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March 2014

Apple Store presentation this week in Osaka, Japan

I'll be presenting in the Apple Store in Osaka (Shinsaibashi) tomorrow night (March 27 at 7:00pm). Apple is having a back-to-campus campaign so they asked me to speak to students & teachers about presentation design, etc. After my talk Apple staff will show some tricks and how to's in Keynote. If you happen to be in Osaka, Japan this week, please stop in the Apple Store and say Hi in the evening.


Apple Store Shinsaibashi
Below is a photo from one of the first times I presented in the Apple Store 8-9 years ago (wow - where has the time gone?). I think the first time was in 2004 shortly after it opened.


There's no shame in falling. The key is in getting up!


Penguins are one of the most fascinating animals on the planet. Quirky, odd, and yet always well dressed. What inspires me most about this flightless bird is their resilience.They make the best of a difficult situation with what they have. Penguins may be better suited for the sea than the land, but on the land they must also navigate if they are to survive. Life ain't easy, but they keep at it anyway. Far more graceful in the water than on terra firma, they push forward nonetheless. They make mistakes (See BBC video below). They slip, they slide, they bump, and they fall. And yet, even after these little blunders they do not seem to care at all what other people—I mean penguins—think. They simply get up, shake themselves off, and try it again. As far as I know, penguins do not blame others or dwell on their slips and falls. They simply move on and do not care what others in the crowd think of their little slip ups. We should do the same. In this regard, we should be more like penguins.

When you are learning anything, or testing something new, mistakes are inevitable. That's OK, of course, for how else can we learn? The problem is, perhaps as a result of our schooling, or perhaps just as a consequence of being human, we too often feel so discouraged by our mistakes that we fail to push on. There is no shame in honest mistakes. They are the things that move us forward. This is true no matter our profession, and it is certainly true in the case of science. “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.” — Jules Verne.

We all stumble. This clip of bloopers from the BBC's Penguins - Spy in the Huddle may inspire you.

Fall down seven times, get up eight (七転び八起き)
There is an old saying in Japan that captures the spirit of getting back up after a mistake or a setback. Nana korobi ya oki (literally: seven falls, eight getting up) means fall down seven times and get up eight. This speaks to the Japanese concept of resilience. No matter how many times you get knocked down, you get up again. Even if you should fall one thousand times, you just keep getting up and trying again. You can see this ethic reinforced in all facets of Japanese culture including education, business, sports, the martial arts, the Zen arts, etc. It is especially important to remember the sentiment expressed in this proverb when times are dark. There are no quick fixes in life and anything of real worth will necessarily take much struggle and perseverance. Success does not have to be fast—what’s more important is that one simply does their absolute best and remains persistent.


Never give up!
A concept related to the saying Nana korobi ya oki is the spirit of gambaru (頑張る). The concept of gambaru is deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and approach to life. The literal meaning of gambaru expresses the idea of sticking with a task with tenacity until it is completed—of making a persistent effort until success is achieved. The imperative form, “gambette,” is used very often in daily language to encourage others to “do your best” in work, to “fight on!” and “never give up!” during a sporting event or studying for an exam. You do not always have to win, but you must never give up. While others may encourage you to "gambatte kudasai!" — the real spirit of gambaru comes from within. The best kind of motivation is intrinsic motivation. For the benefit of oneself — and for the benefit of others as well — one must bear down and do their best. For many people, public speaking or presentations is really something they struggle with. It comes naturally for some people, but for most of us it is a journey of hits and misses and something we must always work on to improve. Sometimes we slip up, sometimes we fail. It's OK to fall down, the key to success is in bouncing back again.


Be Like the Bamboo. A presentation about resilience.

TED Talk falls flat, finds new life as animated presentation

Chris Anderson posted a great piece on the TED blog today entitled "Why this might just be the most significant TED Talk ever posted." In this post, the TED curator features an animated version of a 2012 TED talk presented by psychologist Steven Pinker and the philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. The talk, however, was rated too low by the TED audience for it to appear on the TED website. This talk was different from the typical TED talk since it featured a conversation between two people—albeit a scripted one—standing on the center stage at TED. All the presenters in this session called "The Dinner Party" sat at a large table near the back of the stage with their host Chris Anderson and took turns giving talks on the red carpet center stage, returning to the table to have follow-up discussions after their talk.

Pinker and Goldstein presenting live in 2012 at TED. Note "The Dinner Party" in the background. Photo: James Duncan Davidson (image source).

