Good Work Deserves a Good Presentation

April 29, 2013

Once again i find the AERA annual meeting engaging and worthwhile. I gladly yield to the seductive pull of passionate people sharing what they know and do.

And, as usual, i have seen some really smart people give some really bad presentations.

Speakers talking at onehundredmilesanhour to squeeze in everythingtheywant tosay. Speakers going substantially over their allotted time. Speakers showing slides with paragraphs full of words in small unreadable type. Speakers standing facing the screen instead of facing the audience.

I think we can do better.
Most presentation problems can be solved by rehearsing in advance.

Timing. Practice your presentation before you come to the conference. Use a watch or stopwatch. If necessary, shorten your talk to allow you to speak at a normal relaxed pace and still hit the high points. When a speaker goes over time, that cheats the others and makes the audience restless.

Visuals. Powerpoint slides work best when they are simple and colorful. Paragraphs of words and complex tables are neither colorful nor simple. Save those for handouts or downloadable PDFs. You know those details, we don’t and we must fight to grasp everything while you’re saying something else.

Audience engagement. We would rather see your face than your back. If you read from your projected slides, we cannot see your face. And reading from the screen makes it appear that you don’t know your stuff. Write your main points on index cards, hold them in your hand, and face your audience.

Videotape yourself and critique. Use a smartphone or generic videocam to record your practice presentations. Check for the above points. Practice and record again until you’re comfortable with the way you come across.

If your work is important enough to present, it’s worth presenting well.

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Social media for researchers and academics

April 21, 2012

Here’s my presentation for the AERA 2012 communication workshop i cohosted with friend and colleague Ron Dietel of UCLA CRESST. I suggest things to consider when planning to use social media to share research findings with non-specialist audiences and the media.


Improve Communication: Think Visually

October 19, 2011

blah blah blah

Book Review
Blah Blah Blah: What to Do When Words Don’t Work.
By Dan Roam.
Portfolio/Penguin Books, 2011.  350 p.

Nothing helps us see a vague idea more clearly than trying to draw it out.

Dan Roam is all about clear communication, and his two previous books make that very clear.

His previous two books, The Back of the Napkin and  Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures, also demonstrate how we do ourselves a disservice by limiting our communication to words.

This book expands on his central idea that we can, and should, communicate much more clearly by drawing simple pictures to help us clarify our message.

Throughout eons of human development, Roam says, our ability to think has evolved along two different paths. One path specialized in seeing the world as lots of little pieces (Roam’s fox character, clever, witty, and linear), while the other path specialized in looking at the world as a whole (Roam’s hummingbird character, quick, exuberant, and spatial).

Only in the past 5,000 years did we begin the gradual shift to writing words. Now that we find ourselves facing some of the most difficult challenges of all time, we suddenly realize that “we’ve lost half our mind.”

With simple and very clear illustrations, he demonstrates how we can “get our visual mind back” by combining our our piece-by-piece (fox) and all-at-once (hummingbird) views.

In words and pictures, Roam illustrates Einstein’s theory of relativity, the evolution of Starbuck’s coffee from Peet’s, Bernie Madoff’s investment scams, Coca-Cola’s marketing of VitaminWater, the history of the SAT test, and the development of communication from cave wall paintings to the alphabet.

Characters who make informative appearances include Leno and Conan, The Medicis and the Rothschilds, Abraham Maslow, Leonardo da Vinci, Edwin Land, and Dmitri Mendeleyev.

When Roam began The Back of the Napkin about five years ago, he started by asking, “If simple visuals are so powerful, why don’t more people use them?” Then he later realized his starting question was only half-right. The question isn’t “Why don’t more people think with pictures?,” because we DO think in pictures, all the time. The real question is, “Why have we forgotten that?” Blah Blah Blah is his answer.

As in The Back of the Napkin, Roam offers tools to make it easier for us to think about and share complex ideas. The Napkin tools focused almost entirely on the pictorial, but the tools in this book show us how to combine our visual and verbal minds.

One fundamental premise of this book is that we don’t need all the customary blah-blah-blah to get our message across. Regardless of what we want to say, we can make any idea clear and compelling, both to our audience and to ourselves. By learning to engage both our verbal mind and our visual mind we can improve any piece of communication.

Every good idea can be made clearer,  every missing idea can be found, and every misleading or fraudulent idea can be exposed.


Communicating research more effectively

January 21, 2011

Students and faculty who plan to attend the AERA Annual Meeting this year may be interested in a communications professional development course.

A half-day workshop, Communicating research through effective presentations, social media, and writing, will focus on these sometimes neglected skills.

Instructors will be Ron Dietel, assistant director for research use and communications at UCLA’s National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST);  Barbara McKenna, Communications Director for the School Redesign Network at Stanford University and for the Leadership for Equity and Accountability in Districts and Schools (LEADS); and Paul Baker, senior communicator at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER).

