GEOG8260: The Art of Scientific Presentations

Learn practical lessons that will help you talk to your peers and to the public.

The ability to deliver effective and engaging oral presentations is a critical skill for scholars in all disciplines. Unfortunately, despite the importance of clear communication, professional presentations about research are too often confusing, abstract and boring. In this seminar, you'll be introduced to a diverse set of presentation methods and use exercises to apply these techniques to your own work and ideas. By the end of the semester, you will have experimented with a broad range of presentation styles and identified the method or methods that best suits your own style and research subject. More generally, you will have become a more effective communicator, improved your ability to discuss your research with non-specialists, and be better representatives for your discipline, your institution, and your ideas.


Webinar: Five Things You Can Do Right Now to Make Your Presentations a Little Bit Better
If you'd like to get a short preview of some of the ideas and approaches we'll review in this course, watch this short webinar I delivered to a seismology research group based in DC. It's available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V10W_PZVCos

If you have any questions about this class, please send an email to stgeorge@umn.edu.

5. Going off the grid (Section 001)

posted Feb 19, 2020, 2:00 PM by Scott St. George   [ updated Feb 19, 2020, 2:02 PM ]

You get a break from 'presenter mode' next week, but in lieu of preparing a presentation, I've asked you to start laying the foundation for your Pecha Kucha talk.

Remember, Pecha Kucha talks are organized around the '20x20' structure. This format does impose significant constraints on what (and how) you communicate, but because of those limits, it is a wonderful platform for experimentation and practice. If you'd like to learn more about the culture behind this style, check out 'Pecha Kucha and the art of liberating constraints' by Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen.

There are not many Pecha Kucha-style talks online that deal with a science or research subject, but here are a couple of examples that might be helpful to review.


____________________________

For next week, I'm asking you to complete three exercises:

What color is your slide deck?
First, I'd like you to develop a color scheme for your presentation and prepare two  slides (only two please) as exemplars. Your first slide should include a single quote and your second should feature a concept or definition (and both should relate to your research). Look at the portfolio of images you assembled last week to choose colors that match the subject of your presentation. Keep your scheme simple - you're only allowed to choose a background color, a main color, and a highlight color. As an aide, you can try out this online tool from Adobe - just choose an initial color and it will help you select another one or two as a compliment.

Please upload your slides to the Google Drive (I've made a new folder) no later than noon the day prior to class.

Grab your pencils and draw
In class we discussed the importance of planning out your talk before you start making visual aids. To help you get started making that plan, I've asked you to roughly sketch out slides for your Pecha Kucha talk. Please keep the unusual format of Pecha Kucha in mind when thinking about your visuals. Remember that each image will only be on screen for 20 seconds, so it will need to be simple enough for you to explain quickly. And because you are only allowed 20 slides, you will have to be judicious in your final selection. (But remember, in your initial plan, you may include a few 'extra' slides to help clarify your argument).

I've attached a 'storyboard' template to the bottom of this post to help with this exercise. Please bring two copies of your storyboards to class next week (one to share with a partner and one to give to me). 

What's your point?
Finally, the most important part of the planning process is to work out exactly what your main point is. Please write one or two sentences that encapsulates the single most important idea you want your audience to take away from your talk. Bring a printed copy of that too and be prepared to explain that idea to your partner.

4. We are visual animals (Section 001)

posted Feb 14, 2020, 10:28 AM by Scott St. George

Your next presentation challenge is to prepare a 5-minute talk on one idea related to your research using only photographs as visual aids. 

One idea. Five minutes. 20 photographs. No charts or data visualizations please (that's coming later). 

Please do not grab a bunch of pictures through Google Image Search (let's not commit any mass acts of copyright infringement here). Instead, I recommend either obtaining images from a creative-commons site like flickr.com or (and this is the preferred option) use your own photographs to illustrate the places, people, or ideas you study. I hope this exercise will give you the opportunity to build or extend a portfolio of images that will help you explain aspects of your research in this class and beyond. 

Like last week, please upload your presentation files to our shared Google Drive no later than noon on the Tuesday before our course meeting.

Two other jobs
I also asked you to complete three other tasks before our meeting next time. First, please read Garr Reynold's blog entry on 'Brain Rules for PowerPoint and Keynote presenters'. I think the section describing the importance of visuals as memory aids will be particularly helpful when you're putting together your next talk.

