequately preparing for a presentation or speech.

8. IMPROVING YOUR MEMORY: Organized information is much easier to remember, especially when the information is personally meaningful to you - and your audience.

9. PRACTICING FOR OPTIMAL PERFORMANCE: After you have thoroughly learned your material, practice under performance conditions. Try to simulate every detail - the minor ones as well as the main ones.

PART THREE: Broadening Your Presentation Skills

10. USING THE PUBLIC SPEAKER’S TOOLBOX: Organize your presentation for maximum effectiveness. State a clear intention for your talk, establish your credentials, and make use of your presentation skills.

11. CREATING THE RIGHT IMPRESSION: Certain strategies can help you be more effective with your audience. Analyzing your audience provides a great deal of information that can improve their impression of you and your presentation.

12. USING HUMOR IN PUBLIC SPEAKING: When used correctly, humor can help you gain the audience’s acceptance and increase the likelihood you’ll be remembered in a good light. Used poorly, it can wreck your presentation. And when used inappropriately, it can even threaten your standing or your job.

13. INTERVIEWING SUCCESSFULLY: The keys to interviewing successfully for a new position are research, preparation, and practice. Take all three very seriously.

14. OVERCOMING SHYNESS: By practicing basic social skills and preparing for social interactions, you can manage the effects of shyness and learn to “sound good” in social situations.

Dr. Desberg is an emeritus professor at California Sate University in Dominguez Hills. Speaking Scared Sounding Good is his third book about stage fright. The other two were Controlling Stagefright : Presenting Yourself to Audiences from One to One Thousand (1988) and No More Butterflies : Overcoming Stagefright, Shyness, Interview Anxiety, & Fear of Public Speaking (1996). His latest funny book is Show Me the Funny.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Be your own Santa Claus - get these free holiday gifts right now

Here are some zero-cost holiday gift suggestions.

Some of the downloadable manifestoes at the ChangeThis web site are about public speaking and presentations. Five examples to make us think are:

1. 15-1/2 Ideas to Make Your Presentation Go from Boring to Bravo by Kristin Arnold

2. Before You Open Your Mouth: The Keys to Great Public Speaking by Nick Morgan

3. Presenting to Small Audiences: Turn Off the Projector! by Andrew Abela

4. Being a Gifted Speaker Isn’t a Gift by Frances Cole Jones

5. Presentation Revolution: Changing the Way the World Does Presentations by Scott Schwertly

Last year Ivan Hernandez discussed 10 Remarkable ChangeThis Manifestoes You Should Read.

Via the Web we already have free “virtual subscriptions” to two magazines: Speaker from the National Speakers Association) and Toastmaster (from Toastmasters international). We can either view individual issues online or download .pdf files of them without being a member of either organization. The archive for Speaker goes back three years, while the archive for Toastmaster goes back to 2007 (but the new digital edition with keyword search only began in January 2011).

Finally, for a free textbook on public speaking, check out the ACA Open Knowledge Online Guide. I posted a description of it beginning with a phony ad in 2009.

This blog post was inspired by Andrew Dlugan’s November 21st post with his list of holiday gift ideas. Initially I was upset that he’d started on Christmas before the Thanksgiving holiday even was over (here in the US). Then I realized that from his Canadian perspective Thanksgiving was back on the second Monday of October, rather than the fourth Thursday of November.

The image is a Puck magazine cover from 1913.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Use a simple diagram to clasp an idea

On November 27th Seth Godin blogged about what he called The Confusion of Logistics and Strategy Problem. He said that problem was so widespread that it even deserved a new acronym of CLASP, and defined it by claiming:

“You have a clasp when people criticize your new strategy because they don’t know how to execute it.”

A diagram instantly shows the difference between a strategy (big picture) and a tactic (logistics) used to make it happen.

I think that a five letter acronym including an A for And is appalling. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lessons on stage performance from singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor

Earlier this year Livingston Taylor released the revised edition of his book on Stage Performance, which came from a class he teaches at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. You can look inside it at He discusses how we should have a conversation with our audience. The July 29th issue of the Vineyard Gazette has an article which describes how he practices the Gentle Art of Audience Seduction.

In the first meeting of class (page 15 of the book) he teaches how to introduce yourself, and says you should:

"1. Walk onstage.
2. Face the crowd.
3. Find a spot where you’re comfortable and well lit.
4. Be still and see your audience.
5. Say your name. (This is the performance).
6. Be still and look at your audience. Make sure they received what you gave out.
7. Bow slightly.
8. Accept applause, if appropriate.
9. Leave the stage."

