New Reflections on Old Invites

Well it’s been and gone. That merry band of a few who drop by to look at these posts might remember a post about that time I was actually invited to do a speaking thing at a conference.

You’ll also recall (or find out for the first time if you go back and look at that link) that I had a series of things to try and do. A sort of half-baked labours of Academic Faux-Hercules to try and achieve generic brand immortality with (not even the good kind of generic brand; more like the type of generic brand you know is going to break really soon and not match the ‘immortality’ label).

This then is my part-time academic scorecard, to be subsequently known as my PTAS review to make it fit academic lingo more easily.

Did I Embrace Unwanted Things?

I did the planned talk on that happy little lump of offal, the liver. And the morning tea spring rolls didn’t get flung at my head (this is a bonus because I checked and they don’t spring).

I do feel like I worked harder to find a way to make this talk work for the audience than I might have if I chose my own topic. Who am I to judge though? I turned it into a blog post for the Songs or Stories site here. All feedback welcome.

Score: The unwanted thing at least got a pat on the shoulder and a thumbs up, rather than a full body embrace. That’s more acceptable socially though so I give it a pass.

A slightly less athletic thumbs up than this, but still.

A slightly less athletic thumbs up than this, but still.

Did I work hard as a speaker?

Well I turned up. I rehearsed each talk a bunch of times, which is definitely an aim. For each talk I produced an accompanying referenced post online. Oh, and for the social media talk I rehearsed with my new co-presenter, we set up a loose script in advance, worked on a joint slide deck, advocated for more tech infrastructure and spent hours trying to set up a Livestream thing.

So I worked a bit, but also felt like I actually contributed to the program rather than just being there.

Score: Pass as measured by a face full of soft cheese in the airport lounge when I fell asleep.

Did I do better talks?

Always hard to measure from inside the belly of the beast (the same reason you don’t trust Jonah’s assessment the size of the whale that swallowed him I guess). I definitely delivered more closely to the style of talk I’d like, but I need more feedback from the punters.

Score: Still waiting for the verdict of the jury after they settle on which takeaway they’ll order for dinner.

Did I do the conference?

I spoke to people. I spoke to people I hadn’t met electronically before even. I shared meals. I heard new stories. I did not talk to anybody from a company that sells stuff (could call that as positive or negative).

It is massively easier to do this when you’re surrounded by “your type of people”. You know, the other people out there who like giving controlled substances to babies. We think the same.

Was I super proactive like the real pros are? Probably not. I’m not sure what the colour of the paint in the corners of the room was though.

Score: Pass, in that I was at least a fish swimming randomly around trying not to bump into things, not floating belly up. In the corner.

Did I seek opportunities?

Well speaking to people was a start. And I’ve shared a couple of things in follow-up. Did I come up with any definite collaborations? Well, not really. Those things can take a bit of time though, right?

Let’s assume it’s a starter for the sort of earthy sourdough bread where you end up hanging onto that starter for multiple generations of a family and at least one armed uprising. (Yes, I like my sourdough with a hint of frontier gunpowder.)

The one area we did really take up some opportunities was in the social media talk. The real highlight of this was the involvement of people online in the Twitter stream who made an effort to help “just because”. This really demonstrated that there are some amazing and supportive people out there (setting an alarm at 02:00 in Canada to chip in to a Twitter stream is a pretty amazing effort).

Oh, and a guy in Sydney live illustrating the session and sending it back to us. I’ve wanted to do that for 2 years.

Score: Would be a fail if measured today, but hoping it’s a slow burn.

This is the very cool work by Gavin Blake at Fever Picture for the Social Media session - scribed in real time from Sydney while we were in Johannesburg.

This is the very cool work by Gavin Blake at Fever Picture for the Social Media session – scribed in real time from Sydney while we were in Johannesburg.

All up, I’m better at being a person who talks and conferences for going to this conference. Of course, you’re only as good as your last gig. So do you leave on a high, or go around again?