Goldstein and Pinker discussed Reason and whether or not it was a more powerful force historically than it's given credit. In the end Pinker is convinced by Goldstein's argument. "I have become convinced," Pinker says, "that reason is a better angel that deserves the greatest credit for the moral progress our species has enjoyed and that holds out the greatest hope for continuing moral progress in the future." And the audience offers up a bit of polite applause. "The script was clever, the argument powerful," says Anderson. "However on the day, they bombed." Why did they bomb? "Somehow the chemistry of the dinner guests never ignited. And perhaps the biggest reason for that was that I, as head of the table trying to moderate the conversation, had my back to the audience. The audience disengaged, the evening fell flat."

Another go at it — this time with animation
Usually a talk that receives a low rating at the TED conference never gets posted, however, in this case Anderson says the content was so important and so central to the TED mission of spreading ideas that matter that he wondered if there was not "a way to rescue the talk." And that's where the idea of using animation and cleaning up the audio came in. Andrew Park and his team at Cognitive did indeed do a remarkable job with the animation. Andrew Park does amazing work and his RSA Animate series has been seen by millions. The animated version below uses a bit of humor and is engaging and illustrative. The speed of the talking and the animation is quite fast a lot of the time so I found myself occasionally stopping the video so that I could take in the visuals displayed or simply read all the labels. I would love to see the original live recording of the on-stage dialog with the audio cleaned up and then compare it to the animated version. (Watch it below.)

Presentation tip by Chris Anderson
One thing Anderson mentions in his blog post is that he regrets turning his back on the audience to host "The Dinner Table" session on stage. He is spot on about that. It is not likely that this act alone was responsible for the session becoming generally less engaging than others, but it surely did not help.

This photo by James Duncan Davidson shared on the TED blog shows curator Chris Andserson hosting "The Dinner Party" session. "An experiment I will never try again: hosting a session with my back to the audience." Words of wisdom.

The Need for Literacy in Both the Sciences and the Arts

With all the excitement concerning the worldwide release of the new Cosmos series with Neil deGrasse Tyson this month, it's a good time to repost this piece from 2009 on the remarkable Mae Jemison. Young people need role models, and Dr. Jemison is a great one. According to The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence: "Mae Jemison, with her perseverance and commitment to science, serves as a great role model for future scientists everywhere."

Mae Jemison: The arts and sciences are not separate
MaejemisonMae Jemison is an astronaut, a medical doctor, a scientist, an engineer, an art collector, and a dancer. In 1992, Dr. Jemison was the first African-American woman to go into space. Since then she's become a crusader for science education, and for a new vision of learning that combines arts and sciences, intuition and logic. I think this 2002 TED talk below, recently featured on the TED website, is an important one to watch. The presentation itself is well structured, clear, and delivered with passion, although the visuals used did not match the quality of her talk. Yet, I do not point to this talk as an example of great visuals or even of perfect delivery. Rather, I think it's the content of the talk that will cause you to pause and reflect, especially if you care anything about education. Dr. Jemison says it's foolish to even think in terms of having to choose between being analytical or being intuitive and likens this false choice to having to choose between being idealistic or realistic. "You need both," she says.

Art & creativity or science & analysis: a false choice
Thinking_boy Dr. Jemison's point is simple and it's not new, yet here we are today still thinking, for the most part, that science and the arts are completely separate from one another and that scientists are not creative and that artists and other "creatives" are not analytical. Worse still, we have educational institutions that guide students away from their artistic interests because "you'll never get a job doing that." What a waste. Looking back at my own K-12 education, I wish I had had more exposure to science and math, especially astronomy, physics, and statistics which were all but missing for me until college. But, I wish I also had taken even more art and music classes instead of avoiding fine art classes, for example, out of guilt that it was not serious academic work.

"If we keep thinking that the arts are separate from the sciences...and that it's cute to say 'I don't understand anything about [the arts] or I don't understand anything about [the sciences]' then we're going to have problems."   
                                      —  Mae Jemison

Brain_art_science I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to be Leonardo da Vinci or that we all should be enlightened, well-rounded generalists. We need specialization. But even specialists have gained from following their inherent curiosity and by following a more holistic approach to their own education, an education that extends far beyond formal schooling. Over the years I've met many people in the high-tech industry, for example, that in addition to being successful engineers and programmers, etc., were also talented musicians or had obsessions in the arts that went far beyond a passive interest or hobby. In spite of the stereotypes about "technology nerds," the successful ones I've met always struck me as being sort of modern day Renaissance men/women, possessing both a well-rounded eduction in the arts and sciences and a deep, deep expertise in a special field.

