PowerPoint images

4 05 2017

Just when you thought Trump’s administration couldn’t prove themselves to be anymore inept today, Sean Spicer, took us to a new low. 

In his carefully prepared press briefing today he showed 4 images on the one slide..! OK, maybe it’s not quite as important as impending thermonuclear armageddon but there’s no excuse for it. 


Did you know PowerPoint was initially produced as a specialised word processor for producing acetate slides? It’s a little known fact that the world’s most popular presentation software started out as a program to help people produce physical printed slides for projectors like these. 


Old acetate slides were expensive to buy and print (if you didn’t just write with the multicoloured pens and do it freehand) and they were a pain to transport. As such, you tried to squeeze as much on each slide as you could. 

Readers of a certain generation will remember the tear-off backing to the clear acetate slide being used to block off the part of the slide the presenter didn’t want you to read yet. As presenters spoke they would slide the paper down the acetate to reveal their next point bit by bit, line by line. 

Even if you’ve never seen an old acetate slide presentation you’ve experienced what it was like. The “master slide” PowerPoint template of Title, Text and Bullet points and the presentation of information line by line is a direct throwback to those acetate slides. 

Just because the next line of text is “fading”, “appearing” or “flying in” doesn’t make it any different to someone sliding down a piece of paper over those preprinted acetate slides in the olden days!

But now we don’t have to carry slides around with us. We aren’t limited by only having 10 slides for an hour-long presentation. We can use as many as we like. And that is why Sean Spicer’s slides are so hideous. 


Each of those images should be on its own slide. Instead of 4 cramped images with tiny unreadable text squeezed underneath each image each picture deserves its own slide.

If each slide was separate not only would they be more legible and impactful, Sean Spicer wouldn’t have had to turn and point like he did. 

If you are interested in making more impactful presentations and want to avoid making the mistakes people like Spicer and even Bill Gates make…


you should check out Garr Reynolds brilliant website and book called Presentation Zen

Our job is to make the ideas we are presenting as easy as possible for our audience to engage with. Tiny, crushed collages don’t help. It costs nothing in ink or acetate to put each of your images on a separate slide. It doesn’t make the presentation any harder to transport either. 


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Pecha kucha demos

9 08 2016

I was privileged to attend the BIG Event this year in Belfast and I enjoyed their cheekily titled “Best Demo Competition”. 

For those of you that haven’t seen the Best Demo Competition it’s cheekily titled because they don’t limit participation to those presenters who might be considered the best – this year there were novices and early career presenters alongside some demo wrangling stalwarts. They don’t expect the entrants to show a demo – this year just under half the contestants actually performed what might be considered a STEM demo, the rest were more science cabaret or science variety acts. And despite the fact no other events are programmed against it and there’s a trophy given out to the winner at the gala dinner described as “one of the least valuable yet most highly prized honours in UK science communication” there are no voting criteria and those attending the event are told not to take the competition bit seriously (LINK). 

(It really shouldn’t work but I’d recommend anyone go and see one if they can. As long as you don’t take the title at all seriously it is great fun.)


Entrants to the “Best Demo Competition” are given 3 minutes (or so – the winner went minutes over time… another example of how loosely BIG applies the term competition!) and this year most tried to put their demos into some sort of context. I think demo presentations should always have a story but I know this lead to some comments that the best demo competition was more of a best routine competition.

I thought more of a problem was this year most entrants chose to perform single concept-single demo presentations which I thought was a shame. 

Concepts explained with just one demo inevitably end up as being either show then tell or tell then show. Unless the presenter is happy to get on and get off fast there is always large amounts of speaking either before or after we see the demo. 

The time limit is a very good idea because it forces contestants to get on with it. I enjoy watching YouTube videos of the ASTEC Live Demo Hour but I think most of the performances could benefit from a stricter time limit.

The problem with the 3 minutes allotted to the “Best Demo Competition” in almost every case it is still far too long for the presentation of just one or two demos. 