As I mentioned above, I produced a post for each talk. I think this offers a lot more for the audience, as you can embed some references and links that might actually be useful and the talk can live beyond the 30 minutes. It was a bunch of extra work, but for conference sessions I think I’d try to do this again. My examples are:

The Liver Talk

The Aid Trip and Practice Development Talk

The Social Media Talk (this one also includes a link to the Livestream event we created for it, though we eventually broke the connection with a couple of minutes left).

The image for the thumbs up was posted to Flickr Creative Commons by the US Navy and is produced  unchanged.






Going Back to School for an Education

I have had some surprising invitations in my day. A traditional healer in Zimbabwe once invited me to try her herbal Viagra out. There have been invites to celebrations that required very specific dress codes that could probably only be satisfied by visiting dark corners of the internet. They were just about topped by an invite to hang out at Brooklyn Public School for their science fair.

Why so surprising? Well, I don’t really have any link to Brooklyn (even the Sydney one) beyond an under 10s game of cricket that went pretty well and getting engaged on a nearby river a while ago. On top of that, I don’t really count myself as much of a scientist. I’d like to be able to develop some researching skills, but there’s something about failing to get grants, generate much data or publish life changing papers that makes me think I have a way to go. But then you bug someone who is quite an impressive scientist (who you can find as @DrBrocktagon on Twitter) and someone else falls through and before you know it you’re a fallback option.

The Welcome Mat

The Welcome Mat

Having said yes to doing a presentation, I had a few things to face up to. Anyone will tell you not to work with kids and animals. I assume it’s fear of unpredictability that drives that saying, though I would usually laugh at such balderdash when armed with a large array of controlled substances. The great thing about tackling a different audience is it gives you a chance to re-examine how you communicate ideas. There have been other posts where I’ve mentioned some thoughts on presentations (like here and here and here) but I can’t think of a time when I’ve been able to chat to a bunch of kids. So while some stuff was the same, there were a few lessons that I think will probably make me PhD better.

1. Re-examining What You Do

A new audience gives the chance to view what you do through the eyes of another. When wrestling with the reluctant vagaries of data collection or sinking in the latest grant rejection, it’s easy to feel like the project that once excited you might not be that great. Figuring out which bit to talk about when you can say “actually we’re flying on helicopters to see what shining light into people’s brains might tell us” is a great way to re-engage with the cool stuff that got it all rolling.


2. Less is More

One of the reasons kids can be confronting is they so often hit us with honesty more than we are used to. There’s no agenda, they’ll just make it painfully obvious as they suck the oxygen from the room with yawning mouths that you are boring. The aim here was to cover three things – what is science/who is a scientist, stuff we do at work and how that involves sciencey stuff. Even that was kind of a bit. Maybe 3 ideas was even too much.


3. Kids are Naturals

Spend a day chatting about science stuff with kids and it’s really obvious that for lots of kids science is a natural fit. They have a natural curiosity that seeks ways to understand the world around them. Even more impressive was the rigour of their application of a methodology to answer their questions. Here’s an example – one pair wanted to see if shoe size was related to height. So they sat at a ferry stop and got about 60 people to shed their shoes and get measured. They recorded all the data, and displayed it in all its glory, as well as dividing height by foot length to see if there was a consistent relationship. Then of course there was the guy who did multiple tests of different-sized paper ninja stars to check their flight characteristics. Or the youngster who pursued behavioural testing in dogs. More than 50 dogs on a beach.

Data is so much of the story. Seriously inspiring.

That's a lot of smelly feet to get near.

That’s a lot of smelly feet to get near.

4. There Are Uses for Laser Pointers

It is not for pointing at screens. Really great for demonstrating the interaction of light with interfaces though. Plus lasers.


5. Flexibility is an Expectation

Not because you’ll find yourself competing in long forgotten schoolyard games in a winner takes all fashion. I hope. Let’s say though that you plan to use a toy to demonstrate helicopter flight. Then you end up in a  room with multiple fans directly over the heads of the kids. Probably best not to be too committed to anything.


