Category Archives: Tips

Speed read the news

While I have to slog my way through technical material, I can speed read most news and articles. I’ve tested my reading speed, and I can get through about 400-500 words per minute of non-technical medium-density news. However, if the article is on a busy website, it’s hard to maintain this speed. I’ve started to experiment with Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP), which flashes the words you are trying to read at you to keep your eyes focused on one spot.

Spritz is an RSVP that speed flashes your article to you, similar to the gif below:

You can install a browser plugin to get your material Spritz’ed to you. Go here to get the plugin, then make an account and set your desired words/minute. Then, when you’re at a website with news/articles to read, just click the Spritzlet link and it will start flashing words for you. I’ve set mine to 425 words/minute to read non-technical material. Play with the speed to find a setting that requires your concentration but does not lose you.

Other speed reading options:
Readsy appears to show like Spritz, but allows you to either paste the material in or attach a .pdf.
-If you like the Spritz format (one red letter that doesn’t move), check here for other options besides Spritzlet and Readsy, including phone apps.
-If you like words being flashed 2-4 words at a time, try copying your material into Spreeder.

Book Review – Get Rich with Dividends

Get Rich with Dividends: A Proven System for Earning Double-Digit Returns
by Marc Lichtenfeld, 2012

A starter guide to the dividend growth movement. I’ve already been reading a few blogs on dividend growth (Sure Dividend is my favorite), and this book confirms the thoughts I’m reading elsewhere. I’m hoping that my (currently) relatively modest holdings with grow with the power of dividend growth over the years. Companies that have a decent dividend yield with a high dividend growth rate and sustainable payout ratio are good candidates for a long term buy-and-hold portfolio. Companies like Johnson & Johnson, Walmart, and Coca Cola are good options for such portfolios. This book suggests a higher starting yield (4.7% or more) than I’m used to, but I think many stocks with 2-4% starting yields are still good. I’m open to investment discussions and information sharing, if anyone is interested.

Book Review – Superforecasting

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction
by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner, 2015

superforecasting

Great book describing insights from The Good Judgment Project, which was/is a forecasting tournament sponsored by the intelligence community. Describes how to be a superforecaster and avoid common pitfalls that ensnare “hedgehog” pundits with overconfidence. The ten “commandments” at the end of the book summarize the book well, though I would suggest reading the whole thing:
1. Triage. Focus on questions where your hard work is likely to pay off.
2. Break seemingly intractable problems into tractable sub-problems. Look up Enrico Fermi if you don’t know him.
3. Strike the right balance between inside and outside views.
4. Strike the right balance between under- and overreacting to evidence.
5. Look for the clashing causal forces at work in each problem.
6. Strive to distinguish as many degrees of doubt as the problem permits but no more.
7. Strike the right balance between under- and overconfidence, between prudence and decisiveness.
8. Look for the errors behind your mistakes but beware of rearview-mirror hindsight biases.
9. Bring out the best in others and let others bring out the best in you.
10. Master the error-balancing bicycle. Like all other known forms of expertise, superforecasting is the product of deep, deliberative practice.
(11. Don’t treat commandments as commandments.)

Qualifying a Worthy Problem

Great talk by Professor Gerald Brown on the last day of INFORMS. If you ever have a chance to hear him speak, take it. Slides from his talk, which started with some motivating examples of military OR, are available here.

5 steps to qualifying a worthy problem to study/solve:
1. What is the problem?
If you can’t describe the problem, how do you know there is one? How would you ever solve it? The client never gives an unambiguous problem description, so work to get to the heart of the matter. If you can describe the problem, move to step 2.

2. Why is this problem important?
Don’t waste your time on trivialities. If the problem is important, move to step 3.

3. How is this problem now solved?
Few problems are entirely ignored, so be sure to understand how the problem is currently solved to ensure you are providing adequate improvement. If you can do significantly better, move to step 4.

4. How will you solve this problem?
Up until now, “solving the problem” has been agnostic toward the type of analysis. Now, choose an appropriate methodology and ensure the problem is tractable.

