Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Being a Better Speaker

Immediately after saying I probably won't post much, lookit! A post!

I have a really bad habit of leaving tabs open in my browser. Some will stay there for months. I've gotten somewhat better as I've started using Pintrest and just shove a lot of things in there, but sometimes there's tabs that just sit there.

One in particular that I need to close out comes from all the way back in October. The post is from the TED blog, and is on how scientists and engineers can be better speakers. While I don't think it's a bad post, I certainly don't think it's a good one.

First off "Be aware of your audience". Really? I don't think I'd ever heard that before. No. Certainly wasn't something that I've had hammered into my head since elementary school on every topic in which communication was being discussed.

Sarcasm aside, I think it's a fair point to make, but it's also one that should be so obvious that it doesn't need to be said. What needs to be said, is how to find the right level for your audience. And that's not something that can be reduced to a platitude. Fortunately, the author of the post does do some good at that by at least saying that scientists shouldn't "dumb down" the science. This is something I've definitely done in my history as a speaker. In my most popular talk, I've never shied away from bringing out calculus in front of a crowd that's mostly high school students or people that aren't mathematically inclined.

Why? Because sometimes, the details aren't important. One of my focuses as a communicator of science is to remind people that science isn't a collection of facts; it's a process. And even if people don't understand that process, they need to understand it's there. Hiding it away and skipping straight to the conclusions because your audience won't get every detail changes how our culture perceives science. And pseudoscientists play on that. Think of how many times you've heard the Creationist ruse that scientists supposedly engage in circular reasoning when they "date fossils by the rocks and date rocks by the fossils". That's not at all how it works. We don't just make up a paradigm and engage in that sort of specious reasoning. There's a lot more to it. Reminding people of the complexity makes those sort of over simplified strawmen of science be seen for what they really are.

The second point is also a trope. "Show the Relevance". While again, I don't think it's a bad idea, it's really not necessary. Again, pointing to my Anime Mythbusters talk, there is absolutely no relevance to any of it. I can't justify why you need to worry about the UV exposure someone will receive from a fictional Pokemon. Because you really won't need to. And you shouldn't.

Additionally, I think there's a serious issue with the demand that science always be immediately rationalizable. Most of the biggest discoveries, advances, and inventions haven't come because people were out to discover the particular thing they did. To put it another way, science doesn't progress as a series of "Eureka!" moments. It progresses as a series of "WTF?" moments. Stating that science always have a clear purpose with obvious and immediate application betrays the way science works. Ben Franklin was not experimenting with static electricity to power light bulbs.

So what's the take away? Science doesn't need to be relevant. It needs to be interesting. I'm willing to bet that most readers here can think of at least one scientific subject that's wholly boring to them, either because it's just not big enough for them to care about, or they know it so well that hearing it again is sleep inducing. But with the right person telling you about it, their passion becomes infectious. There is beauty in all nature. It just takes a skilled speaker to make people recognize it. But that doesn't mean it's relevant.

The third point is for speakers to "Paint a Picture". This is definitely good advice, but what the author doesn't mention is that it's a double edged sword. While giving a broader picture can help people find those points by which they can connect and apply their prior knowledge, it's also a potential way to lose an audience. It's quite easy to get lost in a picture.

For the past four months, I've been reading Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms. It's been a pretty awful experience. The author is constantly giving details that do nothing to convey the primary information. It's stories about the hosts he spends time with and then the bus ride to a remote location to look for ancient organisms. The amount of time and detail put into the irrelevant bits swamp the relevant story.

Finally a really smart comment that's all too often overlooked comes in fourth. "Make Numbers Meaningful". Hell. Yes. This is especially important in astronomy where the scales are so large, that the only way to communicate them is with scientific notation. Unfortunately, on scales that large, there's not a lot that you can do. Our human experience doesn't allow any comparisons that are going to be meaningful. But on smaller scales, it's entirely doable. Returning to the example of the UV exposure from a particular Pokemon, the answer ends up being best expressed in scientific notation, but by converting it to a ratio to compare it to typical exposure from the Sun, and then discussing how long it would take a pasty white guy like me to burn, it suddenly coverts a meaningless figure, or worse, a scary figure (since so many people are mathphobic), into something they can appreciate!

Cliches return for the fifth point on "Banishing Bullet Points". It's one that I'm not opposed to but I generally disagree with. The problem isn't bullet points. It's people using them incorrectly. Bad speakers essentially turn an outline into a bulleted Power Point and then use it as a crutch when they present. That's a problem. Rather, the speaker should introduce the information first, and then display the bullet point. As you do this, the audience will realize that what you're putting up isn't new information and as such, they won't tune you out trying to read them.