6. Audience Testing

Beyond the usual practice, for a chat to kids I highly recommend testing the material out on kids in advance if you have some handy amenable to spending a few minutes (or amenable to a bribe to do that). I had an easy option in three gents aged 7, 5 and 2. The 7 year old was right into it. The 5 year old gave up a decent number of laughs. The 2 year old went and hid in a box. You can’t please everyone I guess.


7. The Unplanned Bit is the Best Bit

The talk was fun but by far the best bit was the questions afterwards. Partly because it showed some kids listened to the stuff I said and they came up with questions. But we also covered anaesthesia, pilots, who I like best on the helicopter, helmets, brain injuries, how incredibly old I am and the worst injuries I’ve come across. It was particularly excellent.


How did it go? Somewhere between having the kids so excited they mobbed me and squeezed so hard an eye popped out like an old stuffed toy and throwing small paper projectiles from boredom (although there were ninja stars handy). It was not just the best talk I’ve had the chance to be a part of any time I can remember, it genuinely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for my own project. A few years in to this part time PhD, that was a lesson I needed to revisit.


Presentations for Goldfish

Once a year in PhDland we are summoned to appear in the public domain. Actually that sounds bad. We’re not locked away from the outside world like Quasimodo. What I should have said is we have the ‘opportunity’ to present our work. We present mostly to a friendly audience and really it’s about developing some skills that are a part of the postgraduate experience – presentations.

Now presentations have got a mention in these electronic pages before with the aid of Kevin Bacon and a trip via the sweaty opulence of Singapore. There is something particular about these PhD presentations though. Our research school gives us eight minutes talk time and four minutes of questions. I’ve had feedback from others who get as little as ten or even eight minutes. That’s not much time but the brief is pretty specific.

The total guidance is that you should present something related to the project that is under way. Setting up this particular PhD project has taken enough time that for the two prior years I had to get up to say “here’s this thing that we reckon might be a thing and I have zero actual data of any sort” while running distraction techniques in the form of helicopter photos.

The first time I had to do a short presentation I figured it would be easier than preparing stuff to fill  the time of a longer one. I was wrong. It can be pretty easy to fill a larger presentation because there’s less imperative to edit. Of course this comes with a different but equally unique set of challenges. After three rounds of feedback on these talks the process has become easier to set out in my head when I start.

1. Just Enough Concepts for a Cliché Goldfish

You might have heard that a goldfish has a memory that lasts about four seconds. While this is a horrible slur on the passable intelligence of ornamental aquatic life (as amply demonstrated with a red Lego block by a school kid), it is important to figure out what the one message of the presentation is. This time around it was “we actually started and can do this”. Everything else in the presentation should underline the one message.

Though maybe this goldfish would just as soon as forget the bit on the head there [via]

Though maybe this goldfish would just as soon as forget the bit on the head there [via]

2. The Questions to Explain

How do you get there simply? I break the whole presentation into a few key things to cover:

* What’s the problem (with a bit of why should we all care)?

* What’s the solution (meaning what is it that we’re looking at that might help address this problem)?

* How will we test it (the nuts and bolts bit, which necessarily involves a little on methodology)?

* Where are we up to?

*Where to next?

That scheme may not work for every project but it does a couple of key things. The first is that it anchors the project in the world of reality. It shows up front why we should care about this project. That’s followed by offering hope in the form of a solution. Offering problems without offering any form of solution is what maths teachers who hate people because they spend their life wearing long socks with thongs do. Don’t be the evil maths teacher. The ‘how’ component  always ends up being a little longer because you can’t avoid some discussion of the methods. You get to speed up after that with the “yay” bit (the ‘Where are we up to?’ – I’m going with the glass half full results) and end on a hopeful note where you describe where you’re going with it.