Mae Jemison: NASA astronaut, scientist, medical doctor, teacher, former Peace Corps Volunteer, multilingual, Stanford graduate, artist. (Photo: NASA)

Science or art? A ridiculous choice. The arts and sciences are connected. And our mission, says Dr. Jemison, is to reconcile and reintegrate science and the arts. Both the arts and the sciences, says Dr. Jemison, are not merely connected but manifestations of the same thing — they are our attempt to build an understanding of the universe, and our attempt to influence things (things in the universe internal to ourselves and the universe external to ourselves). "The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity — [they] are our attempt as humans to build an understanding of the world around us...."

Don't let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It's your place in the world; it's your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live."         
                                         —  Mae Jemison

Speaking of the role of art & music in education
Quincy Mae Jemison's TED presentation ties in nicely with a piece that came out this week by the legendary Quincy Jones called Arts Education in America. Quincy asks "...can we really run the risk of becoming a culturally bankrupt nation because we have not inserted a curriculum into our educational institutions that will teach and nurture creativity in our children?" The most interesting part of Quincy's article were the words taken from the 1943 War Department Education Manual EM 603 that got its recommendations on jazz completely wrong. (Read it — you'll be amazed.) Kind of makes you wonder what else — in spite of good intentions — our educational institutions and leaders are getting completely wrong today? If our recommendations are based on the assumptions that science is not a place for creative thinking or that the arts/humanities have no room for analysis and logic or that students need to make a choice about what kind of person they are — logical or intuitive — then something tells me we're getting it wrong. We need both science and the arts...and we need to do better teaching both.

"It has been proven time and time again in countless studies that students who actively participate in arts education are twice as likely to read for pleasure, have strengthened problem-solving and critical thinking skills, are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, four times more likely to participate in a math and science fair...."
                                                         — Quincy Jones

Bill Strickland makes change with a slide show
Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity

Sam Berns presents "My Philosophy for a Happy Life"

SamThree years ago, HBO produced a documentary about Sam Berns called  "Life According to Sam." I had not seen the documentary until earlier this year. It's a remarkable story. I don't think anyone can watch this documentary about this amazing young man and his two loving parents and not be deeply moved. The documentary does not play on sentimentalities, but it will surely make you cry, especially knowing now that on January 10 of this year, Sam Berns died due to complications from Progeria  (Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome), a rare and fatal genetic condition which is characterized by an appearance of accelerated aging in children. Most children with Progeria do not live past their teens. When I saw that Sam had passed away, I felt so sorry for him and for his family. But pity is not something Sam would have wanted anyone to ever feel about him.

A great talk & life advice from Sam Berns
Sam gave a talk last October at TEDxMidAtlantic in Washington DC. This video below of his talk was posted in December, just about a month before Sam passed away. Sam touched the hearts of a lot of people while he was on this planet, and through this presentation he will continue to do so. 17-year-old Sam Berns gives us some good advice, but he also demonstrate how to tell your story in 12-minutes in a way that is simple, clear, and engaging.

Sam's approach to telling his story
Sam does not start off his presentation by talking about Progeria because his whole point—his theme—is that the disease is not the biggest part of his life. Instead he begins with a short story from his life about a challenge and overcoming that challenge without even ever mentioning the disease. That was what his life was like: Overcoming and moving forward. Sam opens with a mini-story where he tells of his deep desire to play snare drum in the high school marching band. The problem was the frame for the snare drum weighed 40lbs, but Sam only weighed 50lbs. A clear conflict. He was devastated by the reality that he would be unable to fulfill one of his dreams. His body was not up to it though his spirit was. We learn, then, that he was, however, able to work out the problem thanks to the kindness and brilliance of an engineer who created a special snare drum frame that weighed only 6lbs. Right from the start we have a story of conflict and resolution. Morerover, the snare drum story returns later on in his talk with added significance.

Sam does get into the facts of what the disease is—this is part of exposition if you will. The audience needs this knowledge to understand what follows and to appreciate just how remarkable his wisdom is given his difficult circumstances. We usually reserve wisdom for the old, obviously because they have been through so much. Well, Sam too, although only 17, had been through a lot. Sam recalled that when he was asked by an NPR interviewer "What is the most important thing that people should know about you?" His answer was "I have a very happy life." Sam said that Progeria did indeed present many challenges but that people should not feel sorry for him. Besides, he said, he was able to overcome most of the challenges anyway.

Sam's advice
"My Philosophy," he said, "has three parts, essentially." Sam then prefaces his list of three with a quote from the movie Ferris Bueller: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

(1) "Be OK with what you ultimately can't do, because there is so much you CAN do."
 Sam said he is very much aware of the things he can't do, like ride a roller coaster, but instead of focusing on that he instead focuses on the things he can do, and the things he is passionate about. Sam said you can put somethings that were impossible or out of reach before in the "can-do category" by making adjustments. To illustrate this point with an example he plays a clip of himself with the marching band, the story he opened with, which further illuminates his theme or his core message.