We will also build upon more of the ideas from Todd Reubold about the importance of design. To get prepared for that topic, please read the story of 'Bill Gates and visual complexity'. 

3. How constraints stimulate creativity(Section 001)

posted Jan 29, 2020, 6:41 PM by Scott St. George

Please remember I'll be away on travel next week, so our next meeting will be held on February 12!

Next class, each of you will give a brief presentation using the 'Takahashi method'. I first learned about this approach through a the 'Presentation Zen' blog, which featured a short post about the method and a nice story about its development.

For this assignment, I'd like you to focus on one important idea related to your research. Because you'll only have 5 minutes to give your presentation, you'll need to select an idea that is sufficiently narrow to be discussed briefly but is also also accessible to non-experts (the rest of us). Please try your best to respect the constraints of the format: one idea, 20 (big) words, one word per slide, 5 minutes.

Can I use colors, gradients, backgrounds, or other visual flourishes?
In a previous semester, a student asked "I'm writing for clarification regarding the use of font properties for next week's presentation. Do outlines, italics, fills (gradient, texture, image), or other adjustments to the font properties including using brackets or other punctuation overlook the purpose of the exercise?"

My short answer is that I'd prefer you to concentrate on (1) distilling one idea about your work that can be shared in only 5 minutes and (2) the choice of words that will help you reach that goal. If you're able to sort out those two issues to your satisfaction, feel free to experiment with design issues but try not to introduce any elements that will be too distracting. Keep it simple this time. You'll have the chance to unleash your inner designer very soon.

What font should I use?
I mentioned using 'standard' fonts can help avoid common formatting problems that plague presenters using PowerPoint or Keynote. You can scroll through a list of 'safe' fonts that are installed on all Windows or Mac machines right here. If you use construct your presentations using one of these fonts, you should be less likely to run into 'font problems'.

Where do I put my files?
I've just given all of you access to a shared folder on Google Drive. Please upload your presentations (either PowerPoint, Keynote, or PDFs) there no later than noon the day before class. Please remember to include your name in the file name (we don't want to end up with a dozen files called "Takahashi.ppt").

If you encounter into any problems uploading your file, just post a comment to this entry and we'll likely be able to fix it working together as a team.

Other jobs for next class
If you followed my (very important) suggestion and have a copy of 'Presentation Zen' (remember - better person!), please read Chapter 2 ('Creativity, Limitations, and Constraints) before our next meeting. And bring a notebook to keep track of your feedback for other participants.

Also, at the beginning of next class, we'll talk about the work of Todd Reubold, who is the director of communications and public affairs for the Institute on the Environment. Todd is one of the driving forces behind IonE's online magazine Ensia, and has worked very hard to help scientists at Minnesota become more effective communicators. His 'Fight The Power(Point)' has lit a spark under many of us here and elsewhere. Please look over his slide set (great visuals, but no substitute for his in-the-flesh presentation) and come prepared to discuss his approach to creating presentation superstars.


Bonus content
If you're curious what 421 slides in less than 40 minutes looks like, see it for yourself here: Internet Is Freedom.

2. Communicating effectively (Section 001)

posted Jan 24, 2020, 7:06 AM by Scott St. George

As a reminder, I asked you to complete two exercise prior to our next meeting:


Exercise I: Write a biographical sketch of your audience

We discussed the importance of understanding our audience, and the challenge of envisaging our research from someone else's perspective. I'd like each of you to write a brief (300 words or so) biographical sketch of a real audience you may have to face in the future. Alternatively, you can also consider an audience you've addressed in the past and want to reach more effectively.


In your sketch, try to address the '5 big questions' we reviewed in class. What's the setting of your presentation, and who are you addressing? What do they already know about your topic? Are they experts or novices? Where sources do they rely on to get information about your research? What issues are important to them? What preconceptions about your topic or tools that you'll need to fight against?


To support our discussion, I'll ask you to read 'Communicating Effectively With Politicians'. This article (it's really a speech) was given by a prominent retired politician in Canada who had a keen interest in science and wanted to help scientists get their point across to people who think very differently. I've shared the document at the bottom of this post.


Please bring two printed copies of your sketch to class. We'll exchange them and have a discussion in pairs. 



Exercise II: Science poetry slam

I've asked each of you to write a haiku-style poem (with the 5-7-5 structure of syllables) that sums up one aspect of your research. As further inspiration, here are a few poems shared by students in prior years:


No one knows the law

when half of it is divine,

and half is belief.