3. Know your Audience

The pitch for these presentations is aimed at an audience who knows stuff about research, who can grasp a new idea pretty quickly but who have no idea about any of the other stuff you’ll mention. The lesson there is don’t assume knowledge.

4. Anticipate the Questions

Someone will ask a question. That’s how these sorts of meetings go. You also can’t put absolutely everything into this length of talk, so you have to be prepared to answer a few questions, particularly on methodology. A supervisor or colleague can be very useful in letting you work on likely questions.

5. Practice, practice, practice

OK I say this every time, but practice the talk in real time. Going overtime is not an option. People who have practiced declare themselves immediately.


So you do all that and you’re ready for another year’s presentation. And next year when the research school throw out the red Lego brick, you’ll know what to do.


Salty Death to Animation – A Conference Reflection

How much can you learn in less than 2 days in Singapore? Wait, I should clarify a little there – at a conference, not just out and about. A couple of weeks ago I blogged about preparation for a small group session at the 2014 Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists Annual Scientific Meeting and it’s time to beat the experience into some form of useful life (and PhD) lesson.

Conferences are vital in broadening horizons and engaging in the soaring nobility of the research community (I’m not even attaching sarcasm font to that bit). They are something at which I am many different shades of horrible. (For insights into how to actually do the networking type stuff, read this by @thesiswhisperer and @tseenster.) As a PhD student, they are also a good chance to reflect on what is excellent when engaging, what is terrible and what will change what I do. For this particular conference, I couldn’t get freed up from work for the first 3 days which is obviously limiting, but here’s a (very abridged) conference in review – the good bits, the bad bits and the bits that will influence my future work.

You may insert your own generic movie trailer voice over guy saying something inappropriately overblown – “44 hours. 5 sessions. One dinner. One doctor dares to learn.”


1. Simple Things Work (The Old Story)

Anaesthesia is a critical care specialty so we’re inclined to be excited by fancy stuff and shiny toys.  One of the best sessions in a series of blood-related sessions I went to covered the implementation of guidelines from the National Blood Authority. Addressing blood product usage matters – not only does transfusion cost big money, but there’s increasing evidence that as bad as anaemia is, a quick top-up of juicy blood has significant problems associated with it. While addressing the whole chain of when blood products are given there was some really basic stuff.  Dr Ed O’Loughlin talked about something really simple – check for anaemia pre-operatively and correct it. It might be just one element of the chain, but various people from WA got up and showed huge drops in use of blood products. They didn’t need shiny machines either. This was a serious lesson. I’ve returned thinking much more about getting basic stuff right.

2. Talking to People is Good (Don’t be Put Off by the Packaging)

The meeting was a joint one with the Royal Australian College of Surgeons. Now I may find surgeons obtuse sometimes, and I can’t quite understand why they all spent the meeting conducting peacock displays in suits, as if they need plumage rather than the quality of their interaction to be taken seriously (seriously surgical people, you’re all precious snowflakes). Operative care happens in teams though, and sharing ideas and insights can only be good. The best sessions I attended had input from people of multiple backgrounds. Progress happens with teams whether introducing the comprehensive blood management programs described above, undertaking operations or working in research. More medical conferences should do diversity like this.

3. Coverage (Tick)

Anaesthetists are a little used to working in the twilight. This is a pity because anaesthesia has many good things going for it. I’m also tired of having to confirm I’m actually a doctor. Not all conferences get a lot of mainstream media coverage, so hats off to the organisers for inviting Julia Medew from The Age along who provided coverage of some really interesting stuff on anaesthesia and cognitive dysfunction (really wish I’d made that one earlier in the week) and publicised the clean bill of health given to laughing gas. A double tick given earlier coverage from conferences has a bit pre-emptively caused grief (witness the earlier release from the same team about laughing gas).

4. Front Loading Conferences (Maybe a Fail)

I’m influenced by the words of others here precisely because I couldn’t make it to the first half of the week. But I spent two days hearing a particularly tiresome loop – “All the other days were way better”. Is this a common thing? I’ve certainly been to a few other conferences where the interest in the program peters out over the equivalent of a beach house weekend when it’s supposed to last a business week. If you can’t fill 5 days, why book 5 days?