Livingston is a compelling speaker. Watch here to see how he interacts with some students.

There are more YouTube video clips from his summer lectures in 2005, 2006, and 2007, and a 2011 faculty interview.

I found the first edition of his book from 2000 (indexed under the subject of public speaking) at my public library, and read it from cover to cover.

One story about professionalism that impressed me appears on page 56 of the revised edition. He discussed arriving at a small theater in Sarasota, Florida before headlining a show. The glass front doors were smudged, so he started washed them. Two hours before the show the opening act walked right past him, without saying hello. Their image of a professional didn’t include a window washer. (On page 52 he also mentioned once cleaning the bathroom of a club, since he didn’t want his audience putting up with the dirt).

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Using props as pointers

Yesterday on her Eloquent Woman blog Denise Graveline ended a list of The all-in-one on gestures for public speaking: 12 great tips by asking:

“12.  Who needs that pointer, when you brought two perfectly good ones into the room with you?  Use your arms and hands instead.”

That’s true, but, as Nick Morgan said a couple years ago, the most important rule for success in public speaking is to have fun. Laser pointers are boring! Using appropriate props as pointers can be lots of fun.

For example, if you are a sports fan you may have a large foam hand with a giant finger as shown above.

There are lots of telescoping cylindrical objects that can be used. A traditional spyglass is one.

Before there were laser pointers there were pocket pointers. When we look closely at one, we can see that it just is the FM antenna from a portable radio. 

If you are a photographer you can bring along a monopod (like a leg from a tripod).  Similarly, you are a hiker, you can bring a trekking pole. In ether case, be careful not to poke a hole through the screen with that sharp tip.

If you are a police or security officer, just flip open your expandable baton. No one will try to heckle you! However, when you ask for questions don’t be surprised if there is no response.

The pointing finger and spyglass came from the Library of Congress. The Grady Sizemore foam hand and monopod came from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving and other after-dinner speeches

You may already have been asked to speak after this holiday dinner. If so, now is the time to think and prepare. An after-dinner speech should both entertain and inform. It helps to have a memorable story about where or how the holiday was spent.

In 2005 my sister and brother-in law had Thanksgiving somewhere unusual. Ellen and Tony spent their holiday at the South Pole. They had a turkey dinner in the restaurant at the end of the world.  She sent me a ball cap as a souvenir.  

Another type of story teaches that we should be thankful for what we have, because things always could have been worse.

In 1972 I spent Thanksgiving in Wichita Falls, Texas. I was being trained as a medic at Sheppard Air Force Base. That morning I had a fever and was feeling really lousy, so I went to sick call. The medic who examined me said that I had finally gotten a disease that usually came in childhood. It might have been rubella (German measles). He gave me some Tylenol for my fever, and said, look, we don’t have tech school classes tomorrow, so go back to to your bunk and rest. You’ll be fine by Monday. I was, although I didn’t get to travel as I had planned.    

How could things have been worse? A month earlier our whole squadron (and the one next to us) went through a day and a half long outbreak of food poisoning. Symptoms were nausea and vomiting.

For more ideas on after dinner speeches, look at this recent blog post by Carma Spence, and listen to this Communication Steroids podcast.

Images are covers from the Thanksgiving issues of Puck Magazine from 1905 and 1902.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

How presenters waste your time with confusing graphics

The Excel bar chart shown above plots some data from an October 26th Presentation Agency blog post from Sales Graphics titled survey data reveals how presenters spend their time. (Click on the chart for a larger, clearer version). We can easily see how the six categories rank, because they are listed in descending order.

Contrast that with the confusing graphic shown in the Presentation Agency blog post. It seems intended to impress rather than to explain. The six categories are wrapped in concentric rings like a bullseye target. The largest is on the outside, followed by the second, and the sixth. Then comes the third, fourth and fifth. We have to look at all six percentages and sort them to see their rank. We can’t just go clockwise or counterclockwise to see their order.

Now look at the inconsistent caption boxes. The first word in four out of six categories is shown in a bold font. The box with 40% has two of five icons (men) shown in bold, but the box with 20% also has two of five icons (stars) shown in bold, rather than just one. One paragraph in the blog post starts by saying that:

“A full 56% of survey takers said finding the latest version of slides and videos sucked up a lot of time...”

If that’s what you want to say, then please change how you group the data on the graphic to present it to us clearly and simply (as shown above). Now "Other" is the smallest category.