The majority of contestants this year tried to fill or pad their demos with stage business to take up their allotted time. Unfortunately this padding more often than not distracted attention and focus from the demos rather than aid our understanding. I think this was what those people who were unhappy were unhappy with – story isn’t the problem, neither is a routine, but a weak story and/or overly long routine is. 

All but one of those who managed to perform more than one demo in their allotted time performed individual demos that were loosely themed to go together (eg: involving the same fruit or that looked like drinks) rather than scripted tightly to make a single concept-multiple demo presentation or what I would call a demo chain

The contestant I personally thought should have won performed three chained demos, way under time and didn’t resort to costume, dance or song to unnecessarily jazz up what she was trying to demonstrate. 

In her presentation we were shown two demos to explain the science she was trying to communicate (thermoclines). The first demo most of the audience would have been familiar with (see picture below) but the second was new, at least, to me.  Then we were shown a third big finale that combined the previous two demos and reinforced the science underpinning the presentation that I thought was excellent. 


This brings me to Petcha Kutcha

The Petcha Kutcha (PK) format was developed in 2003 to specifically deal with the problem of speakers talking at too few slides for far too long. It was originally conceived for architects but as they say in the PK FAQ we can all fall in the same trap:

Give a microphone and some images to an architect — or most creative people for that matter — and they’ll go on forever! 

The PK format is simple. Each speaker talks whilst 20 slides play in the background for 20 seconds each. This means you avoid the problem of too few slides – everyone has 20; and you limit the time anyone can speak – 6 mins and 40 secs. 

The time limit is part of our “Best Demo Competition” format. Could our presentations benefit from insisting on a certain number of demos as well?

I have been asked to take part in a PK event and instead of talking whilst 20 slides play for 20 seconds each I thought about trying to perform 20 demos instead. 

The only way this would be possible would be to chain my demos so each linked to the demo that came before and after and helped tell one consistent story. There would be no time to explain and perform even one unconnected demo in 20 seconds. What I envisage is a series of linked demos, most using the same equipment, that can be woven together in the way series of card tricks are woven together in a magician’s routine. 

Half the time I think about this 20 seconds seems impossibly fast but then 20 seconds for many PK speakers ends up seeming a very long time when they are on stage. This very talented PK speaker shows this perfectly at 1:50.

If my PK experiment presentation works, next year at the BIG Event I might suggest as session where we explore this further. Perhaps a strict 20 seconds per demo will prove unworkable and unnecessarily rigid but it should be easy to ask people to perform at least three chained demos in two minutes – my favourite “Best Demo Competition” entrant took this long to perform her three demos. 

I’m looking for inspiration towards the work of Steve Spangler who always manages to chain his science demos and magicians like this. 

I count 11 reveals of the same “Ambitous Card” in just 2:40 mins!

I’d be fascinated to hear from you if you’ve tried something like this yourself or if you’ve any footage of someone that has. And as usual I encourage people to post any comments. 





Keep to time

10 06 2016

An absolutely essential skill for every science presenter is the ability to keep to time. 

  
Often you will be sharing a stage with other presenters, or your audience will have another talk to get to, it is essential that you don’t overrun. 

A couple of minutes might seem like nothing to you, perhaps your audience was late arriving so you feel you have the right to go on a bit longer, but the sign of a professional presenter is one who selflessly gets the program back on track not selfishly compounds the problem. 

I think the best way to think of your overrun isn’t just as the time you go over but the time you go over multiplied by the number of people you’ve kept back. All of a sudden those 3mins you stole look more of a problem when you multiply them by 50 (or perhaps many more). 

