Great Presentations

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As a PhD student, I feel a lot of pressure to sound smart. When I present, usually in the setting of group meetings, but also in formal presentations such as those we practiced in Great Presentations, I feel a lot of pressure to come off as a productive researcher. This is evident in the tons of stuff I try to fit in my talks. While I have had no talks that went overtime, the truth is I had always prepared more content than I delivered. My urge to tell more—wanting to give more background on robots, wanting to show every visual to convey the complexity of my chip design—stems from the uncertainty that my output passes muster for the field I’m entering.

“I’ve put in so much work! Surely everything I did is worth telling about,” I think to myself when planning my talks, “If I made any of this seem simpler than it is, my audience may confuse my work for an easy project.” Leaving out any detail and every bug I encountered would be such disservice to the hours poured into making progress.

The pressure to give dense talks is also due to an impression I get from being an audience in other presentations, those given by professors and more senior students. As a PhD student still learning the arcane language of my field, I often find it hard to understand talks by more established researchers, and when I do understand, the efforts that went into the research always seem herculean.

As a result of these pressures, I feel I aim to impress (and possibly to beg approval) rather than to communicate when I am on the stage. When I am pressed for time to hit all the points I planned, my mind becomes singularly focused on powering through the content; my story gets muddled, I forget to breathe, and “um”s, “so”s, “I think”s break out. Being rushed is also bad for my body language: I break connection with the audience, I cease to interact with my visuals, and I stare at my own visuals.

Committing to giving a good presentation, especially one that communicates rather than merely dazzles the audience with myriad details, and in particular one that fits in the talk’s time limits, requires courage. Crafting such a presentation requires omitting the details in the research that were often the hardest parts to overcome. The presenter has to be confident the research is sound even when parts have to be left out.

Having a well-timed presentation gives the audience the chance to absorb the story, and it gives the presenter valuable time and a clear head to be aware of the talk’s delivery. Among all the feedback I got from the Great Presentations class, this advice to exercise restraint while planning talks is the most important, since it affects so many other aspects of presenting.

The other major finding I had in Great Presentations is about practicing and improvising.

Now that I frequently speak about my own research, I’ve come to understand presentations as assemblages of many smaller talks. Oftentimes, presentations are ad-hoc: I may be describing my research as part of a conversation, or I may be put on the spot at a meeting. In every setting, the time allocation and level to which my audience is up to speed varies, so I change the way I assemble my mini talks accordingly. However, while the overall speeches are tailored, the mini talks are often well practiced and get carried over between presentations.

When I observe other researchers give presentations, I suspect they are also piecing together previous material. In this method of giving presentations, slides and visuals are an organizational crutch that help cue the presenter’s mind on which rehearsed segment to launch into.

Improvising while drawing upon recycled material is itself not a bad thing. I am much more at ease when giving a recycled presentation segment, and as a result my delivery is much smoother.

A professional improv comedian once told me, in improvised skits, individual actors often recall lines from previous shows and creatively adapt them to new situations. The interplay between practice and improvisation is demonstrated in Dr. Martin Luther King’s August 28, 1963 speech: the entire segment starting at “I Have a Dream” was off-script, but rhetorical experts point out its elements coming from King’s past speeches and sermons.

But the hazard of endlessly repeating segments of old talks is failure to consider whether the mini talks are up to date. As my research progresses, my mini talks should obviously change as well. Furthermore, while giving a familiar talk is comforting for me, I may have failed to consider better ways to describe my research.

Question-answer interactions during talks help break the cycle of repeating old ideas. Audience questions taught me as the presenter what ideas are not getting across. I noticed I often resort to rehearsed answers: I start back at the beginning in attempt to tell the full story. Instead, I should aim for depth in my answers. If the question asker didn’t nail the question, guide her to ask the deeper question. Answers to good questions are the best chance to fill in the details that had been left out, and they are the precursors to mini talks to include in the future presentations.

Giving great presentations takes time, certainly more time than simply throwing together PowerPoint slides and winging through the talk on stage. But expending time to prepare great presentations is worthwhile. We admire researchers who adeptly communicate their work. Deciding what details to include and what to leave out—to attempt presenting new ideas in untried talk segments, or to resort to familiar spiels—these decisions are the heart of the art of giving great presentations.

Academic Writing Final Assignment—Reflection

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We all have our writing mannerisms. One of mine is the three-item list:

“…attend meetings, email, and brainstorm…”

“…mode of locomotion, sensing ability, and the extent of robot automation…”

“…visual sensing, complex AI, and dynamic body control…”

“…planning, sensing, and motor control…”

“…SPEC for general purpose computing, PARSEC for multithreaded applications, and Whetstone for floating-point-intensive applications…”

“…the use of the computer, the needs of the user or organization who owns the computer, and the overall size of the represented problem…”

All of these halting, heavy-handed structures came from the small collection of writing I penned for Academic Writing.

In recent years, I’ve striven to write concisely. Writing for coursework asks me to hit key points in brief answers, and writing for work demands summarizing remarks to bullet points fit for emails or PowerPoint. This drive to increase the information density in every sentence has caused me to rely on long formal words and unnatural sentence structures to deliver detail.

The snippets I listed are the worst examples. In peer editing sessions, I paid attention to where I lose my reader in each piece of writing. Usually I succeed in my great escape the moment I invoke the three-item list, those dreaded chains of noun phrases that so strain the reader’s attention. Instead of packing in detail, I should have expanded on them. Every noun phrase deserves an animated verb—each link should have had the freedom to tell a story, fleshing out its meaning and relevance.