But if it's not new information, why have them? There's a very good reason. Leaving thoughts on a screen allows you to show they're still relevant. You're hanging on to them because you're going to return to them in a moment. Then, when you're ready, you can point back to a previous point you've left floating there.

Putting them into a bullet list also is a way to organize the information visually, often showing it as a point that falls below a heading which is the general idea. It solidifies the points as being hierarchical in nature. Which is great when you have things that are. And that's a lot in science. For example: Hypothesis, list of evidence. The author even suggests an "Assertion-Evidence" model for slides, but then seems to ignore that not all evidence is presented in the form of "charts, graphs, images, equations, etc". Sometimes your evidence is a list of points.

Another common bullet point mistake is display all of them as once. It's information overload. Instead, as I noted above, each one should be introduced independently and information layered on. When viewed retrospectively it isn't daunting. Especially when each one is introduced verbally.

When should bullets be dumped? If your information isn't linear, you probably don't need them. Flow charts are cool. Consider them. If you're not using it to hang onto a collection of points, you probably don't need them. If it's going to take an excessive amount of time for each one and you don't have anything else interesting going on, you can probably do something else.

A good example of navigating this is my Sexism in Anime talk. During the introduction I introduce 3 categories of a patriarchal society. Under each one I give several specific ways these the general categories are manifest. This is hierarchical information, so bullet points make sense. However, I then want to discuss each of those points in detail as they are exhibited (or not) in a particular series. At that point, I switch over to each individual point as a heading, and examine it with images from the series as my evidence (as shown in the preview image on the above link). When I need to summarize everything, I revive the bullet point and show the information as a collection. It's very effective. While people have a tendency to ignore events because they can't see it all listed in front of them, presenting how badly this particular (and very popular) series fails at representing women as worthwhile characters, it's harder to rationalize the events individually. In that sense, having that bulleted list is entirely appropriate and I wouldn't trade it for any other format.

The last point is very true, but also entirely unhelpful. "Deliver Dynamically". In short, the author says to have an enthusiastic, energetic, but natural style. Easier said than done for many people. So what should speakers concentrate on to pull this off? Hopefully, if you're giving a talk to a more general audience, it's because it's something special. Hopefully, you're not having to report the results of a 10 year study that failed to find any evidence for your hypothesis. That'd be a bummer and hard to find that enthusiasm for. So we'll assume it's something special. Enthusiasm should come naturally.

Similarly, natural shouldn't be a problem. I find it a somewhat annoying that so many people telling people how to speak think being "natural" is an intelligent comment. The reason is that humans are very diverse, even within a single individual. There's times when we're all somber. But there's also times when we're exuberant. Both are "natural" for us. There's very few people I've encountered that I suspect of being dryer than Ben Stein all the time.

But on the off chance that you are one of those people, there's still ways to play it. In particular, being that flat makes even the small variations stand out. One of my professors did have Ben Stein beat for dryness, but every once in awhile, he'd sneak in a joke. They were pretty awful* but they were worth paying attention for.

So in my mind, it's not that doing these things will make you better. You're likely already doing them, but other things are getting in the way. The largest is stage fright. Without realizing it, nervous tendencies will easily take over and pervert or destroy the enthusiasm that would otherwise be apparent. Excited about what you're talking about? Good, says the scumbag brain. Now you're talking too fast without having a dynamic vocal range!

It's hard to get over stage fright. One of the things that I've always reminded myself is that, at almost all of my presentations, I have an audience that's on my side. They're interested in the subject. Otherwise they wouldn't be there. That's something I use to my advantage. Instead of trying to forget the audience is there so I can concentrate on what I'm doing, I try to make sure I'm feeling the audience. Quite early on, I'll always drop something that's going to get a reaction.

In my Anime Mythbusters talk, it's discussing the depressing state of science education that gets disapproving *tsk*s from the audience. I follow that up with a big full slide warning. "This panel contains: Algebra, Graphs, Scientific Notation, Inequalities, Exponents, and Calculus." I say this at a clip of someone reading the fine print on a used car commercial and get cheers for it. I know the audience's energy is behind me, and I take that energy and ride it. Don't be scared of your audience. Use it. Get a good start and it puts you on the right path.

This is a double edged sword of course. If you're reading the audience's emotions and they turn sour, this can take the wind out of your sails and compound the issue. But after all the speaking I've done in the past 5 years, I've yet to have that happen.

I don't know how many of my readers here do much public speaking, but for those that do, I hope this offers something more useful than the cliche advise I've seen so many places.

* - Saturn has a density of 0.687 grams/cc3. This means that if you had a bathtub large enough, it would float. Of course, if you let the water out, it would leave rings.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Welcome to 2013

It's a new year now. Judging by the general trends on other blogs, I think that means I'm supposed to look back over 2012 in a reflective manner and make some goals for this year.