A November 8th blog post discusses choosing the best charts for your data. I don’t think a fancy bullseye bar chart beats a plain one. What do you think?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The 99 (or 100) second presentation

In previous posts I have discussed several recent brief presentation formats with times of 200 seconds (Presto), 300 seconds (Ignite) or 400 seconds (Pecha Kucha).

There also is an even briefer one - the 99-second presentation. I saw it mentioned in a recent blog comment by Scott Berkun, which led me back to his blog post from March 2004. The 99-second presentation was described in a 2003 ASTD presentation by Sivasailam Thiagarajan (Thiagi), who started using them back in 1988! Over in New Zealand Simon Park recently has been using them to select university tutors.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Does bad public speaking kill?

On November 12th Nic Williams blogged about How to stop killing people with your public speeches. His main point was that speakers should think about whether they are wasting their audience’s time:

“Let’s do the math. If you give a speech to 200 people for 30 minutes you are consuming 100 hours of human life.

Giving an hour-long talk to a thousand people? That’s six weeks of human life devoted to your talk.


Let’s assume 6 weeks of human life is at stake. It is not a loan and you cannot give it back. One hour after you finish speaking, you’ve used up 6 weeks of human life.

If you’re bad enough for long enough you kill a whole person.”

To avoid wasting time you should learn the craft of giving speeches. Nic recommends joining Toastmasters, but there are other options to consider.

What happens when we really do the math? Assume an average U.S. lifetime is 78.3 years. There are 365.25 days in a year. Each day is 24 hours. Multiplying those three numbers, a lifetime is 686,378 hours.

For a single one-hour long speech to waste as many hours as a whole life, we’d need an improbably large audience - one that only the Pope might get. (We might say that bad television kills though).

How about a college course involving lecturing to an audience of 500 freshmen, three hours per week for 20 weeks? That’s still only 30,000 hours. You’d have to do that about 23 times to waste a life, but probably would be fired before you did that much damage. A philosophy department might though.

So, saying that bad speeches kill is a silly exaggeration. Douglas Adams would have called it “a load of dingo’s kidneys.” Actually it’s even worse - because in the above discussion we have not used the correct units, which are man-hours, not just hours. I’ve previously discussed wasting time using the wrong units.

Let’s bury the idea that bad public speaking kills.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Great speech on leadership at the U.S. Air Force Academy

On November 1, 2011 General Mark A. Welsh, III, who is Commander of U. S. Air Forces in Europe, spoke to the cadets for fifty minutes. He tells great stories about people who inspired him - including his son Matt and Major Marie Rossi.

I found it in this Veterans Day blog post by Grant McCracken.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Should presenters be nervous about the Twitter backchannel?

Yes! On November 2nd Drew Neisser blogged at Fast Company about Giving Kick-Ass Presentations in the Age of Social Media. His seven points were:

1. Don’t panic if they aren’t looking at you.

2. Stifle the temptation to ask for a device moratorium.

3. If you aren’t nervous, you should be now.

4. If you don’t speak Twitterese, it’s time to learn it.

5. Congratulations! You may be speaking to millions you can’t see.

6. The reviews are in - in real time.

7. When all else fails, surprise the audience with honesty.

Even before I read his #3, I was inclined to be nervous about something new. After all, Twitter is like giving a heckler a large, digital megaphone. Some people will use it to yell: HEY! LOOK AT ME!

So far I haven’t presented at a conference that displayed a Twitter backchannel. Long ago I used to follow two unmoderated Usenet Newsgroups - sci.materials and sci.engr.metallurgy. The majority of users posting and commenting were intelligent and quite civil, but there also were a few loudmouthed jerks and trolls. I'd expect the same from Twitter.

Imagine what Abe Lincoln might have put up with if Twitter was around during the Gettysburg Address:

DrummerBoy61: 4score n7? Y not 87? LOL!

Kilrain20thMaine: Ha, ha! Stovepipe hat makes Abe look 2 tall.

CopperHead62: 3 minutes iz 2 short 4 an address. WTF!

OhioCpl27: His wife Mary Todd be crazy!

Bruce63: Abe Lincoln once turned to somebody and said, do you ever find yourself talking with the dead?

I’ve seen several blog posts that have discussed living with the backchannel. Ellen Finkelstein recently blogged on how to harness the back channel during your presentations. Last year Denise Graveline blogged about integrating Twitter in your public speaking: 14 ways. Olivia Mitchell blogged about how to manage the Twitter backchannel, and also provided a detailed publication as a 62-page Acrobat file discussing How to present with Twitter (and other backchannels)

The image of a rowing coach with a megaphone is from here. That last Tweet is the opening line from Bruce Cockburn’s song Postcards from Cambodia.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Overcoming the fear of public speaking

 How can we quit feeling like a deer caught in the headlights, and get comfortable in front of an audience?