Clear and friendly writing uses short words. It should pack the same amount of content that can be absorbed at the speed of reading the text out loud. Smooth writing should also send the reader down to the full stop without stumbling or having to double back to pick up missed words or phrases. Somewhere in the journey of having to read more and write more every day, I have forgotten the joy of reading slowly and out loud. Surely, doing so would have called attention to the three-item lists and compelled me to iron out them out.

In writing, telling the story comes first. Compelling science writing is like telling a good story to a friend: it should be chronological, and it should set up scenes and characters only as needed to move the plot. If the science necessitates a definition or a reference to prior work, do so in their deserved sentences or paragraphs, and keep them short. With this advice, I would expand my three-item lists into characters and events as needed to tell the story.

During the peer editing sessions in this class, I would sometimes stumble while reading or not understand the intended meaning of a sentence. I would grow weary of the defense “but that’s how it’s written in my field!” This response is flawed and begs two questions—Does everyone in the field indeed agree on the meaning of the text in question, when the writing is ambiguous or inscrutable? What good is it to enforce language barriers to distinguish insiders from outsiders of the field?

I admire academics that can explain advanced topics in plain language. They are the writers and speakers who inspire the public and educate newcomers to the field, and I suspect they are also adept at pitching their newest research to sponsors and reviewers, because not all of those readers are ever in the exact same field. The skills for writing for my discourse community and for a general audience should not be so different—even experts appreciate context and clear writing. Good science is accessible. Writing that captivates a broader audience than necessary is better than that which persuades too few.

Computer science as a field has the luxury of being relevant in the lives of most of the world population. But with that broad audience comes the hazards of folk science and distrust. We can defend against such dangers through plain, excellent writing, ensuring that the science is accessible to the interested. Elevating the standards for communication is a central imperative in science, and fields can either wither from neglecting this obligation or, by embracing the art, thrive.

Draft #ifihadglass

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A Google Glass device is the opposite of a telepresence robot: the former, a humanized computer; the latter, a computerized human.

Telepresence robots are brilliant for allowing someone to sense an environment and interact with far away people while staying put—giving mobility to someone who is forced to be stationary.

Along these lines, the brilliance of Glass is to enable commonly stationary computer use to anyone forced to be mobile. Wouldn’t it be nice to code, attend meetings, email, and brainstorm, all while on the run?

It would save us many ills from being stationary all day.

(99 words)

Arranging Things

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My first layout shift was the night after Ahmadinejad spoke on campus. With little experience in newspaper design, I moved around boxes of text and photos aimlessly on a computer until 2 am, when the editors realized a novice was in charge of the front page and had to politely take over.
Dejected, I signed up for more shifts. I soon fell in love with being part of pulling together a daily newspaper. Long nights of production became a staple of my college experience.
My story at Spectator isn’t adventurous like that of many reporters and photographers. Rather, my journey at Spectator involves a lot of figuring out the best way to arrange things.
I remember meticulously arranging photos of and briefs on Columbia dorms, laboring until wee hours until declaring it aesthetically pleasing—only to realize the next day that I neglected to include Schapiro dorm. There was the weekend of the Year in Review issue, when I spent 20 hours with the photo editor experimenting with arrangements of photo cutouts of influential people at Columbia. I remember all the countless other layouts and designs that worked well—and also those that didn’t.
I learned what I could about graphic design, about white space, dominance, and balance. I learned that good design communicates concisely and cleanly, and learned that good design is hard to describe, but is instantly recognizable where it exists. Once, I found a book titled “Arranging Things: A Rhetoric of Object Placement” on a field trip to the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum with the design staff, and laughed delightfully at the design wisdom in its title.
It wasn’t long before I found some of my closest friends at Spectator, and found it comforting that there was always a place at Columbia where I would find people similarly fascinated by media and design. For me, the appeal of Spectator was magical; it served as a professional training ground, a hobby, and a social club, all arranged in a neat package.
I never thought of myself as a manager, but by junior year I found myself in a newly created position in charge of building the staff. That progressed with long meetings with editors discussing the appeal of Spectator to students, and devising strategies to recruit and keep them on board.
But despite the many students who expressed interest in Spectator, not many more were staying around. I was disappointed as sections continued to suffer from understaffing and stressed resources for training.
It took me three years to realize that no singular story explains how or why students become dedicated to Spectator. I took me just one month to realize that there’s no way to generalize it in an evangelical recruiting pitch.
An editor said that Spectator is valuable because it endows “hard skills” in ways that few humanities classes could teach. As a computer engineering student who spends many of my wakeful hours staring at code, I made Spectator my classroom for looking at my world in more complex ways. It was the way I could escape the technical world of engineering and anchor my work and in something I was passionate about.
However, no rule exists to prescribe the most enjoyable or healthy way to incorporate Spectator in college life. Some gain professionally while learning editing skills. Some find passion in journalism. Some relish in having a space on campus where pizza parties and friends can always be found.
At Spectator, I learned that discovering the best arrangement of where to place one’s professional, recreational, and social lives is difficult. What is striking about Spectator is that of the students who pass through its doors, no two find the same value in joining the student organization, and no two put forth the same aspects of their lives to the newspaper.
For me, I am deeply grateful that I had the magical experience of having all of these lives overlap in a singular pursuit.
But I have also learned that perfect overlap is not the only, and certainly not ideal, way to arrange these lives. As evident in the imperfect staff retention rate at Spectator, and in the anxieties many students feel about careers, interests, and friends after college, finding the best arrangement is a process of aesthetic experimentation, which may seem arduous and aimless. A good arrangement like Spectator is hard to describe, but is instantly recognizable where it exists.