Soft skills for natural scientists

In January 2017 I had the pleasure of conducting a 2-day workshop at the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart. We focused on

  • becoming a better listener
  • storytelling across disciplines
  • dealing with and resolving conflict
  • recognizing and improving how you work in teams

I’d like to present to you how we explored the last of these points.

  1. Team poster

In a first exercise, teams had 20 minutes to create a poster on a subject of their choice using a limited set of materials. The aim was to reflect on the roles each group member tended to take in groupwork, and how each contributed to both the process and the outcome. One interesting result was that a group consisting of members who had identified as similar MBTI types operated almost seemlessly to come up with a neatly engineered result. They didn’t begin actually creating their poster until half-way through the alotted time. Meanwhile, a second group of highly diverse types went through a lively, laughter-driven process, got hands-on almost immediately, and came up with a colorful patchwork showcasing individual contributions. Both groups were quite satisfied with their product, but the distinction between their approaches was food for thought:

  • Similar types may work together and achieve results with little friction, but they will not have the opportunity to gain an understanding for the thoughts and work processes of those unlike them.
  • Diverse types may experience a great deal of friction (to the point of experiencing the process as ‘a waste of time’), and the group will be slowed down by the attempt to include all participants, but they will, on reflection, acquire insights to enable improved collaboration on later projects. For research suggests that “It’s group conflict that actually makes a team function with more of the razor’s edge it needs to be innovative.”

2. Team meeting

In a second exercise, teams convened to hold a meeting to solve an important issue of their choice. Again the format was highly stylized, using Edward de Bono’s Six Hats approach in a precisely timed game format. At the end, the groups presented their solutions. Key lessons from the exercise were:

  • Using a strict format creatively limiting talking time heightens focus and improves results. It avoids members blocking each other competitively by trying to outdo each other.
  • A key to useful outcomes is  to allow thoughts to blossom first before finding weaknesses in them, and then to go on to seek solutions to those weaknesses, rather than shooting them down in the bud.

Such reflective exercises are great at inviting colleagues to discuss what they need and don’t need from each other, and allows them to grow as a team.

Though the team poster exercise made for better pictures (see below), the team meeting exercise won greater praise.

A warm thank you to the participants from the Max-Planck-Institute for Intelligent Systems for permitting me to show you these photos.

Lessons learned

First, a warm thank you to Wera Schmidt for thinking through my concept with me and suggesting the poster exercise. And a heartfelt thank you to my coaching colleague Wolf Wagner, who went through the feedback and assessed it for me. Overall, the feedback was quite positive. What participants liked most was the day 1 opportunity to practice listening and speaking skills. They were keen to explore conflict resolution in the simulations they were invited to act out. However, some found it quite difficult to imagine what the other side might argue in concrete terms, and in general would have prefered greater guidance in a smaller number of role plays.  This suggests to me that more focused and generative group coaching might be called for. Overall, a reprise in a similar soft skills workshop will include:

  1. fewer items
  2. a greater focus on issues specific to each participant’s work/life reality
  3. more time for guided reflection after each exercise
  4. a crystal-clear summary of the intended lesson to be learned.

Better visuals for college presentations

Today I wrote an open letter to my Masters of Public Management students on how to improve their visuals. It included these points:

Better visuals:

To improve your design, especially your use of space on slides, select a theme that suits your purposes. Consider a clean color scheme with good contrast to suit the light conditions at the university. (I used a black gradient with white letters.) Then create a slide master, which stores information about the template (theme, a set of layouts, color scheme, fonts, placeholders for positioning). That creates harmonious slide variations on one theme, all saved in one master. When you make a new presentation, you build your slide deck by selecting from among the possible layouts, changing from slide to slide, and positioning your content in the given placeholders.

Use the graphic tools provided in your MS Office programs. Create visuals (graphic organizers, flowcharts…) using the tools in Powerpoint and Word called SmartArt. If you can’t find a chart that works for your purpose, tailor organizers using Diagrams and Tables. Save your own visuals and use them in your Prezis.

Use clipart provided by your program, if necessary, but reduce your use of clipart in your academic work. Replace those generic illustrations with authentic evidence (visualized calculations, documentation, photographs) to back up your assertions effectively.

If you need evocative photos for emotional impact or reference, use license-free photographs and document your sources to use them. I like eltpics, a searchable creative commons collection curated by English teachers around the world. https://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/tags/

Better use of text

I know that “Presentation Zen” author Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte advocate reducing text on slides. That works well for natural science presentations, which are best when you show just the evidence, and for marketing, which runs on emotions. However, in our international context, with so much potential for verbal misunderstanding, and in our academic tradition of analytical thinking, you do need some text! Include all relevant names, titles of works and conceptual keywords on your slide. Formulate your key thesis as a full sentence. Label your charts legibly, with 16 point lettering. Use the spaces suggested by your template to formulate a header for orientation, keep bullets points short (max. 6-7 lines x 6 words), or – better – label the containers you have created in your template to contrast or compare selected terms.

Present any quotes in full length and include the name of the author.

Your presentations are unique, and your teachers and peers respect and enjoy that variety. Use the ideas of Dan and Chip Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007) to assess yourself:

Is what you present

simple – have you found the core of the idea?
unexpected – do you grab people’s attention?
concrete – can it be grasped and remembered?
credible – do you speak with authority on this subject, are your methods are sound?
emotional – do you share your sense of humanity with your audience?
stories – do you take your audience on an interesting journey?

