Saturday, August 29, 2015

Going to the dark side with a redesign of PowerPoint slides

Design of PowerPoint slides and other visual aids is partly an art. At Ehhos3 on Thursday, August 27th Leslie Belknap blogged about How We Redesigned Slides For A Buffer and Moz Webinar.

Three of the four very artistic revised slide examples were extremely dark. I mean dark like Van Gogh’s painting of The Potato Eaters (shown above), not like Darth Vader in the Star Wars films. Slides with a dark image background will work in a webinar, since each participant can adjust his screen settings to make them legible.

Don’t try slides this dark within a presentation that will be projected in a meeting room though. The blinds or curtains might not darken the room enough, or there just might be a whiteboard rather than a high-contrast projection screen. The resulting lack of contrast might approach the following cliche.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

How did you get selected to speak? Were you the first choice or the 51st?

The Pearls Before Swine cartoon for August 24th asked that question. Stephan got invited to speak as an author at the National Book Festival. Then Rat asked him if their first fifty choices for speaker had died.

That putdown is a reminder that a speaker’s focus should be on his audience rather than how important he thinks he is for having been chosen.

A Puck cartoon from 1899 came from the Library of Congress.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Using pop-up debate to teach adolescents not to be scared of speaking up in class

In the March 2015 issue of AMLE Magazine (from the Association for Middle Level Education) there was an article by Dave Stuart, Jr (who teaches history and English to ninth graders in Michigan) titled 5 Strategies for promoting college and career readiness. His first strategy was to Go Big on Argument. How can this be done? Dave says:

“First, form the day’s lesson around a debatable question. For example, rather than setting an objective that states ‘The students will demonstrate an understanding of the differences between Mayan and Aztec cultures,’ ask, ‘Which civilization would have been better to live in, the Mayan or the Aztec?’

The lesson can still look much the same as you would have taught it with the prior objective, except that now the exit ticket for the lesson can require students to answer the debatable question. The only way they can do this is by making a debatable claim and supporting it with evidence and reasoning. They’ll argue every day if you try this - and if your students are like mine, they will learn to love it.
Second, bring the power of argument into the classroom through simple, robust pop-up debates. The pop-up debate strategy is simple:

*  Every student speaks at least once, at most __ times (the maximum depends on your time constraints and the breadth of the debatable question you’ve posed).

*  To speak, students simply stand (‘pop’) up and talk. The first person to speak has the floor. When more than one student does this simultaneously, I coach them on how to practice self-control and social intelligence, yielding the floor politely.

*  In every debate, teach and assess one or two speaking skills. Sentence templates are an ideal scaffold for this.

Pop-up debate has become a favorite class activity in my room over the past few years, but keep in mind that it takes some skill to use the strategy well. You’re probably doing it right when kids start begging you for a debate.”

Pop up debate is a kinder, gentler activity than traditional debate that requires walking to the front of the classroom. How scary is that? In June 2012 I blogged about What social situations scare American adolescents, and what are their top 20 fears? A large careful, survey called the NCS-A found that the most common fear (35.8%) was Performing before an Audience, one version of which is a traditional debate. The second most common (24.9%) was Speaking in Class.

Dave described pop-up debate in more detail in a recent pair of articles on his web site. On August 14th there there was Starting strong with the transformative & simple Think-Pair-Share strategy. Dave described debate preparation by students first thinking about the topic alone, then discussing it with a student partner (pair), and finally going on to share with the whole class. On August 17th there was Beyond the Fear of Public Speaking: Making the First Pop-Op Debate a Success for All Students. Last year there also was a nine-minute YouTube video on Problems with Pop-Up Debates

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Three more generic spam comments

Honest feedback on either a speech or blog post is wonderful. In one case an alert reader caught me when I accidentally said seconds rather than minutes. Oops!

Dishonest feedback to induce posting of links to other questionable web sites is awful. Recently I got three comments on my blog posts that all wound up in the Google Blogger spam folder. None added anything useful. They began as follows:

1]  I always liked your blog post because you always comes with different ideas and information. I always shared your site post with my friends. Keep posting and I will follow you.

2]  I admire the valuable information you offer in your articles. I will bookmark your blog and have my children check up here often. I am quite sure they will learn lots of new stuff here than anybody else!

3]  Very very interesting post. I like this one. Gotta bookmark this one. More information visit our site...