In a blog post on November 7th Nick Morgan made the following five suggestions:

1. Redefine the fear as adrenaline, and therefore a good thing.

2. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Rehearse a lot.

3. Breathe deeply, from the belly. Breathe slowly, and often.

4. Focus on the audience, not on yourself.

5. Focus on an emotion that you want to convey to the audience.

On October 17th Alex Rister gave ten similar suggestions:

1. Prepare.

2. Record your speech.

3. Appear more confident than you feel.

4. Be familiar with your introduction.

5. Practice mentally.

6. Practice out loud often.

7. Concentrate on the message, not on yourself.

8. Breathe deeply.

9. Channel adrenaline to positive outlets.

10. Accept some fear as normal.

She uses graphics well to emphasize her points. Alex added more advice on October 22nd.

The poster with deer came from here.

Monday, November 7, 2011

How many rehearsals should you do before giving a presentation?

Or, what ratio of rehearsal time to presentation time is sufficient to push your speech up to excellent? I went looking for a specific number but instead found a huge range of answers.

When you don’t rehearse at all, you are likely to have a presentation disaster, as described by Nick Morgan.

Alan L. Stevens suggested that that one or two rehearsals are sufficient, since you want to sound fresh when you speak. (I think that’s a bit low, and just will create an unfortunate event rather than a complete disaster).

Pete Ryckman suggested at least five rehearsals, while David Murray (who edits Vital Speeches of the Day) suggested eight. Ruth Sherman said ten was conservative, and noted that Winston Churchill had used 60. Fred E. Miller also said 60 was a good rule of thumb, but as a minimum. Steve Siebold mentioned that once he and Bill Gove did 130 rehearsals.

Why is there such a huge range of ratios? How large is your audience, and how important is your presentation? What level of finish is appropriate? Siebold and Gove did 130 rehearsals for a 45-minute speech given in a hockey stadium to 7,000 distributors. Introducing a product also calls for a large number of rehearsals, since the presentation likely will wind up archived on video posted on the web. When the stakes are lower, five to ten rehearsals might be more appropriate.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

How did the Anti-PowerPoint-Party do in elections for the Swiss parliament?

Back in July I blogged about how Mathias Poehm’s Anti-PowerPoint-Party (APPP) wanted us to go back to using flipcharts. In August I suggested that interactive whiteboards would be better than flipcharts for replacing PowerPoint.

On August 16th the party produced a press release about having gotten on the ballot. Just before the elections the New York Times described how the Idea of ‘One Person One Party’ Makes for a Crowd in Switzerland. Another article elsewhere discussed how Fools and Pirates Compete for Election Glory.

Elections were held on October 23rd, and the APPP did not win even a single seat, not even in Zurich. Neither did the Pirates Party or the Fools Party.

The image of a wrecked Moissant airplane came from here.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

What can Donald Duck teach us about public speaking?

He’s a comically exaggerated, negative example to remind us that clear enunciation is important. Donald’s buccal speech is difficult to understand and sometimes can be completely misinterpreted.

In the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit there is a  hilarious piano duel between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck containing the following dialogue:

Daffy: “Does anybody understand what this duck is saying? I’ve worked with a lot of wise-quackers, but you are despicable.”

Donald: “doggone, stubborn little... I’m gonna - waah”.

Daffy: “This is the last time I work with someone with a speech impediment!”

Some have claimed that instead of saying “little” Donald “dropped the N-bomb” on Daffy. Snopes said that claim of racism was false. However, Donald did throw Daffy inside a grand piano, and then dropped the lid on him.

This post was inspired by Andrew Dlugan’s recent one on What can MIckey Mouse teach you about public speaking? The image of Donald is from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Terrorists and snakes top list of Canadian fears

The October 26th Vancouver Sun published a brief article describing an online survey done on August 23rd for the family history website and described in a press release intended to scare us for Halloween.

They mentioned heights, public speaking, and spiders, but didn’t provide specific percentages. The newspaper article just listed the top two percentages shown above; the press release contained none. Public speaking isn’t the number one fear up there in Canada.