(2) "Surround yourself with people you want to be around." Sam talked about the importance of having high-quality people and great friends in your life, and a close family. "We see each other for who we are on the inside," Sam said of his friends and loved ones. You can see Sam gets choked up when talking about how the relationships in his life supercede even all the other positive aspects of his life. Our friends, our families, our communities, Sam said, are really the things that can make a huge difference in our lives.

(3) Keep Moving forward. Here Sam quotes Walt Disney: "Around here...we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things." Sam said he was able to get through difficult times by always having something in the future to look forward to, even if it was just a small thing like a new comic book or a football game. "This mentality includes staying in a forward-thinking state of mind. I try hard not to waste energy feeling badly about myself, Sam said, because when I do I get stuck in a paradox where there is no room for happiness or any other emotion."

Sam was so positive and so optimistic about his future. "No matter what I choose to become, I believe I can change the world. And as I am striving to change the world, I will be happy." He showed a clip from the film which he said emboddied his philosophy. Even though he had change in four years, he said, his philosophy had not. Sam told a story at the end of being very sick. It was a time he had to use all his strength and put his philosophy to the challenge. It was the three keys above that saw him through the roughest times, he said. "Being brave isn't supposed to be easy," Sam said. "But it's the key to moving forward."

"Being brave isn't supposed to be easy, but it's the key to moving forward."

Sam's talk is a beautiful thing. It is positive, authentic, and from the heart. His presentation is a wonderful contribution that is continuing to touch people, and inspire them to live life as fully as they can.

Thank you, Sam. You live on in more ways than you could have imagined.

Progeria Research Foundation
Foxborough field to be named after Sam Berns
Life According to Sam website

More storytelling lessons from "Cosmos"

This is an exciting week for anyone who was even remotely influenced by Carl Sagan's "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," a thirteen-part TV series which first aired in 1980. This week began the much anticipated follow-up called "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" hosted by famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Like many people, I'm a huge fan of both the late Carl Sagan and current science communicator extraordinaire Neil deGrasse Tyson. I'm interested in Cosmos for the science and the awe of the universe that will unfold before us on screen. But for me — and I suspect for many of you as well — I'm interested too in the many lessons about presentation and storytelling that will be implicitly displayed over the next several weeks in the new Cosmos. But before touching on those points, the first question is really why does the original Cosmos endure to this very day? Why does a show about the universe produced in 1980 have such a strong pull on us today? It's not because of the compelling communication style of Carl Sagan alone, although that is a small part of it. Nor is it because Sagan gave us information that most of us never had. The reason Cosmos endures is because the presentation of the original Cosmos series made it clear why what we were seeing and hearing mattered. Even if it was not always explicitly stated, the message was clear: This is important. This is remarkable. And you are a part of it.

If you listen to the creators of Cosmos you will hear the words Story and Storytelling uttered frequently. "You realize that science is not just this subject from a textbook," Tyson said. "It's a human story. Discovery is human… It's a celebration of human curiosity and why that matters to who and what we are." Below are just a few lessons from Cosmos—the original and the new series—that we may be able to apply to our own presentations. There are many, many more than this, but here are just a few for now.

Make the tough choices about inclusion and exclusion
Whether you have 5-minutes, 18-minutes, or an all-day seminar in which to tell your story, it is never enough time to tell all that you know or to share everything in as much detail as possible. Time can be a real obstacle, but it's also a great enabler if you are willing and able to put in the time to think long and hard about what's the most important and what's less important for reaching your audience in a way that is honest, informative, and engaging. You can't include all that you know or all that there is to say. The secret is in knowing what to leave out. Cosmos is only thirteen-hours long so the creators had to be very focused about what to included and what to exclude. When cutting we must be careful, however, not to misrepresent or conceal or distort or embellish the data. This is not easy. Balance is key.

Make 'em care and tell them why it matters
As Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in this Bill Moyers interview, the original Cosmos was not just a documentary of the latest scientific findings concerning the universe. There was something more there. After all, Tyson reminds us, there have been many documentaries since the original Cosmos that did a good job of laying out the latest science, and yet they more or less fade from our memory. But Cosmos did not fade. Why? "It's not because it brought you the latest science—although it also did that," says Tyson. The impact of Cosmos endures to this day, says Tyson, "...because it displayed for you why science matters. Why science is an enterprise that should be cherished as an activity of the free human mind. Because it transforms who we are, how we live, and it gives us an understanding of our place in the universe."