5. How will you know when you have succeeded?
Answer this before you start solving. It’s difficult/impossible to succeed if the goal is constantly moving, so hammer out what success looks like for this problem.

What is your presentation’s throughline?

When you start designing your presentation, take a step back and ask yourself: What’s my main point? What do I want the audience to remember, to takeaway? Build your talk around this concept. From the TED Talks book:

There’s a helpful word used to analyze plays, movies, and novels; it applies to talks too. It is throughline, the connecting theme that ties together each narrative element. Every talk should have one.

Since your goal is to construct something wondrous inside your listeners’ minds, you can think of the throughline as a strong cord or rope, onto which you will attach all the elements that are part of the idea you’re building.

This doesn’t mean every talk can only cover one topic, tell a single story, or just proceed in one direction without diversions. Not at all. It just means that all the pieces need to connect.

Basically, make everything in your talk connect to the main point. Minimize the distractions and superfluous details.

Handling Questions Gracefully

1. Accept questions from the audience after finishing thoughts, not mid-thought. Professors do this better than students.

2. Listen. Listen to the question to ensure you understand it.

3. Answer quickly if possible. If a quick answer is not possible and the answer will be revealed in upcoming segments, ask the questioner to wait until then. If a quick answer is not possible and the answer will not be revealed in the rest of the presentation, tell the questioner that you will speak to him offline. Offline refers to after the presentation has ended and you are no longer speaking to the entire audience.

4. If the answer does not satisfy the questioner or he has a follow-up, determine what to do. You don’t want your presentation derailed by a single line of questioning, but you don’t want to look evasive either. If the question wasn’t clear to you (even after asking for the questioner to repeat), offer to answer the question offline. In small audiences, it’s better to delay and answer correctly (or explain why you don’t know) than to guess at the questioners meaning and misinterpret.

Slide Do’s and Don’ts (2016 edition)

Most people use slides when giving a presentation. Unfortunately, most slides are awful. Here are some tips to help.

This is a post I will re-visit each year. Here are the 2016 suggestions:

Do’s
1. Use images and graphs. As much as can reasonably be allowed. Visuals trump words.

2. Make your slides readable. Use at most three font sizes. Large size is for titles/headlines, medium is for your main ideas, small is for supporting ideas. You may use bolding, but avoid italics and underlining as they are hard to read. Ensure contrast between the text and background.

3. Think about going to a blank slide when you want to talk and need the audience’s full attention. Most presentation clickers have a button that can do this. From the TED Talks book: “Just go to a blank, black slide and then the audience will get a vacation from images and pay more attention to your words. Then, when you go back to slides, they will be ready to go back to work.”

Don’ts
1. Don’t use slides made in LaTeX. LaTeX is great for making papers. But it makes boring presentations that look like paper subsets. Presentations aren’t for reading, they’re for listening and seeing. Every presentation I’ve seen where the slides were made in LaTeX Beamer has been boring. And, perhaps worse, each presentation is the same sort of boring, as there seems to be little customization. I’m sure it’s possible to give a good presentation with this tool, but I haven’t seen it.

2. Don’t create slides that work as a stand-alone document. You are there to give your presentation. If everything you want to say is already up on the slides, why are you there? Your job is not to make all-encompassing slides. It is to make slides that support your presentation.

3. Don’t put items on your slides that you don’t want to discuss. If the information is not important enough to mention, it shouldn’t be on your slides. Generally, slides shouldn’t speak for themselves. If you think someone might ask about it, move it to your backup slides.

Memorize Your Talk?

Should you memorize your presentation? There are two correct answers to this question:
1. No, you shouldn’t memorize your talk, but you should be familiar with the flow and have practiced enough that it sounds natural.
2. Yes, you should memorize your talk so well that it sounds natural, not robotic.

Personally, I don’t memorize wording. But I know memorizing makes certain people feel more relaxed and secure. The important thing is that you practice enough so that your talk sounds natural.