In my last post I described how giving presentations isn’t the top fear of employees in the United States either. Boo!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Giving presentations isn’t the top fear of employees in the United States

Yesterday, for Halloween, CareerBuilder released the results of a survey on what employees are most afraid of at work. It was done online by Harris Interactive in late August and early September. As shown above, layoffs were the greatest fear (36%), pay cuts were second (13%), and presenting in front of other people (9%) tied for third. (Click on the bar chart to see a larger, clearer view). Four times as many people feared layoffs as feared giving presentations. So much for speaking in public always being the number one fear!

The press release also included a list of scariest jobs, which were:

1. Bomb Squad Technician
2. High Rise Window Washer
3. Armed Forces
4. Miner
5. Police Officer
6. Alaskan Crab Fishing
7. Mortician
8. Firefighter
9. High School Teacher
10.Cemetery Worker
11. Exterminator
12. Stand-Up Comedian
13. Animal Control
14. Stunt Person
15. Politician

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Any Last Words?

Last year there was a book by Robert K. Elder containing a collection of the Last Words of the Executed. (You can search inside it at That book describes perhaps the most macabre form of public speaking. It’s certainly one way to get scared for Halloween. Thirteen examples (with Wikipedia links where available) are:

“I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life, God will give you blood to drink.”
Sarah Good, Salem, Massachusetts, July 19, 1692

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Nathan Hale, New York, September 22, 1776

“It’s in God’s hands now.”
Nat Turner, Virginia, November 11, 1831

“No, I am ready at any time; but do not keep me needlessly waiting.”
John Brown, Virginia, December 2, 1859

“Gentlemen, do you see this hand? Does it tremble? I never hurt a hair of that girl’s head."
Tom Dula, North Carolina, May 1, 1868

“I had a square trial. Everything the witnesses said was pretty much true. I felt at the time that I ought to have done it, and afterwards I felt I did wrong. I tell you it’s a hard thing when a man brings it on himself, but whisky did it.”
Isaiah Evans, Louisiana, May 10, 1878

“What time is it? I wish you’d hurry up. I want to get to hell in time for dinner.”
John Owens, Wyoming, March 5, 1886

“I killed the president because he was an enemy of the good people - of the working people. I am not sorry for my crime. I’m awfully sorry I could not see my father.”
Leon Frank Czolgosz, New York, October 29, 1901

“I have something to say, but not at this time.”
Grover Cleveland Redding, Illinois, June 24, 1921

“Make it snappy.”
Charles H. Simpson, California, July 13, 1931

“Gents, this is an educational project. You are about to witness the damaging effect electricity has on wood.”
Frederick Wood, New York, March 21, 1963

“I’d like you to give my love to my family and friends.”
Ted Bundy, Florida, January 24, 1989.

“You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everyone dances with the Grim Reaper.”
Robert Alton Harris, California, April 21, 1992. (This was paraphrased from a movie).

The image depicts the hanging of Jefferson Davis (which did not really happen).

Monday, October 24, 2011

Communicating clearly to nontechnical audiences - the grandmother test

Albert Einstein reportedly once said that:

“You do not really understand something until you can explain it to your grandmother.”

In a blog post on October 19th titled "Tech Communication Tips" Matt Eventoff described how:

“I often ask professionals to explain a concept to me as if they were addressing an eighth grade class – I find this exercise works well to help a professional prepare a presentation to a non-tech crowd – this often generates stories and analogies that would otherwise have remained undiscovered.”

Here is an example from failure analysis. The ASM Materials Engineering Dictionary says that a striation is:

“A fatigue fracture feature, often observed in electron micrographs, that indicates the position of the crack front after each succeeding cycle of stress. The distance between striations indicates the advance of the crack front across that crystal during one stress cycle, and a line normal to the striations indicates the direction of local crack propagation.”

That definition is almost meaningless unless (as shown above) you already have seen a photo of some striations. (The scale marker in the lower right corner is 3 microns long, which is about 0.00012 inches).

I co-authored a paper for insurance adjusters that appeared in the April 1994 issue of Claims Magazine. It was titled: "Don’t Let Your Case Rust Away: evidence preservation vital of surfaces produced by fracture." We discussed striations with two analogies:

“Repeated cycles of loading can cause cracks to initiate and grow, a process called fatigue. The fatigue cracks will grow until the remaining cross-section can no longer carry the load, and fracture occurs.

In fatigue, the deformation only occurs locally and repeatedly at the tip of the growing crack. This repeated opening and closing of the crack tip forms microscopic features called striations. Striations are rows of parallel hills and valleys which appear similar to the surface of corduroy fabric, or a plowed field.”

The painting by Albert Anker and the photo by Jsemenak both are from Wikimedia Commons.