As I noted last December, these comments are generic - completely independent of the content they claim to discuss. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

New doesn’t mean great

Opening and closing latched gates is a nuisance. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a gate that opened by itself as you drove up to it, and then closed behind you?

At Wikimedia Commons I found a description of the patented (U.S. 13,109) circular one from 160 years ago shown above on the front page of Scientific American magazine for August 25, 1855. When you drive onto the platform E the gate rolls to the left to let you enter. Why aren’t these everywhere? (Does a rolling gate gather no moss?) There is a fatal design flaw though. The groove for the gate soon would fill with windblown dust, which when wetted would form mud - and would keep it from rolling freely.

Decades ago I saw photos and brief stories about the little British Reliant Robin three-wheeled cars. They were light, inexpensive, fuel efficient, and actually licensed as motorcycles. What could go wrong? As shown above in a brief YouTube video, their cornering performance was rather abysmal. There is a hilarious 7-1/2 minute BBC Top Gear video about Rolling  a Reliant Robin

I’ve been using PowerPoint for a decade, and have thought perhaps there might be something new and better to replace it. There are recent lists with five alternatives here and here. But, I’d prefer not to get the equivalent of a Reliant Robin.    

The image of a latched gate also came from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How to confuse your speech audience with a misleading title

On Sunday, August 16th, Brian Tracy posted an excellent four-minute YouTube video of a speech. It is about the seven most effective ways to open a talk (and make a powerful presentation) which are:

1] Present a problem that needs a solution.
2] Present a common goal.
3] Ask a rhetorical question to grab attention.
4] Make a startling statement.
5] Tell your own story of why you’re here.
6] Compare or contrast two things or conditions.
7] Promise them advantages and benefits from listening.

But, the misleading title just is Brian Tracy, How to Talk and Prepare a Powerful Presentation. Also, back on December 12, 2012 he posted the same video with the shorter title How to Talk and Prepare a Powerful Presentation. He didn’t take his own advice, since on page 26 of his Speak to Win book he says:

“There is a powerful method of preparation that I have used over the years. I start with a clean sheet of paper. I write the title of my talk at the top. I then write a one-sentence description of the purpose or objective of the talk. What is the ‘’job’ it has to do?”

There’s also an amusingly backward hand gesture near the beginning. Watch Brian’s hand move counterclockwise when he says:

“We imagine that a talk is like a circle, and it starts at the top like a clock and it goes tick, tick, tick, and it comes around back to where it started.”
The audience image came from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Mixing up clear English and turning it into mud

At a local public library I recently found the new book Spin•glish: the definitive dictionary of deliberately deceptive language, by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf. It has numerous examples of how to muddy up your language with jargon, which is something that a speechwriter always should avoid. (There was a preview in Vanity Fair with 25 examples).

Here are six examples for products:

Air sickness vomit sack becomes motion discomfort receptacle.

Cow manure becomes dairy nutrients.

Hammer becomes fastening device impact driver.

Hex nuts become hexiform rotatable compression units.

Paint becomes facade protectant.

School bus becomes education transport module.

An event like an airplane crash also gets muddied up to controlled flight into terrain or  failure to maintain clearance from the ground. The former phrase can be made even more confusing by use of the acronym CFIT, which would be pronounced see fit.

Sex gets several spin terms. Three from Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina, are:

Adulterous sex becomes serious overdrive.

Committing adultery becomes hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Sex becomes incredibly intense conversation.

Three other related terms are:

Engaging in illicit sex becomes discussing Uganda.

Outdoor sex becomes watching badgers.

Zero gravity sex becomes undue preferential treatment.

You can read more at the web site for the book.

The only error I found in the book was that on page 154 it claimed that:

Spade becomes round-nose shovel - a substitute descriptive term for the digging tool formerly called a spade, now widely used by hardware stores in an effort to avoid a word that once was a common racial epithet.

My 1994 5th edition of the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific and Technical Terms says a spade instead is:

“A shovellike implement with a flat oblong blade; used for turning soil by pushing against the blade with the foot.”

The cement mixer was adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Did a survey find that Americans’ greatest fear is a waitress forgetting about them - pedisecaphobia? No!

An article in The Onion on Friday, August 14th, claimed that:

“Surpassing their anxieties regarding public speaking, mass shootings, and natural disasters, Americans’ single greatest that their waitress will forget about them.