- Ben (Geography)


Unable to adapt,

within montane coves they wait

for warmer climate.

- Amy (Ecology, Evolution and Behavior)


We grow food to eat.

But it does not reach stomachs.

Bad for us, and Earth.

- Alex (Natural Resources)


Oxygen is gone,

but there’s iron all around.

Ah… I can still breathe.

-Brittany (Microbiology)


If anyone wants to see the complete haiku version of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the full set of 19 poems can be found here.


Please bring two printed copies of your poem to share, but put your name on only one copy and leave the other anonymous.


See you next week!

1. A warm welcome to ‘The Art of Scientific Presentations’ (Section 001)

posted Jan 13, 2020, 10:08 AM by Scott St. George

Update: If you're not able to leave comments, first check that your are logged into your UMN gmail account. After that, if  you still run into problems, sign into Google Sites through your Google Account dashboard.


Hi everyone, and welcome to GEOG8260.


At some point, all of us are faced with the challenge of talking about our research in public. Whether we're speaking to our colleagues, an audience at a professional conference or even our family and friends, it can be a struggle to get across the results of months (or years!) of work in only a few minutes.


In this seminar, we'll talk about ways to improve scientific or professional communication. More importantly, students will have the chance to experiment with several different presentation methods and see what method works best for them. By the end of the semester, I hope we'll be better equipped to discuss our research with both experts and non-specialists. I also expect students will have put together a set of visual aids that they'll be able to use later in conference presentations, job interviews or public outreach.


I need to share four key pieces of information that will help us get off to a good start.


First, bookmark the course’s website. https://sites.google.com/a/umn.edu/geog8260-the-art-of-scientific-presentations/home 


The website for our course is set to go. Please bookmark this page and check it regularly for updates throughout the course. I’ve already posted the first entry, which contains important information about the class. Go read that. You might not be able to access all materials (or comment) unless you access Google via your ‘official’ UMN login.


Second, please take a moment to introduce yourself (online). 


I’d like each of you to post a comment to this post prior to our first meeting. In that comment, I ask you to do three things: (1) tell us your first name, (2) tell us your department and degree program, and (3) tell us about the best academic talk you’ve ever seen. I’ll get started so you can see what I mean. You'll need to be logged into your UMN Google account in order to leave a comment.


Third, as a 'pre-work' assignment, I'd like you to read two articles on presentations and professional communication.


The first article is called Let there be stoning and was published by the journal Ground Water in the mid-1980s. The tone of the article is pretty aggressive but it makes several good points about problems that you often see at professional conferences. 


Also have a look at The cognitive style of PowerPoint by Edward Tufte. Tufte is an Emeritus Professor at Yale University who is widely respected for his writing on information design.


Please read both articles before our first class; they should provide a sneak-peek of some of the themes we'll discuss over the next few weeks and help you decide if this course is right for you. I've uploaded PDFs of both articles to the post with the same title as this email message; their links should appear at the bottom of the page.


Finally, make sure to go to the correct room.


Our class will meet in room 445 in Blegen Hall, which is located on the West Bank of the Twin Cities. This space is the Department of Geography’s seminar room. I’ll arrive early to make sure the door is open for the rest of us.


I’m looking forward to meeting everyone next week. See you soon!


Scott

What to expect from GEOG8260 in Spring 2020 (a.k.a. 'the syllabus')

posted Jan 13, 2020, 10:03 AM by Scott St. George   [ updated Jan 13, 2020, 10:04 AM ]

The complete syllabus for this course is available as a downloadable PDF attached to this message (the link should be visible at the bottom of this entry).

The ability to deliver effective and engaging oral presentations is a critical skill for students in all disciplines. Unfortunately, despite the importance of clear communication, scientific presentations are too frequently confusing, abstract and boring. In this seminar, students will be introduced to a diverse set of presentation methods and use exercises to apply these techniques to their own work and ideas. The course will also examine the characteristics common to exceptional scientific talks, show how basic design principles can be used to create more effective visual aids, and discuss the science behind effective communication techniques.

During the last segment of each class, I’ll present an introduction to a key concept in graphic design or a new style of presentation. Over the following week, students will apply the idea to their own communication needs. 
All students will have the opportunity to contribute to exercises that deal with fundamental design principles, such as assembling a library of research photographs or developing their own personal color scheme.  In other weeks, students will work either separately or in teams to experiment with new presentation approaches.