The syllabus is here

The course blog is here

The course Ning is here

Registration information is here


Communicating education research

December 28, 2010

Over the years I’ve fielded calls from Frank Schultz, an education reporter for the Janesville (Wis.) Gazette. “Paul, I’m working on a story about (_____). What does education research say about it?”  Frank is good at providing feedback on articles I publish in a quarterly newsletter too. He recently reacted to a story about assessment practices in Wisconsin schools, and ended with this observation:

“. . . In any case, the article makes some sense to me because I have heard similar talk from some edu-doctors around here. Maybe someone should research how to communicate education concepts with the public.”

Frank makes a very good point. There is a lot of room for improvement.  Researchers often seem to live on a different planet from classroom teachers, not to mention the man in the street.

Speaking as a communicator, I can report on a few efforts to bridge the gap, both continuing and sporadic.

Members of the American Educational Research Assn. have two interest groups to address communication issues:  Communication of Research and Research Use.

AERA’s Communication and Outreach Committee presents panels at each year’s annual meeting on communicating education research to the public. I have helped organize this panel for the past 2 or 3 years. We gather newspaper reporters, bloggers, and researchers to speak about communication from their perspective.

In my own work I take cues from my friends in science, including the Natl. Assn. of Science Writers and the AAAS and the NSF.  Last year I attended their joint conference on science research communication and can recommend it.

The Education Writers Association, which serves reporters, editors, and higher ed communicators, holds workshops throughout the year and an annual conference. I’ve benefited from getting to know reporters and other higher ed people and look forward to the next conference in April.

In our own state, WCER hosts leaders of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Educational Service Agencies (CESAs) annually for a one-day conference. Researchers share their recent work with CESA staff and productive conversation ensues; sometimes new partnerships form.

So what I describe is a mix of research and practice. Frank’s original point remains, though:  The field of education communication is ripe for more research on what’s effective.


Wanted: Ambassadors for Science

June 16, 2010

unscientific america

Unscientific America:
How scientific illiteracy threatens our future.
By Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum
Basic Books, 2009.  209 pages.

Elected leaders point to a heavy snowfall in Washington, D.C. and claim that refutes the claims of global warming.

Forty-six percentage of Americans subscribe to young-Earth creationism.

Scientific research refutes the contention that vaccines cause autism in children. But every time a new study comes out on the subject, the parents and their supporters have a “scientific” answer that allows them to retain their beliefs.

Many people get their “science” from celebrities, friends, and a few non-mainstream doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus.

Where is today’s Carl Sagan?

As science awaits the next Great Communicator (Neil deGrasse Tyson is one possibility) this book considers other avenues for bringing useful and accurate information about science to the news media, political and cultural leaders, and the general public.

The authors have communicated about science for quite a long time. Chris Mooney hosts the Point of Inquiry podcast and is author of The Republican War on Science. Sheril Kirshenbaum is a member of the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas-Austin and is a former congressional science fellow.

Their lively book discusses the rifts between science and the major subcultures that shape our thinking—politics, news media, entertainment, and religion. It then proposes ways to bridge these rifts.  Mooney & Kirshenbaum argue that the burden of bridge-building rests with scientists and their professional organizations. For science to attain its deserved place at the table of public discourse, several things must happen.

Universities must reward scientists for public outreach and communication. University science programs should offer a more interdisciplinary education that unites scientific culture with communication and mass culture.

Scientists and their organizations must learn to make their knowledge politically relevant. They must learn to negotiate the halls of Congress as skillfully as any other interest group.

Film and television are massively powerful media and can be used to misinform. Scientists must learn how to wield these media, and for virtuous purposes (Randy Olson is doing a good job).

Although science and religion seem to clash regularly, the official position of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science is that faith and science are compatible. The scientific method in no way rules out the possibility of entities or causes outside of nature; it simply stipulates that they will not be considered within the framework of scientific inquiry.  Besides, the authors say, scientists might benefit from more conciliatory exchanges with the religious community:  The faithful have a vast store of knowledge about what it takes to motivate people, create community, and bring about social change.

Reconnecting science and our society will require mobilizing a new workforce, the authors say. The higher education science “pipeline” should generate more “science ambassadors” who can engage in outreach. At the same time, pro-science activists need to help. This can occur through communication with politicians,  the news media, the entertainment industry, and religious organizations.

As universities trains more scientists, also ensure they learn more about politics and the media. Scientists need communication skills to act as culture-crossers who engage in outreach.


Communicating research through mass media

May 4, 2010

Here’s a gold mine of ideas how researchers can communicate more effectively with the public, via print, broadcast, and online media.

At the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Denver we heard from two researchers and two media people. The topic of the panel session was “Crafting your work for a general audience: Researchers and the mass media.”

scott jaschik

scott jaschik

Scott Jaschik, InsideHigherEd.com  “You guys are losing the battle for ideas and you are largely ignored.”
Watch video

holly yettick

holly yettick

Holly Yettick, formerly with Rocky Mountain News.  “How education journalists and bloggers decide which topics to cover.”
(Holly is author of the report “The Research that Reaches the Public: Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?”)  Watch video

marc lamont hill

marc lamont hill

Marc Lamont Hill, Teachers College, Columbia. “Operating in these public spheres is legitimate work and necessary work.”
Watch video

jonathan zimmerman

jonathan zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman, NYU Steinhardt. “Being an Op-Ed writer has made me a much better historian and a much better academic”
Watch video