....More than 70 percent of the individuals we surveyed listed having their waitress set down some glasses of water, promise to come back and take their order when they’re ready, and then never return to their table as their number one fear in life.

....Americans’ second-most common fear was that their waitress would take their order, but then a shift change would occur without her ever conveying the information to the next server.”

That article claimed their source was the latest Chapman Survey on American Fears, and quoted Chapman University sociologist Christopher Bader.

Is it true? No, it’s about 95% bogus! The Onion is a satirical phony newspaper. There really was a Chapman Survey on American Fears, but its results were reported back in October of 2014. When you look for current press releases about a new one at the Chapman University web site, you will come up empty. I blogged about last year’s survey in three posts titled What do the most Americans fear? The Chapman Survey on American Fears and the press release copying reflex, and Chapman Survey on American Fears includes both zombies and ghosts, and Where in the heck did this data really come from?  

What about the word pedisecaphobia? When I looked on the Phobia List there wasn’t one for waitresses. So, I looked in a Latin Dictionary to find that the word for waitress was pediseca, and created the phobia. The only place you’ll find it mentioned on Google, Bing, or Yahoo is in this blog post. 

UPDATE September 10, 2015

Somewhat hilariously on August 11th Sherri Ledbetter of Chapman University had blogged about
How to promote your research to an external audience - a case study in “fear”.

The waitress image was cropped from one by Alan Light at Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Fighting wildland fires: Hotshots, helicopters, and whatever else it takes

Today’s National Weather Service forecast for Boise begins with the phrase patchy smoke. That indicates we are in the midst of wildfires. How much of the U.S. is burning right now? About 1,151.3 square miles, or more than the whole state of Rhode Island (1033 square miles). What’s the biggest active fire? It’s the 340 square mile Soda Fire, which is burning here in Idaho, about forty miles southwest of Boise. I took the image of it shown above on the afternoon of August 13th, looking west on Kuna-Mora road south of Kuna, Idaho. 

The table shown above is from data posted by the National Interagency Fire Center here in Boise. How much land has been burned so far this year? It’s 10,171 square miles, or more than the entire state of Maryland (9707 square miles) and almost as much as Vermont (9217 square miles) plus Rhode Island (10,250 square miles).

How are wildfires fought?


Often it calls for handcrews of twenty people on the ground, out in the back country with hand tools. The elite crews are called hotshots. See a National Geographic article, Who are the hotshots? A wildland firefighting primer. There are about 400 people fighting the Soda Fire. They also have dozers.


Big Ericksen Aircrane helicopters are often seen passing through Boise. Their 72-foot diameter, six bladed rotors make a distinctive low-pitched sound. They have big hoses that can be dunked into lakes to refill their water tanks in just about thirty seconds, as can be seen in this amateur video from Idaho. A longer professional video shows water bombing of fires in California.     


A wide variety of Firefighting Aircraft are being used, ranging from single-engined single-seat crop dusters (like Dusty in the animated Disney movie Planes: Fire and Rescue), up to DC-10 airliners, as shown here on the Soda Fire. One type we often see operating from Boise is four-engined C-130s equipped with the MAFFS system for dropping 2600 gallons of retardant. Of course, there also are smokejumpers, who are like firefighting paratroopers.


For the Soda Fire there have been crews arriving from far away, including northern Michigan, at the border with Canada, and Alaska. There’s a constant juggling act to get the available resources sent around to handle everything that’s going on.

According to the Idaho Statesman:

"About 460 personnel are fighting the fire with 11 helicopters, 34 engines, 12 water tenders and 9 bulldozers."

Read more here:"

UPDATE August 19, 2015

This morning the Soda Fire reportedly was 95% contained, and just 70 people were fighting it. It now covers an area of 443.3 square miles. Yesterday it was 90% contained and 702 people were fighting it. Two days ago when it was 70% contained there there were 811 people fighting it. As of then, the states with current fires were as shown below:


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Should you “take a queue” or a “take a cue”?

The idiom “take a cue from” means:

“to use someone else's behavior or reactions as a guide to one's own.”

An August 10th blog post at Ethos3  titled Lazy Tips for Design  by Sunday Avery fumbled it in the following section:

Think Kid’s Book

Have you ever seen a presentation that looks minimal, contemporary, and sleek? It probably followed this design principle, which takes a queue from children’s books by only including a short amount of text and single object of focus per slide.”