Goals
By the end of the course, students will have experimented with a broad range of presentation styles and identified the method(s) that best suits their own style and research subject. They will have developed a set of engaging and effective visuals that they can use in conference presentations, job interviews or public outreach. More generally, they will have become more effective communicators, improved their ability to discuss their research with non-specialists, and be better representatives for their discipline and the university.

Announcing the Spring 2020 'Art of Scientific Presentation' courses

posted Nov 18, 2019, 9:12 AM by Scott St. George

This spring I’ll be again leading my half-semester graduate seminar on scientific presentations, with separate offerings in during the first and latter half of the Spring 2020 semester. When we’ve run this seminar before, our group has included participants from a really broad range of disciplines, including geography, earth sciences, aerospace engineering, physics, natural resource management, and more, so everybody is welcome no matter their research specialty. 

Because so much of the course is spent on practice, the number of seats in each section is limited -- please sign up early! We try our best to accommodate students placed on the wait list but can only offer a spot if someone else drops.

________________

GEOG8260: The Art of Scientific Presentations (two credits)
The ability to deliver effective and engaging oral presentations is a critical skill for scholars in all disciplines. Unfortunately, despite the importance of clear communication, professional presentations about research are too often confusing, abstract and boring. In this seminar, you'll be introduced to a diverse set of presentation methods and use exercises to apply these techniques to your own work and ideas. By the end of the semester, you will have experimented with a broad range of presentation styles and identified the method or methods that best suits your own style and research subject. More generally, you will have become a more effective communicator, improved your ability to discuss your research with non-specialists, and be better representatives for your discipline, your institution, and your ideas.

Which section should I choose?
In both sections, the contents and goals of the course will be exactly the same but will differ in date and day. Section 001 will be held on Wednesday afternoons from 2PM to 4:30PM and will run between Jan 22 and Mar 18 (with Spring Break plus an additional off-week). Section 002 will convene during the second half of the semester (Mar 19 to April 30) on Thursdays from 2 to 4:30 PM. Students are welcome to join either one regardless of their background or major program. Both sections will meet on the West Bank of the Twin Cities campus (in 445 Blegen Hall).

What have students gotten out of this course?
If you're thinking about joining us, I'd encourage you to look over the written feedback provided by students enrolled in previous years. I've posted their comments (complete and without any editing) at: https://sites.google.com/a/umn.edu/geog8260-the-art-of-scientific-presentations/student-feedback

What topics will we cover?
If you'd like to get a short preview of some of the ideas and approaches we'll review in this course, watch this short webinar I delivered to a seismology research group based in DC. It's available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V10W_PZVCosYou can also visit the course website (https://sites.google.com/a/umn.edu/geog8260-the-art-of-scientific-presentations/home) to skim through the exercises, readings, and resources from past offerings.

If you have any questions about this class, please send an email to stgeorge@umn.edu.

7. Pecha Kucha talks! [Section 002]

posted Apr 30, 2019, 9:21 AM by Scott St. George   [ updated Apr 30, 2019, 9:21 AM ]

Hi everyone,

Just a quick reminder that we'll have our final meeting tomorrow afternoon! Guests are welcome, so if you do want to invite someone along, I’ve posted our tentative schedule down below. See you then, and don't forget to upload your slides to the Google Drive! 

Scott


___________________________

2:15PM to 4:30PM on Wednesday, May 1, 2019
Blegen Hall 445

2:15PM
Alex Villarreal, Microbiology/Immunology/Cancer Biology
Mara McPartland, Geography, Environment and Society
Phillip Doherty, Microbiology/Immunology/Cancer Biology

2:50PM
Meagan Rollins, Microbiology/Immunology/Cancer Biology
David Hsu, Microbiology/Immunology/Cancer Biology
Jesse Bakker, Geography, Environment and Society
Christy Marsden, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

3:25PM
Hrishi Venkatesh, Microbiology/Immunology/Cancer Biology
Rafael Della Coletta, Plant and Microbial Biology
Richard Martinez, Microbiology/Immunology/Cancer Biology

3:55PM
Angelique Dahlberg, Conservation Sciences
Jake Myers, Microbiology/Immunology/Cancer Biology
Maude Ashby, Microbiology/Immunology/Cancer Biology

6. Eliminating chartjunk and preparing for Pecha Kucha [Section 002]

posted Apr 18, 2019, 2:48 PM by Scott St. George

Next week, your assignment is to bring a complete electronic draft (a draft - not necessary your final talk!) of your Pecha Kucha graphics to class. You'll use these visuals to deliver a practice talk to one or two other student in class. This exercise will help each of us talk through our presentation and test out what ideas work in the constrained format of Pecha Kucha (and which ones maybe don't). Please remember to also bring a laptop if you can.

