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Exploring the fabric of knowledge

Notes on how to speak better by Prof Patrick Winston

  • June-02-2020
  • General

This is probably one of the most interesting videos I've seen this week. The interesting thing about this lecture by Prof Patrick Winston is that although it is titled "How to speak", it is more about "How to give a lecture" (Or how to communicate technical ideas better) and I think there is a big difference between the two. That said, the interesting aspect of it lies in the title itself, that is, I am pretty sure that Prof Winston knew what this was about and deliberately chose to go with "How to speak". And that was precisely what got me into watching the entire talk in the first place. To put it simply, he is one charming speaker, who also happens to be a wonderful teacher.

Note: This is not an exact duplication of what Prof Winston said. I have paraphrased it based on my understanding.

Quality of communication


Quality of communication is a function of Knowledge, Practice, and Talent; and in that exact order.

Qualityofcommunication=(KnowledgePracticeTalent)Quality_{of communication} = \int (Knowledge * Practice * Talent)

Mind you the product is non-commutative.

On how to start a talk

The usual convention is to start with a joke, but don't do it. More often than not most audiences usually take around 10-15 min to settle down and then a couple more minutes to get accustomed to the tone and the pitch of your voice; and using something like a joke at the beginning might not land with the audience, which can even derail the entire talk. Instead, start with a Promise — Tell them what they'll learn by the end of the talk or the lecture, which will set their expectation and in turn will help them be more attentive(the second-order effect is anyone coming late will be influenced by the now attentive audience and value your talk more).

On blanking out, pauses, and questions

It is only natural to blank out sometimes and pauses are a great way to handle that. But even in general pauses can create a very thrilling effect that can be used to keep the audience engaged. Remember (acc to Prof) to not pause for more than 7 seconds, he says doing which can become a distraction in itself that can ruin the entire talk.

Remember also to end the pause on a high note with a well-thought-out question, a question that is answerable within a few seconds. The problem with not prudently selecting your question is if you ask a difficult question it might not elicit any response while the easy ones might not be challenging enough, which can cause the audience to disengage themselves from the topic itself.

On blackboards and props vs slides

Blackboards and Props have a higher engagement factor. Prof Winston says that something called Empathetic Mirroring—the act of empathizing with the performer owing to the effects of props on mirror neurons and the comfortable pace of writing on blackboards vs the flipping through effects of slides—might be the cause for students and audience to connect with the talk or the lecture moreSide points on Blackboards:–
1. It has better graphic quality than slides.
2. It allows you to use hand gestures which again can be used to take advantage of attention via the mirroring effect.
3. Writing on blackboard might just be the right pace at which people can follow
.

On creating better slides

Keep the darn thing short!

  • Get rid of everything: the background, the unnecessary words, the logos, the title, the bullets.

    By removing all these you are allowing the audience to focus their attention on you instead of multiple things. Prof Winston says we only have one language processor which you can use either to read or listen, doing both is foolish. You won't remember either of these things well.

  • Get a big font

    If you are using small fonts, you probably are using it to cram in words into your slide.

  • Have some air on your slide. Don't fill it with text.
  • Never use a hapax legomenon more than once in your presentation. Btw an hapax legomenon is a linguistic thing that by definition cannot be used more than once in a presentation like a complicated graph that cannot be parsed instantly or equations that needs time to be understood.

On inspiring, fame, and establishing the value

  • Do not face your back to the audience
    • If you want to point to something on the slide instead of using a laser pointer, have arrows within slides.
    • FWIW, people could leave and you won't know. :P
  • Don't stand too far from your slides.
  • To be inspiring, you have to be passionate(the right kind).
  • People when asked what inspired them the most:
    • Senior Faculty told they were inspired by someone who showed them a new and surprising way of doing things
    • Students were inspired by a senior teacher who told them they could do it and showed them how.
  • Providing a promise also inspires people.
  • Create a narrative that sticks and works in favor of you thereby helping you establish the value of your work. Prof Winston uses the conventional SYMBOL, SLOGAN, SURPRISE, SALIENCE, STORY format to create a narrative.

Finally remember that to be a philosopher-king, first start with being a king. That is, you can get used to being famous, but never to be ignored; and if your hard work is a part of it, the sting can hurt more than usual.

On how to end a talk

  • If you are using slides, do not have real-estate blocking contents like a thank you slide, end slide, collaborators slide, questions slide, etc. These slides rob you of your chance to say more about who you are and how your work on it affects the future prospects of the topic itself thus inspiring the audience to go home on that note. So that they can reach out to you if and when they stumble upon the topic and find it interesting enough to reach out to someone worthwhile working on that topic.

  • This is probably the best time to pull out that joke you've been itching to tell as most of them are pretty comfortable with your voice by that point and are probably ready for a joke.

  • Don't end with a thank you says, Prof Winston.

    • He believes that ending with a thank you might come across as if they are here out of courtesy and obligation instead of the value you have to offer. A weak move he says.

Although I do not agree with the universality of everything he had to say, I feel these are pretty good heuristic to follow in an academic setup more often than not.