Amy Guy

Raw Blog

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Advice: willful misunderstanding, and audience as individuals

Picked up on some great advice during an afternoon-long course entitled 'How to do an Informatics PhD' a couple of weeks ago.

All through my undergraduate, and probably High School as well, I was told that when writing assignments I should treat the person marking it as if they don't know anything at all about the subject.  They're stupid.  Leave nothing unexplained.  Of course, we were often also told to 'keep things concise' and usually had to do this under the constraints of page or word limits.

Problematically, some people could have interpreted this as an opportunity to try to pull the wool over their marker's eyes, or baffle them with science.  Typically, the marker will know something about the subject, so that's probably not a great tactic.

I see where this advice comes from of course, and a couple of weeks ago I heard it phrased in a different way, that makes far more sense.

The examiner will be knowledgeable about the subject, but given to willful misunderstanding of what you're trying to say.

I think that gives a much better guide to how and when to explain things.  And also makes them more of an enemy to be conquered, than an inconvenient fool to be deceived.

And whilst I'm recounting advice I like, here's something that has stuck with me since 2010, from my manager at Google at the time.

When presenting to a large audience of people, don't think of them as a crowd.  Think of them as many individuals.  Make your presentation as you would to a single person.  It just so happens that there are lots of single people there all at the same time.

Since letting that sit in my subconscious, nerves before giving a presentation have shrunk to negligible levels.  It may be that over the past two years I've become more confident anyway, but I used to be thoroughly terrified of standing up in front of even a classroom of people the same age as me.  I wouldn't talk out in lectures for the most part of my undergraduate, and harbored a gut-wrenching fear of being picked on to answer a question.  As did most people, I imagine.

I make sure to actively observe how I feel when watching someone else present.  I look at other people in the audience too, and note the attitude and techniques of the presenter.  (Consequently I probably leave having no idea what the presentation was about).  The results are usually that a majority of people aren't listening properly.  A vast proportion certainly aren't angrily judging the presenter's every twitch.  Things people notice and get upset about include:

  • If they can't hear you.  
  • If you're just reading off slides, particularly if you try to act like you're not.
That sure is a short checklist of things to avoid.  There must be more that can go wrong.  Reasons people will stop listening, include:
  • If they can't hear you.
  • If you're just reading off slides, particularly if you try to act like you're not.
  • If they're not interested in what you're talking about. (Pro tip: make them interested).
  • If you're not making any sense at all.
  • If your slides are more interesting than what you're saying. (I really like presentations without slides.  So long as the speaker is engaging, of course.  Slides with lots of words are a definite negative, in my book though).
And some of my personal nitpicks include:
  • Drawing attention to a mistake by apologising for it.  From being on both sides of this situation, it usually feels right to do so at the time, but until you do, four fifths of the room won't have noticed, and the fifth that did will forget within the next few seconds.  Point it out, and everyone will remember.
    • If you say something wrong, just correct yourself and move on (but don't leave it uncorrected, this is usually noticeable).
    • If it's a technical problem, keep talking whilst it gets sorted.  This boils down to not relying on technology to keep your presentation interesting.  I am aware that there are some situations where this is impossible.
  • Weak intros and outros.  I've been guilty of both of these.  I plan to pay more attention to upcoming talks in order to fix this.  It's something I always forget to notice.  But for now:
    • Starting with filler words, like 'So, ...', 'Right then...' or 'Okay, ...'.
    • If you've been introduced, you don't need to repeat it, especially not in a way that draws attention to the fact you're repeating it. 
    • Make it clear when your talk is done.  Don't trail off with '...and that's that then.'  'Any questions?' is usually okay, but only if it follows a distinctive final sentence.  Jumping to that from what feels like half way through a paragraph is a bit rubbish in my head, but in all honesty will probably go unnoticed by the audience.  Except me.

Fortunately, my days of feeling agonisingly self-conscious whilst presenting are long gone.  On top of that, I find doing as little 'rehearsal' as possible boosts the natural fluidity of a presentation, and in turn my confidence.  If I haven't rehearsed, there's nothing to forget to say (and suddenly forgetting what comes next is the biggest killer of flow, something I discovered during French oral exams).  That only works if you're very familiar with the subject matter.  And if you're not, you probably shouldn't be presenting about it.

Disclaimer: I'm very early in my academic career, and haven't presented a whole lot.  The biggest audience I've talked in front of was about 120.  Despite the theory, I suffer from having neither a naturally loud voice, nor a naturally beaming expression.  So all round, I'm probably not very good.