On February 14, 2014 I blogged about a particular version of that design principle in a post titled Assertion-Evidence PowerPoint slides are a visual alternative to bullet point lists.

When you look up queue in Merriam-Webster you will find that one meaning is:

“a waiting line especially of persons or vehicles”

but that’s the second one listed in the full definition. The first is:

“a braid of hair usually worn hanging at the back of the head.”

The image of a queue came from a 1908 Puck magazine at the Library of Congress

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

There’s really no mystery about how common stage fright is

In mid-June Sara Solovitch’s book Playing Scared: A History and Memoir of Stage Fright came out. She described her journey to overcome performance anxiety about playing the piano. Sara also wrote about it an an article on Overcoming a Lifetime of Stage Fright that appeared in the New York Times on May 30th. She wrote another article in the July issue of Prospect magazine on Anatomy of Stage Fright. An excerpt from her book also has appeared at on June 21st.  

The book was reviewed in The Guardian by Scott Stossel on July 6th. It also was reviewed by Joan Acocella in the New Yorker on August 3rd. Her review claimed that:

“A final mystery of stagefright is just how many otherwise capable people suffer from it.”

Actually there is no mystery. The answer for lifetime fear is 21.2% of U.S. adults. That’s based on results from the National Comorbidity Survey - Replication (NCS-R) reported in a 2008  magazine article by by A. M. Ruscio et al. titled Social Fears and Social Phobia in the United States: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. You can read the full text here. In Table 1 it lists the lifetime prevalence of social fears and phobias, with Public speaking/performance at 21.2% for fear and 10.7% for phobia. I blogged about that article in a November 2013 post titled How scary is public speaking or performance? A better infographic showing both fears and phobias. 

What did they mean by the phrase public speaking/performance? What was the exact question? After lots of digging, you eventually can find it listed at a web site called Collaborative Psychiatric Epidemiology Surveys. It is question SO1e, and is precisely about stage fright:

“...was there ever a time in your life when you felt shy, afraid, or uncomfortable in the following situations?)

Acting, performing, or giving a talk in front of an audience?”

I suspect that the other surveys mentioned in my blog post asked the same question about stage fright rather than just fear of speaking.

The image was adapted from All eyes are on you, Mr. President, found at the Library of Congress. It originally was from Puck magazine way back on March 5, 1913.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Getting to the next or previous slide during a PowerPoint show

A post on August 3rd at The PowerPoint Blog described Oh the many ways to advance a slide.
Their seven were:

1]  Right Arrow
2]  Page Down
3]  Space Bar
4]  Enter Key
5]  Down Arrow
6]  Mouse Click
7]  Remote Advancer (wireless controller)

I usually stick with a remote. But, It’s also useful to know both how to get to the next slide and the previous slide just using the keyboard. There are five ways shown above, including the N and P keys.

I don’t recommend using a left mouse click to advance, and a right click to go back because you cannot depend on these options working. If you’re presenting on someone else’s computer, they might have been reset.

For more keyboard shortcuts, see the Microsoft and Dummies web sites.

Users of Keynote on Apple Mac computers will find that these same combinations work, except that Enter and Backspace are replaced by the analagous Return and Delete keys. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

If your PowerPoint will put people to sleep, courtesy calls for handing out pillows

Doug Savage illustrated that in the August 3rd Savage Chickens cartoon shown above, simply titled Courtesy.

The Dilbert cartoon on August 6th was less courteous. A presenter asked whether there were questions.  Then Alice heckled him by asking if he had brushed his teeth too aggressively and accidentally stabbed himself in the brain (specifically the frontal lobes).

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Big rocks, cannon balls, and permeable paving

There always is more than one way to tell a story. Hear are three that are related, but emphasize somewhat different things. The first is a time management story that appeared in the 1995 book First Things First by Stephen R. Covey, Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill on pages 88 and 89. They didn’t say who it really came from though. 


“One of our associates shared this experience.

‘I attended a seminar once where the instructor was lecturing on time. At one point, he said, ‘Okay, it’s time for a quiz.’ He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it. ‘How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?’ he asked.