At one British Science Festival event I was performing to groups of 300 (10 classes of 30). Another presenter in the session before me was presenting to just one class that were then sent on to me. He was mortified to learn that what he thought had been his harmless 5-10 minute overruns for 30 had actually been consistently delaying over 250 people in the next session. He had no idea where the group was going to next and he felt entitled to “steal back” the time as the audience was arriving late to him. To give him his due when he found out he fixed the problem but there should never have been a problem in the first place. However frustrating I found cutting my material, and however justified I might have felt to take extra time to compensate for what I’d lost, I never did. This was noticed by the organisers and the teachers who’d brought their children and made me look more not less professional. 

The first way to avoid overruns is to be absolutely sure what time your session must end. I will ask the organiser the time I have to finish and write that time in large figures on my notebook. I leave it open on my props table so when I inevitably forget I can glance down and check.  

Ensure the organiser has included the time the audience might need to get to their next appointment. Often “finish at 1pm” on further investigation actually means “finish at 12:50pm” because it will take that time to move the audience on. 

Be wary of clocks in your performance space. Often they will be many minutes out and it’s all too easy to go over because of it. When you ask what time you need to finish it’s a good idea to check everyone is working off the same time too. 

Be prepared to cut or stretch your material to deal with unexpected timing issues. There are always times when you might be delayed starting your presentation or there might be a delay (like a fire alarm) once you’ve started. 

At the most extreme you might have to drop a whole section. It’s easier to stretch. You can ask for questions at the end and no one really minds things ending a little early. If you’ve lost thine there are ways to speed things up:

For instance instead of doing three demos in a chain you might do just two. Instead of asking a question can just state the fact. And carrying out a demo by yourself instead of (announcing, selecting, moving, instructing, thanking and then re-moving) a volunteer can save many valuable minutes. 

Yes, you’ve compromised your material, but only you will be aware of the fact. Getting back on track and finishing on time is much more important. 

Speaking groups like Toastmasters quite rightly put great store on talking to time. They will use devices to help speakers know the time they have left. Sometimes you see such devices at political conferences. 

  

Tools like PClock can help with timekeeping. I have copies on both my iPhone and iPad and I’ll use them to help keep me on time.   

You can set the countdown in three sections. The colours change (and the device vibrates) to show you the section change. 

  
Here I can see I’ve got lots of time left. Even if I don’t read the figures I can see they’re green. At 10:00 they are programmed to go yellow. 

  
If they’ve gone red that means I’m into my last 5:00 and I’d better think about how I’m going to bring things to a halt. 

  
If I’m being honest normally I can just rely on my watch. I’d only use PClock myself if it was a new show or if time was extremely important (ie: I’ve got to finish to the second and I can’t go over or under).

Every now and again I’ll meet a presenter who goes on stage without any way to check the time. Sometimes they’ll even be proud of the fact they don’t even have a watch. Don’t be like them. It’s not big or clever. Going over is rude and selfish. Even if the organiser says nothing at the time it’s a sure fire way to not get booked again. 

If you really struggle I’ve seen presenters that wear devices like vibrating watches so they can’t miss their allotted stopping time. 

  

Sometimes if you are going over the organiser will make signs at you. If you see an organiser circling their pointed finger it means “wrap it up”. If you see hands in the shape of a T it means “time to stop, now”. 

  

TV has a series of signs used to communicate information. If you ever get the chance to appear on TV it is well worth making yourself aware of those. 

  
If you do you’ll avoid having to be cut off like I was at the end of this section of TV in Ireland. 


 





Major Tim and the ISS

15 12 2015

I didn’t want to post anything until Major Tim Peake safely reached orbit but now he’s up above the atmosphere racing to catch up with the International Space Station I want to congratulate him and wish him the best for his six month mission. 

Tonight the ISS will pass directly over London and if the clouds clear it will be visible across most of the UK from 5:12pm to 5:19pm. 

We see the ISS as a bright light passing across the sky because although the sun has passed below the horizon for us and it is dark on the ground the ISS is high enough above us that it is still lit by the sun. What we actually see is the reflection of the sun bouncing off the solar panels of the ISS like a massive space mirror. 