Earth in Progress

Climate scientists on site, investigating lake sediments at Lake Hämelsee for clues of climate change. This is a product of the Earth in Progress project, a cooperation between various disciplines involved in responding effectively to climate events. I’ve had the privilege of providing English communication skills courses to some members of the project.
The film makers ask the scientists about their motivation, making their work a bit more more accessible to the general public.
INTIMATE: http://cost-es0907.geoenvi.org/
PROGRESS: http://www.earth-in-progress.de

The Exploratorium and the Science of Sailing

Before becoming an English skills trainer, I worked on exhibitions presenting cultural history. My teaching and translating work since has made me curious about science. This summer we visited the wonderful Exploratorium in San Fransisco and saw the interactive exhibit they set up for the America’s Cup. That has fired my imagination and whetted my appetite. I’d love to get back into the field of exhibitions.

Here Exploratorium co-director Paul Doherty explains an exhibit showing what makes a boat sail faster than the wind.

The GoldieBlox Rube Goldberg (Anti)-Princess Machine

I support GoldieBlox www.goldieblox.com, a toy startup dedicated to introducing girls to engineering through a combination of building toys and stories. That is, I bought 3 or 4 boxes of their first product from the USA on blind faith. The combination of hands-on building with hard and soft materials, abstract building materials and concrete characters,  and a storybook in relatively simple English, is really nice for 4-8 year-olds, whether or not they’ve been born into playing in English.  I do think the storybook is a bit dim, I’m afraid, but the concept and the toy itself is fine. So I have these boxes of the GoldieBlox Spinning Machine sitting around my flat, waiting for my favorite little girls to pick them up. GoldieBlox has produced a followup toy, as well.

The GoldieBlox venture is more idea than toy, at this point. CEO Debbie Sterling is using social media to create a community to empower girls.”In a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math…and girls lose interest in these subjects as early as age 8, GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation. Construction toys develop an early interest in these subjects, but for over a hundred years, they’ve been considered “boys toys”. By designing a construction toy from the female perspective, we aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.”

So GoldieBlox created the “Princess Machine” advertisement to enter into a contest for broadcasting rights at the Superbowl. It’s a type of Rube Goldberg machine that employs mechanical components from the toy set, and just a few more doodads you might find around the house.

Unfortunately, it was not built by the girls acting here, which I find somewhat off-putting. Why promote a girl empowerment toy and then disempower the girls in question? The girls are, however, the power-users and testers of the toy itself. Perhaps the ad is intended to inspire others. At any rate, the video has gone viral, with nearly 3 million hits in 2 days.

GoldieBlox is sueing the Beastie Boys for their “Girls, Girls, Girls” song. Oh, dear.

Hans Rosling’s creative teaching technologies – realia, boxes, Lego

I’m thinking through how useful I find using small manipulable toys like cuisinaire rods and Lego to visualize information, to explain and teach things in a small classroom, for example in one-to-one training. Recently I’ve joined a group exploring the terrain of using Lego, and so I’m thinking back to how I have used these tools with various clients over the years.  Now I’ve stumbled upon a video of Hans Rosling using Lego, an opportunity to ponder quietly what the effect is on the learner.

Hans Rosling is unquestionably one of the best international presenters in the world, having captured the visual essence of development in his moving bubble charts (Gapmminder).But he’s also given  a mind-blowing presentation of progress using a washing machine. He has presented using Ikea boxes, and now, in a new video, he uses Lego. First, here are the three presentations with realia, boxes and Lego:

Washing machine:

Ikea boxes:

Lego:

I frankly really appreciate the use of real life realia, they evoke emotion the way a multifunctional building toy simply can’t. I use things or at least pictures of things quite a lot. Saying that one abstract box represents one thing and placing it next to an identical other box representing a different thing places additional cognitive load on the viewer. That can be good or bad, depending on whether the load is rewarded in some way. It helps if you add visual distinction to the box, the way Hans Rosling does with the realia he pulls out of his Ikea boxes, like some magician. That adds a lovely element of play and surprize.

Bare Lego on the other hand without playing clown or dress-up will divide the public. It can be charming to those with happy memories of the building toy, or with lots of practice building with their kids. That charm can be harnessed to focus attention. I think, however, that the blocks need to be very well connected visually to stories as they are told. I once saw Mark Powell use cuisinaire rods that way, and it got me down the road of storytelling with little blocks and rods. I’ve found that once those stories start to materialize and are understood, there is a creative spark that you can kindle and develop as you hand things over, step by step, to the students. And then I think the additional cognitive load is actually exactly what you need, because the learners are more engaged and working harder at the same time.

Beyond that, however, what these presentations show me at least is that it’s easy to visualize the big picture with simple tools, or to tell a simple story, but to see and remember the details, e.g. ratios between groups or development over time, and in fact figures of any kind, you really need graphics. Nothing replaces complex graphics for communicating complex data, and in turn relating that, when it is well done, to a big idea.

Presenting science to your peers

I gave a morning workshop yesterday on scientific presentations to students of Geoscience and updated my approach a little. It now includes the concept of creating storytelling cycles of tension and resolution (situation, complication, resolution, example), as explained by presentation guru Andrew Abela, whose book, Advanced Presentations by Design, I have just ordered. Also see his excellent Extreme Presentation Method website, which showcases his thought-provoking, well-structured approach.