I'd also encourage you to ask yourself: What is the arc (or shape) of my presentation? I've included a link to great video by Nancy Duarte (check out her team's outstanding blog explaining how structure and story can help you make a real impact.

Getting yourself prepared for Pecha Kucha
Of course, planning your talk and developing effective visual aids are just a part of what makes a successful presentation. The most important ingredient is still you, the speaker. And it's not always easy to control our own feelings before and during a talk. 

It's easy to feel like 'stage fright' is something that affects only a few people. I think that's wrong and that everyone, to one degree or another, has to deal with nerves prior to any public speaking event. I can tell you that I feel more calm in front of an audience than I did a few years ago. That change is really due to (a) public lectures being a non-negotiable part of my job that I can't avoid and (b) having many (many) chances to practice.

Everyone deals with some degree of anxiety before talks - even people that write books about presentations! You might want to read this post by Garr Reynolds on Presentation Zen, which describes his own experience facing down an intense bout of anxiety before a talk. 

And remember - you don't need to be perfect to give a great talk. Every presentation includes little mistakes and awkward moments, and that's absolutely fine because that's the way real human beings communicate. Because you've all put so much effort into planning your talk and refining your story, I know we''ll be able to share something really special with each other 

Chartjunk links
As Tufte said 'Above all else, show the data'. Here are a few links to help communicate visual information more effectively.

Tufte himself moderates a forum on data visualization.

On PLOS Computational Biology, "Ten Simple Rules for Better Figures".

'On Your Wavelength' shared their "Heuristics for Better Figures".

The Better Figures blog made a video - about making better figures!

5. Going off the grid [Section 002]

posted Apr 12, 2019, 4:55 PM by Scott St. George   [ updated Apr 12, 2019, 4:59 PM ]

You get a break from 'presenter mode' next week, but in lieu of preparing a presentation, I've asked you to start laying the foundation for your Pecha Kucha talk.

Remember, Pecha Kucha talks are organized around the '20x20' structure. This format does impose significant constraints on what (and how) you communicate, but because of those limits, it is a wonderful platform for experimentation and practice. If you'd like to learn more about the culture behind this style, check out 'Pecha Kucha and the art of liberating constraints' by Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen.

There are not many Pecha Kucha-style talks online that deal with a science or research subject, but here are a couple of examples that might be helpful to review.


____________________________

For next week, I'm asking you to complete three exercises:

What color is your slide deck?
First, I'd like you to develop a color scheme for your presentation and prepare two  slides (only two please) as exemplars. Your first slide should include a single quote and your second should feature a concept or definition (and both should relate to your research). Look at the portfolio of images you assembled last week to choose colors that match the subject of your presentation. Keep your scheme simple - you're only allowed to choose a background color, a main color, and a highlight color. As an aide, you can try out this online tool from Adobe - just choose an initial color and it will help you select another one or two as a compliment.

Please upload your slides to the Google Drive (I've made a new folder) no later than noon the day prior to class.

Grab your pencils and draw
In class we discussed the importance of planning out your talk before you start making visual aids. To help you get started making that plan, I've asked you to roughly sketch out slides for your Pecha Kucha talk. Please keep the unusual format of Pecha Kucha in mind when thinking about your visuals. Remember that each image will only be on screen for 20 seconds, so it will need to be simple enough for you to explain quickly. And because you are only allowed 20 slides, you will have to be judicious in your final selection. (But remember, in your initial plan, you may include a few 'extra' slides to help clarify your argument).

I've attached a 'storyboard' template to the bottom of this post to help with this exercise. Please bring two copies of your storyboards to class next week (one to share with a partner and one to give to me). 

And if you are still skeptical, just today Michael White, who is the climate science editor for Nature, posted this on Twitter.

What's your point?
Finally, the most important part of the planning process is to work out exactly what your main point is. Please write one or two sentences that encapsulates the single most important idea you want your audience to take away from your talk. Bring a printed copy of that too and be prepared to explain that idea to your partner.

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