As a blog, I did pretty miserably last year. I've been dropping pretty heavily every year lately. Every year I tell myself that I'm going to write more, but the drive to do so has been pretty much gone. I've grown pretty burnt out on even my pet topics that were the foundation for this blog, which were Creationism and skepticism. It's not to say that I don't think Creationism is a worthwhile topic to discuss anymore. It's just that playing whack-a-mole with idiotic Creationist arguments gets old and causes migraines.

It's not to say I don't think skepticism isn't important either. If I did, I wouldn't attend Skepticon annually. But I've definitely hit a turning point with that too. A few weeks ago I got into a religion debate with a friend of a friend on facebook. He insisted that my arguments were irrelevant because I was talking about how people used to think about religion, but there were all these fancy pants new religious scholars that changed everything and if I'd only read a pile of books, I'd understand it.

In years past, I'd probably have done some research on each book and responded, but as he was making that argument, I had one of the strongest flashbacks I can remember in my life. I remembered an argument from way back sometime around 2006 in which I was still tearing Creationism apart left and right. On one particular occasion I had someone tell me that my arguments were invalid because some fancy pants new researchers had amazing new evidence for Creationism that was changing everything. I'm pretty sure they were trying to point me to the Institute for Creation research or some other such gibberish factory.

And here we are six years later now, and the ICR, AiG, the DI, and all the other Creationist "think tanks" (scare quotes obviously since there's very little actual thinking that goes on there) still haven't come up with a new argument. At best, they slap new names on things, but there's been nothing new.

Suddenly, engaged in the facebook debate, I realized that this was the same argument. I was supposed to buy into something because it was about to be big. And if you believe that, I'd like to sell you some serious stock in my patented wibblets because everyone's going to want one. I promise.

Or not. I've gotten tired of that type of debate tactic.

The Skeptic community tires me too, but for pretty much the exact opposite reason. Whereas debating idiots has turned into a dull monotony, the skeptic community has exploded in the past year or two and is going so many directions at once, I just don't have the energy to get excited by all the directions it's going.

To use another analogy from 2006, I went to San Diego Comic Con. There were so many things to do and the crowds so large, it simply became overwhelming. It was one of the first 5-10 I'd been to and I didn't know how to manage it. Instead of really enjoying the convention as I would do now given that I have a lot more convention experience under my belt, I just sat in the dealer's room for the bulk of the con.

That's about how I feel with the proliferation of topics the skeptic and secular community has been taking. I've grabbed my new pet topic, and I stay pretty up to date with that one, but while I recognize the others are important, I can't summon time time and energy to truly engage in them.

The topic that does occupy the vast majority of my time now is running Naka Kon. This year we're making some big changes, and due to some bumps we've hit along the way (such as a server crash without any sort of backup and several people having to step down for personal reasons without leaving any sort of plan or information for people stepping into the role), we've been doing a lot more work than should strictly be necessary. The majority of my past 3 days has been working on convention planning.

Overall, 2012 was a lighter year on the convention circuit for me. As I've attended more conventions, my expectations have continued to increase and many of the smaller ones lack sufficient programming I care about to earn my attendance any longer. I obviously attended Naka-Kon but also managed to get to Tokyo in Tulsa and Archon. But typically I also attend several of the small St. Louis anime conventions. This year, I missed all of them.

Looking ahead to 2013 conventions, I'm already lined up to attend Ohayocon in Columbus, OH in a few weeks. I'll be giving three talks there. I'll be at Naka again this year. I'm hoping to get to Dragon*Con (although I've been saying that every year for 5 years now), and I'm sure I'll be at Archon again this year.

As far as the rest of my topics for this blog, well, I probably will continue not to write much. It will probably continue to be the epitomes of Creationist inanity that will get posts.

I'll certainly be keeping adding to my list of all the ways our government... I'm sorry, one particular party has been trying to limit womens' freedom and then denying there's any sort of attack going on. So if that's a topic that you care about, perhaps check in on it here and there.

I keep seeing really cool astronomy articles, but aside from bookmarking them for later, deeper reading (which quite often doesn't happen), I have been bad about writing anything on them. Most often because I don't feel that I have anything to add. In particular, I think astrobites has done a really wonderful job of summarizing most of the best arXiv articles, which is where I quite often got things to talk about. Good on them.

So really, I don't think I'm going to make blogging more any sort of New Years resolution. I'm too reality stricken.

Instead, I think my resolutions will be to 1) do a better job of not letting my RSS feed get clogged up (I keep ignoring it for a week and come back to find hundreds of blog posts to read skim). 2) Argue with less idiots. Really. I don't need the migraines.

We'll see how this goes.