There are websites you can visit to see when the ISS will pass overhead. 

This is ISS Astroviewer showing tonight’s pass

  

You can also download apps for your phone. I use ISS Spotter from Mediapilot for my iPhone. This gives you and up to date position of the ISS and shows you where and when to look to see a visible pass. 

   
 
I was lucky enough to meet and speak briefly with Major Tim at a conference last year. He seems like a lovely chap. I’ll be following his adventures on Twitter and watching out as he passes overhead for the next 6 months. Good luck, Tim. 

  

UPDATE: ha! I was so caught up in live feed from the Soyuz/ISS that I totally forgot to head out and watch Tim pass overhead tonight. That was hairy- they had to fly it in themselves after the computers went down. Joining two large bits of metal both travelling at 17,500mph is no mean feat even if they are heading in the same direction. Well done to you all. 

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Perfect stage set up

19 05 2015

I got an email today from a friend wanting me to visit TEDx in Glasgow with him. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to make it.

It did inspire me to waste 20 minutes by watching a TED talk. The thing that struck me most (because I didn’t pick a particularly interesting talk) was just how brilliantly they set up the stage for the speaker.

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This is a wonderful stage to be faced with as a speaker. I wish all of my stages were as well set up as this.

1. Lighting
This stage has been brilliantly lit. The producers have two concerns here. Firstly the stage needs to look good for the audience in the auditorium but more importantly there needs to be bright sections so the cameras can film the action clearly.

How did they ensure that their speakers remain in the brightly lit section? The red carpet.

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The speakers are told to not step off the carpet.

When I am performing I always get someone to check for dark spots on the stage in the rehearsals. I will then place gaffer tape on the floor to help me stay out of those spots during my performance. Often the very front of the stage is the darkest place. It doesn’t make any sense to you whilst you’re on the stage but the closer you get to the audience the harder you can become to see. Checking and then taping helps me avoid this.

2. Pacing
The other advantage the carpet gives is it stops people nervously pacing to and fro.

If you are a pacer by placing tape on the floor, perhaps three X’s, you can stop yourself mindlessly pacing to and fro by allowing yourself to move calmly between a set number of places on the stage. In the theatre plays are “blocked out”. the actors are told where they should be at certain times. These places are sometimes indicated with tape and known as “marks” or “spikes”. Actors are expected to be able to “hit their mark”. You can do the same.

3. Talking at slides
Talking at slides is such a common thing to do that sound engineers will pin your microphone on to the lapel of the shoulder you will most likely be looking over during your talk.

How do the TED producers stop this? They provide two “confidence monitors” at the foot of the stage.

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Can you see them on the floor? With confidence monitors it is now easier for the speaker to glanced down then to turn and look over their shoulder.

When I am speaking I use a Mac, running Keynote, and I engage presenter view. I also bring with me a 10 meter VGA extension cord which allows me to place my laptop in front of me rather than leave it on the lectern.

This allows me to see what’s on the screen behind me without having to turn around.

3. Sticking to time
Look at the picture above. Can you see there is also a countdown clock to keep the presenter talking to time?

In situations where I can’t see a clock showing the correct time I use an iPad with a countdown application to mimic this. I can set it up so the clock changes colour when I have five minutes remaining. Putting it at the foot of the stage means whilst the audience can’t see it, I can’t miss it.

I will also ask the producers what time they need me to finish by the time on my wristwatch. I will then leave myself an easy to read note with the time clearly displayed so I can finish exactly on time.

4. The lectern
I was surprised to see this lady so reliant on her notes. Normally TED producers don’t allow you to use notes. What the producers have done brilliantly though is ensure that the lectern doesn’t allow her to hide behind her notes.

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Instead of using a large heavy and often branded lectern that people can grab hold of and hide behind they’ve used a simple table with a flat top that doesn’t restrict our view of her whole body.

If I need to use notes I will place them on a flat table rather than prop them up on a lectern. This allows me to take a quick glance rather than having to walk behind the lectern and make a big deal about looking at them.