If you don’t memorize and don’t practice, your talk will be littered with “uhs” and “umms” while you try to work out what to say next. That sucks.

If you memorize, but not well enough, you’ll fall into the uncanny valley. From the TED Talks book: “[The Uncanny Valley] is a term borrowed from a phenomenon in computer animation where the technology of animating humanlike characters is super-close to seeming real but is not quite there. The effect is creepy: worse than if the animator had steered clear of realism altogether.” Speakers that try to memorize, but don’t do it well enough, fall here. Their talk will sound robotic and rehearsed. But by persisting with practice, you can fight through the uncanny valley. You need to know the talk so well that recalling it is a snap, no matter where you are interrupted. “Then you can use your conscious attention to focus on the meaning of the words once again.”

uncanny-valley
(image via Slate)

So what is the conclusion? Practice. Then practice again. By practicing and preparing, you can give a talk that values the audience’s time and wins you support.

Planning the Length of Your Talk

For every one minute you exceed your allotted time, 10% more of the audience wants to kill you.

I am a stickler for timing, and I am typically incredibly annoyed when presenters cannot plan well and run overtime. When you run overtime, you are implicitly telling the audience (and any subsequent presenters) that their time is not valuable to you. So my first advice this week is to plan an appropriate presentation length.

Your prepared talk is only one of four things that will happen in your allotted time. The other three things are introductions/setup, questions during the talk, and questions after the talk. When you first take the stage, any introduction and preparation of slides must be considered in your timing. If you are in academia, your talk may be frequently interrupted with clarifying questions or interjections from the crowd. Such questions may be held until the end of the talk for certain kinds of talks. And then, at the end, there will be audience questions about the topic and talk.

If you use all your time on your talk and get no useful questions, your talk has been a failure. Questions can alert you to holes in your current research. Questions can illustrate future avenues of fruitful research. A lack of questions signifies that you either did not interest the audience or you did not leave enough time for questions.

So how much talk should you plan for? Let’s assume you are giving a 22 minute academic presentation. Leave about 5 minutes at the end for questions. Assume 1 minute setup and 3 minutes of interruptions during the talk. That leaves 13 minutes. Plan a talk that you can comfortably give in 13 minutes. Without being rushed. That’s not a long time. You won’t be showing all the details of your research. But at a conference where attendees can hear 20 talks a day, they won’t remember all the details anyway. Your goal is to present motivation, basic approach, and interesting results in order to get other people interested in your research.

If no one interrupts you (saving three minutes), have some backup material on the next most interesting aspect of your work to show.

If no one asks questions, start the Q&A session by asking for advice on a specific aspect of the research. Don’t just let the five minute Q&A time wither unused. If you get too many questions and are out of time, offer to take more questions offline after the presentation.

For a talk that won’t be interrupted (questions at the end, if at all, like a TED talk), here is the timing suggestion from the TED book: “Your finish line is your time times 0.9. Write and rehearse a talk that is nine-tenths the time you were given: 1 hour = 54 minutes, 10 minutes = 9, 18 minutes = 16:12. Then get on stage and ignore the clock. You’ll have breathing room to pace yourself, to pause, to screw up a little, to milk the audience’s response. Plus your writing will be tighter and you’ll stand out from the other speakers who are dancing to the rhythms of the same time limit.”

Presentation Week 2016

I’m going to start a yearly tradition. For one week in October/November, I will create a week’s worth of posts about giving presentations. I am constantly striving to improve my own presentation ability, and I think a lot of researchers need help to present their research effectively. Presentation Week will occur in advance of the INFORMS annual meeting in early/mid November, which is my main academic conference. Posts will be archived here.

Here are the posts for this year:
Monday: Planning the Length of Your Talk
Tuesday: Memorize your talk?
Wednesday: Slide Do’s and Don’ts (probably a post I’ll re-visit each year)
Thursday: Handling Questions Gracefully
Friday: Focus on What You Want the Audience to Remember

Much of the material I use comes from two books I read this year: TED Talks and Presentation in Action.