5. Social Media? (Close, but not quite)

There are exceptions that are ahead of the curve, but medical conferences are still getting up to speed here.  For this conference, an app was created which had the program plus lots of updates and the scope to ask questions in real time. It only worked on tablets. Blergh. There was a website which offered some of the functionality, but I found it really clunky on the phone. On the other hand, the Twitter conversation was exceptional and entertaining and informative. It’s the first time I’ve been able to enjoy multiple rooms in a conference at once. It was spectacular. And pretty much unmoderated by the organisers, so no questions through that medium.  When it comes together, this will add so much.

6. Good Presenters (Are Thin on the Ground)

Interesting topics. Lots of potential. Exactly the setting to see that doctors don’t really get trained in presentations. I have to break this down further:

Where are the stories?

 You have a room of people who have chosen to apply their science in the care of people. Often people with challenging health problems. I promise if you include stories of actual things in your presentation, far fewer people will be practising eyebrow dancing. Having a narrative through presentations keeps things anchored back to the patients that we look after. It’s far more engaging.

Basic slide etiquette

When you’re in the audience, it is so obvious what you don’t want people to do with those all important slides. Why do we forget that when we’re preparing? A quick editing exercise – write your talk with your slides. Now remove three-quarters of the slides. Then remove three-quarters of what is on the slides.

If you’re talking on a topic, I assume it’s because you know stuff. So please don’t throw up repeated tables with 6 columns and 28 rows to torture my focal abilities. I don’t want to know that you’ve read lots of stuff. I want to know how you put that stuff to use. You’re just ensuring I’ll miss the key messages.

Here’s the best slide I saw. When I shared it around, it started a conversation that lasted more than a day on Twitter. Weeks later, this deliberately provocative statement suggesting our old treatments in traumatic bleeding don’t help is the thing that sticks the most.


Not sugar coated.

Not sugar coated.

Then there’s this bit …

Animations are not your friend

I get it, they’re pretty exciting. They’re a great way to procrastinate when working on your actual talk. The thing is they almost never reveal something great but all too often conceal the point. There was a speaker who first flashed up a slide with a 30 line table, then overlaid 15 animations and pictures in 60 seconds. I have no idea what he was talking about, but I remember wondering how I’d hit my present age without training killer bees to do my bidding at crucial moments.

There is an exception to the “down with animations” rule. If you add animations with as much vigour and life as this, you may go to town and I will train those same bees to personally deliver honey to your tongue.

Stick to Time

This is so basic. In one of the rooms, a keynote speaker went more than 20 minutes over time. There is so much failure there. A failure of regard for the other speakers or the audience. Perhaps a failure to bother sticking to the brief, or to work harder than pressing reheat on an old talk that was  approximately relevant. Either way, there’s not much of an excuse. Though of course there’s another failure here …

If you’re a moderator, be a moderator

Chairing a session is a tough and somewhat thankless job. It’s an important job though. If a speaker is going overtime, stop them. Have an agreed system, send signals, spray a fire hose if you have to. Don’t worry you are disrespecting a speaker. You’re stopping them disrespecting everyone else in the room.

7. Open Disclosure (Can Go Further)

A great feature of this (and other) conferences I’ve been to recently is a full and open disclosure of all potential conflicts from speakers. The transparency continues to improve. In one of the sessions though I had a small but reverberating realisation. The speaker, during a good bit on factor concentrates for transfusion management, put up a slide with three papers mentioned. I spotted immediately that one was funded by the drug company pushing the product. This wasn’t disclosed. The thing is I don’t think it ever gets disclosed. I certainly never have, and I suddenly realised that there is no good reason for that. From here, my aim is every reference in every talk will get a check for any conflicts to make sure the audience knows about them too. This will change all my presentations from here on in.