5. The screen
They use the screen to great effect because the image on the screen adds to what the audience can see. There is no point using a camera to project an image of the stage onto a screen that is actually smaller than the image the audience sees from their seats.

If you are going to make use of a big screen make sure it adds to what the audience can see and doesn’t just act as a distraction.

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If I am being filmed for the benefit of the audience in the auditorium I will make this point very clear to the film crew.

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0.85 degrees what?!

3 03 2015

The BBC have produced an interesting program looking at the mathematics of climate change. [Climate Change by Numbers – it’s on iPlayer throughout March 2015].

The show was stylishly presented with some interesting LED persistence of vision graphics.

Personally I would have preferred accurate graphics overlaid in postproduction rather than wobbly graphics produced live. The presenter walked across the frame holding what looked like a broomstick fitted with LED lights which then painted the graph across the screen.

When your whole thesis surrounds the accuracy of data it seems strange to then represent this data in such an wobbly way.

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I suppose programmes need hooks to grab the audiences’ attention and this was considered “a fun way to present boring data.” I would not have done it this way but I can forgive them their choice.

What is much harder to forgive was their representation of the figure that justified the whole half hour segment.

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Where are the units? 0.85° what? It’s a temperature measurement so there are three units to choose from. The unit was mentioned briefly by the presenter but I find it very strange that it was not added to the end of that graphic. It’s not like there wasn’t space in the shot.

(And it’s not as if they couldn’t have added the missing unit in postproduction afterwards. Straight lines were regularly added to the wobbly graphs in postproduction during the rest of the segment- something that to me reveals just how much a gimmick the drawing of the graphs were…)

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I have no idea what the presenters of this program thought about this. Perhaps they argued for the inclusion of units and were overruled. Whatever the reason it is a real shame when a programme about mathematics, presented by mathematicians, misses out something so essential.

If you don’t want to watch the whole show watch from the 25:45 min mark to see just what I mean. I’d be interested in your thoughts in the comments.





Home-made barometer

2 06 2014

This weekend a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to walk up Ben Nevis.

I’m not much of a walker, in fact most people that know me thought mountain rescue would be involved at some point, but I had a new science experiment and this was the perfect opportunity to try it out.

I’ve seen a few people on the Internet use plastic bottles to show the differences in air pressure at different altitudes. The sealed bottles crumple or expand depending on whether they are brought up or down a mountain. That’s fine if you’ve got a huge mountain to go up and down but what about if you wanted to try it in the UK? I wondered if there was a way to do it to show a more sensitive difference.

This is my contraption. It’s a balloon inflated inside a bottle so if you’re looking down into the bottle you also looking down into the inflated balloon.

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This is a view looking down into the bottle and the balloon. The balloon is inflated but the top hasn’t been tied, it has been folded over the open end of the bottle (and helped to stay in place with a cable tie).

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At sea level in Fort William the balloon in the bottle took up this much space.

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At the top of Ben Nevis, 1344 m, the balloon took up this much space in the bottle.

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I only thought to measure the difference in how much space the balloon took up using tape and as you can see from the pictures it was a pretty rough effort.

Just as we were returning back to the car park (6 hours later) I thought I should have filled the balloon with water at the top and the bottom and used a measuring jug to see how much volume was inside the balloon.

Let me know in the comments if you think that would have worked.

Given how stiff my knees are two days later unfortunately there won’t be a follow-up experiment any time soon, and to be honest, I don’t think We could have found a better day to do it anyway.

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I won’t tell you now how I managed to inflate the balloon inside the glass bottle, there is a hint if you have a look in the bottle. It’s a combination of the squeezing an egg into a bottle and the collapsing can demos.

According to my research the air pressure at the top of Ben Nevis should be 86% of the air pressure at sea level given a constant temperature. For the record it was about 20°C at sea level and 7°C at the top.

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