After we made our guess, he said, ‘Okay. Let’s find out.’ He set one rock in the jar...then another...then another. I don’t remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, ‘Is the jar full?”

Everybody looked at the the rocks and said, ‘Yes.’

Then he said, ‘Ahhh.’ He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and said once more, ‘Is the jar full?’

By this time we were on to him. ‘Probably not,’ we said.

‘Good!’ he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and the gravel. Once more he looked at us and said, ‘Is the jar full?’

‘No!’ we all roared.

He said, ‘Good!’ and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, ‘Well, what’s the point?’

Somebody said, ‘Well, there are gaps, and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life.’

‘No,” he said, ‘that’s not the point. The point is this: If you hadn’t put those big rocks in first, would you ever have gotten any of them in?’ ” 



The practical situation which started this idealized math problem is the stacking of cannon balls, as shown above at the famous civil war Fort Sumpter. A quarter century before First Things First was published I took a college course on An Introduction to Materials Science. That course included a discussion of the crystal structures for metals. Metallic bonding involves free electrons, and the crystal structures for many elements can be described by considering the close packing of equal sized spheres. How much free space is there left?

There are two common close- packed crystal structures - face centered cubic (fcc) and hexagonal close packed (hcp). For fcc the layers alternate in an A, B, C pattern. For hcp they alternate in a simpler A, B pattern.  Aluminum, copper, gold, nickel, platinum, and silver are face centered cubic. Cadmium, magnesium, and zinc are hexagonal close packed. For both structures the spheres fill about 74% of space (roughly 3/4), and the other 1/4 is empty. (Some rare earth elements instead have a double hexagonal close packed [dhcp] structure which is A, B, A, C, A). When you instead just randomly close pack spheres, they only fill 65% of space (roughly 2/3) and the other 1/3 is empty.

If you try to tell the BIG ROCKS story to engineers (chemical, mechanical, or materials) they may well sneer So What? and quote you those percentages.


Paving large areas like parking lots creates problems when dealing with runoff of rain water from storms. One solution is porous or permeable paving, which lets the water trickle through to the underlying soil and be absorbed normally. You can make pervious concrete by bonding together coarse gravel (rather than rocks, gravel, and sand), with Portland cement.   

An image of cannon balls came from the Library of Congress, and the permeable paver demo  image came from J. J. Harrison at Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The eleventh bad habit that can ruin a presentation

Today at SketchBubble Ashish Arora blogged about Ten Bad Habits That Will Ruin Any Presentation. Omitting the “Bad Habit No.” he used to begin each item, his list is:

"1)   Failing to put your remarks in context
 2)   Opening your remarks with an apology
 3)   Speaking behind barriers
 4)   Begging for more time to get your point across
 5)   Easing off on your standards because none of the other speakers are any good either
 6)   Punctuating all sentences with “um,” “oh,” or “you know.”
 7)   Talking faster and speeding up your slides because time is running out
 8)   Never read from your slides
 9)   Never clench your hands into a fist 

10) Don’t fidget"

The eleventh bad habit is a lack of consistent structure. His last three items really should be:

8)   Reading from your slides
9)   Clenching your hands into a fist
10) Fidgeting

Also, only his sixth item ends with a period.

Shifting structure can be used for poetic effect, like in the Pink Floyd song Wish You Were Here, where the lyrics trade order from good first to bad, and then change back:

“So, so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain.
Can you tell a green field from a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees, hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange a walk on part in the war
for a lead role in a cage?

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year.
Running over the same ground, what have we found?
The same old fear. Wish you were here.”

Saturday, August 1, 2015

How to confuse your audience with inconsistent hand gestures

Toastmasters International has a five-minute YouTube video on Gestures and Body Language which warns:

“Gestures that are not coordinated with the speaker’s message will sap the speaker’s energy and shift the audience’s focus away from the intended message.”

I just saw a good example of this in an otherwise excellent recent three-minute YouTube video by Brian Tracy on How to Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking. Watch his hands starting at 0:38 when he says:

“Most of all, your ability to give effective presentations both to small and large groups will increase your own feeling of self-esteem, self-respect and personal pride.”

As shown above, his gestures for small and large are backward from what would be expected. Perhaps he accidentally switched his word order, but kept the same gesture order.

Larger arm signals can provide a rich nonverbal vocabulary, as is seen in Army Field Manual 21-60 on Visual Signals.