The lessons about how to make the most of a conference then? Talk more. Look for the simple stuff that will produce bigger changes. Seek out the disclosures that inform your consideration of the evidence. And if talking, do less.

And find some bees.



Presentation Tips for Kevin Bacon

Who hasn’t been there? Stuck in a room rapidly losing useful oxygen while some Powerpoint ninja squeezes out  the last lingering juice of your youth with bullet points. Having just been involved in a conference binge (both as presenter and attendee) I share these observations from an audience perspective in the hope that they may spread and flourish wherever spectators are pulling their own ears off in frustration.

Now, I appreciate that there is not a massive readership for this little site, but as we are all connected to each other by only 6 steps (yes, even to Kevin Bacon) maybe it will even prove useful to those who first started out changing small towns with dance*.

(A quick hat tip to @kristinalford who also got me thinking about this with a series of tweets the other day, which I include so you can benefit from the wisdom of an actual pro.)

You could just stop here, but have a think about reading on too.

You could just stop here, but have a think about reading on too.

1. Simplify

Simplify everything.  Particularly your slides (if you’re using slides). Once you ask me to read anything beyond a couple of points, I stop listening. Slides are for key ideas.

2. Don’t Do My Reading For Me

I promise I can read. In fact, whatever comes up, I will automatically read. So if you read it too, you are potentially going to become a confusing extra narrator. I want your spoken words to provide the extra depth and background to what I’m reading.

3. Synthesise

If you’re presenting data or summarising a paper go ahead and show the pertinent stuff, but at some point I want to hear how you interpret that in a meaningful way for me to take away and use. If I never hear the point of the data, I definitely won’t remember it.

4. Use Visual Stuff

Even better than words is a visual representation of concepts. Whether it’s via a diagram or a particular image that fits, something that brings it all together will help me immensely more than trying to catalogue words. Need a demonstration of how adding images can make it easier to relate stuff – check out one of the excellent posts from BuzzHootRoar. Sure it’s a different setting, but the message is obvious.

While I’m at it, no irrelevant images please. I don’t want to see the holiday snaps you’re proud of because you used your cool new camera if it doesn’t help things flow or reinforce a point. If you’re showing random animal shots, I’m examining the airconditioning layout and wondering if I could employ babies to undertake a heist in this joint.

5. Stories Are Always Good

Actually, not always because I also don’t want to hear about your travel adventures (unless that’s the talk). A narrative that anchors the presentation will always keep me more interested than “look, this is great because I read lots of stuff”.

6. Please practice, I can tell

Are you a master of improvisational theatre? Do you regularly undertake freeflowing rap battles or poetry slams? No? Then don’t try to be ‘in the moment’. It is really obvious in the audience when you know your stuff. I don’t just mean the information, I mean the whole flow of the presentation. If you don’t care enough about your presentation to even run through it a couple of times, why should I care enough to listen?

Here’s a reference point from this feature relating to Apple presentations (there’s other good tips too). Those slick-looking presentations aren’t just that way because they use cool apps. A 20 minute presentation has about 250 hours work put into it.

7. Run to Time

This follows on from practice. You were given a job to do in a certain time. Do it. It is incredibly rude to the other presenters who probably also want to share their hard work when you run over. It also threatens my lunch break.

The other thing is that extra time rarely makes a presentation better. Less time means more focus and those watching are more likely to actually get the message. Just because modern movies seem to be getting longer and longer, doesn’t mean you should forget to edit.

Try this exercise once your talk is written. Do it once and time it. Now use the same slides and cut the time down by 25%. Then do it again in half the time. Now you know which bits are actually crucial.


So there they are, 7 tips to preserve audience sanity. If you’ve got any others, I’ll be right here, chewing on the venue-provided mint.


* Clearly, Kevin Bacon probably doesn’t need tips on presentations. I’m sure he’d be excellent in any presentation, even if he was asked to do it as a slightly creepy guy or a broken ex-cop.