It is hard to choose just one element that a successful story must have, but if I had to choose just one, I'd say it is this: Show clearly why your topic — or result, cause, mission, etc. — matters. What's the big picture and our place in that picture? Pixar's Andrew Stanton said something very similar when he identified the most important element of storytelling as "make me care." You must make the audience care. And you must let them know clearly why they should care.

Respect your audience
Two of the great crimes of science education, says Tyson, is (1) not knowing how to make it exciting, and (2) believing that you are making it exciting by "dumbing it down." The audience, says Tyson will know if you are dumbing it down. He says you must speak to the audience with respect and dignity and have appreciation for the audience's capacity to wonder and for their intelligence. Too much TV programming, for example, Tyson says goes down—way down—to the lowest common denominator. "What kind of vision statement is that for producers of media or even for a nation to create programming that does not treat people as intelligent beings?" The lesson for us? Know your audience as best you can and prepare with that audience in mind.

Make it visual
The new Cosmos is a "visual-effects extravaganza," says John Teti writing for "Cosmos doesn’t hesitate to indulge in eye candy. But the true feat here is how Cosmos’ imagery overcomes our puny ability to conceive huge spaces," says Teti. "Each line on the cosmic address follows clearly from the last, and the sequence’s methodical buildup lets viewers acquire a sliver of insight into our universe’s baffling bigness or, to put it another way, our pathetic smallness." However, "visual" does not mean only the use of graphics such as photography, video, animations, visualizations of data, and so on. Visual also means helping the audience to clearly "see" your ideas through your use of descriptive language, through the use of concrete examples, and by the power and simplicity of metaphor.

Present in the spirit of contribution—make an offering
Tyson says that Cosmos is not an attempt to beat people over the head with things they must understand to become science literate. Instead, he says, it is an offering. "I'm not saying learn this or else!" But rather, Tyson says, "it's like, here it is and here's why it matters....Here's why your life can be transformed just by having some understanding of this."

Spark their curiosity
Producer Ann Druyan says that the way science has been taught in schools is "horrendous," an approach which often results in our natural curiosity being "beat out of us." Therefore, says Druyan, "the way we are trying to tell these stories is an opening, an aperture to the excitement [of science]." Tyson goes on to add, "Cosmos will reignite the fires of curiosity that I know live within us all."  

Take them on a journey
"In the new Cosmos we are continuing this voyage. We are continuing this epic exploration of our place in the universe," says Tyson. There have been new discoveries obviously since the original Cosmos in 1980. For example, some thirty years ago we did not know—though people suspected—that there were other planets orbiting other stars. This discovery is not just new science, says Tyson. "It's new vistas of thought and imagination." Science can be told as an adventure as exciting and mysterious as anything any man has made up.

Trigger a question
Good storytelling causes the audience to ask questions as your narrative progresses. As the storyteller you can ask questions directly, but often a more interesting approach is to present the material in a way that triggers the audience to come up with the questions themselves. And yet we must not be afraid to leave some (many?) questions unanswered. When we think of a story we may think of clear conclusions and neat, clear endings, but reality can be quite a bit more complicated than that. There are an infinite amount of mysteries to ponder and puzzles to be solved. Many observations can not (yet) be explained, but that is OK. This is what keeps us going forward.

Touch them emotionally
"Science doesn't have to be the opposite of religion in terms of its emotional value," says producer Brannon Braga. "Science can move you like any other story. Science can be a visceral, emotional experience." In an interview with Skepticality, producer and writer Ann Druyan said "In order for it to qualify on our show it has to touch you. It still has to be rigorously good science—no cutting corners on that. But then, it also has to be that equal part skepticism and wonder both." In this interview with The Christian Science Monitor, "Tyson says, "what you remembered most about Cosmos is how it affected you not only intellectually, but emotionally."

Great interview with Bill Moyers and NDT.

"Whoever said you couldn’t communicate science by way of stories? Cosmos is an occasion to bring everything that I have, all of my capacity to communicate. We may go to the edge of the universe, but we’re going to land right on you: in your heart, in your soul, in your mind. My goal is to have people know that they are participants in this great unfolding cosmic story."  — Neil deGrasse Tyson (Wired)

• Seven things we learned from episode 1
Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson Unveils the Cosmos
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
• Cosmos Live Event video (great discussion)
• The Carnegie Mellon University website has a page entitled Telling Science Stories with documents and links to resources for helping people incorporate elements of storytelling into their science writings and presentations.