Presidential debate tidbits

I watched bits of the Clinton-Obama debate that aired tonight and it occurred to me that one of the things Obama does effectively is talk on the meta-level about his campaign. For example, he often says, “I wouldn’t be running for President if I didn’t think ____.” He also talks about how his campaign itself has proved his ability to inspire people. Talking on this meta-level makes him more believable in my eyes – it’s an invitation to “imagine if you were him” to see why, if you were him, you would do what you are claiming.

I also just have to put it out there that it’s much more fun to listen to Obama than to Clinton. Clinton makes me anxious. Obama makes me relaxed. I don’t think this has much to do with whether they will make good presidents, but I’m certainly more likely to listen to them on the radio/podcast if it’s a pleasant experience.

Visualizing data that doesn’t exist

By the way, I have a new way of thinking about Graph Sketcher (my software project): visualizing information about the future.

Lots of software lets you plot out data that you already have. But can you think of any applications that let you plot out data that you don’t have? At first glance, most people seem to find this whole notion crazy. But every day people need to make decisions about the future, based on very uncertain information. A lot of the time, it is overkill to fool around with formal predictive models, because the whole thing is so uncertain anyway. But at the same time it’s very helpful to visualize what you do and do not know. Hence: just sketch it in with Graph Sketcher.

Doing one’s best work

I thought this was a pretty interesting blog post about the stresses of being an entrepreneur. Much of it is kind of obvious, like accepting mistakes, worrying about the next paycheck, etc. But the one that actually worries me most is:

“What is difficult (for me), and unexpected by many new entrepreneurs, is the psychological impact of having to leave things undone, not doing one’s very best work, and having to compromise on almost everything.”

I learned from personality tests that one of my core strengths is “appreciating excellence.” I’m not sure I could deal with a job where I was forced to do shoddy work. I can live with not being able to do everything – that’s inevitable – but the things I do choose to do, I want to do well, and thoughtfully.

I think in practical terms this could mean looking for startups that are “in it for the long haul” rather than ones that are planning to be sold to a bigger company which will just redo everything anyway.

Winston’s advice on giving talks

I recently attended Patrick Winston’s famous talk on how to give good talks.  I will summarize what I took away as most interesting or important.

Starting.  Do not start with a joke.  Do provide a promise of empowerment within the first two minutes – why the audience should listen to you.

During.  Cycle back to main points.  Provide points in the talk where people can wake up and rejoin the narrative.  Use “near miss” examples – ideas that are similar but not yours.  Use logos and simple graphics.  Use the board.  Keep your hands visible, at your side or pointing/gesturing.  Ask rhetorical questions that are at the right level of difficulty, and wait long enough for responses (it feels like an eternity).

Ending.  Point out how you have delivered on your promise.  Tell a joke so that the audience remembers the whole talk as fun.  Ask for questions and always repeat the question before answering it.  Finally, “salute” the audience but do not thank them (this is incredibly hard).

Winston also talked about some specific “special cases” of talks.  For job talks, evaluators are looking to see that you have a vision and have done something about it.  He says you have 5 minutes to prove this, and a good method is to use narrowing steps to situate your work in the vision.  And the final slide should be “contributions” (not “conclusions”), so they can keep staring at what you’ve done.

Finally, he talked about “getting famous” which really means making your idea sticky.  His outline of how to do so is similar to in the book Made to Stick.  He uses 5 points:

  • a memorable “symbol” for the idea
  • a memorable “slogan” for the idea
  • a “surprise” element that will be talked about
  • a “salient” that captures the central idea
  • a captivating “story” that explains the idea.

For me, the most surprising advice in his talk was to not thank the audience.  I had always taken it as given that you end by saying “thanks” – but Winston made a strong argument that you should resist the urge, because you want to avoid implying that it was an imposition on the audience to come.  Instead, you can talk about how great an audience they were.

Famous philosophers and stickiness

You know, it’s amazing.  Back in high school I took a philosophy class and started telling people – half jokingly – that the famous philosophers got famous mostly because they promoted their particular idea to the point of absurdity.  Now I’m reading Made to Stick (by Chip & Dan Heath) and they are making the case that this is exactly right – ideas that “stick” lastingly do so primarily because their promoters focus on a single core argument, subsuming the details and excluding all other arguments.

In high school, the absurdity of the philosophers’ prose became readily apparent because of the juxtaposition of viewpoints that we would read, sometimes in a single homework assignment.  Philosopher A would say “X absolutely must be true; for these reasons there is no way I could possibly be wrong.”  Then Philosopher B would come along and say “here is why X is completely impossible; there is no way it could possibly be true.”

Philosophers A and B obviously could not both be correct.  Yet both sounded 100% confident that they were.  Thus I concluded that all famous philosophers stuck with an idea and sounded 100% confident about it.

Needless to say, Made to Stick refines this observation considerably.  It’s not usually enough just to have an elegant core argument and sound authoritative; there are other important features such as “unexpectedness” and “concreteness”.  Looking back, the philosophers did these things pretty well too.

So I guess my saying remains half joking – but really only half.

Attentional cost of information

Scott Hudson (of CMU HCII) gave an excellent talk today, of which the take-away point was to balance the value of information with the attentional cost of displaying that information.

In an information-saturated world, the scarce resource is attention.  It’s easy to forget the significant cost associated with any given piece of information – the time spent absorbing it (or being interrupted by it).  This is similar to the sometimes-forgotten truth about innovation that figuring out how to do things more cheaply is at least as important as doing things that before couldn’t be done.

In interface design, Scott aims to maximize the “C*I-A model”:  (communicative ability) * (importance) – (attentional cost).  In other words, you show the things that convey more information that is more important and have low attentional cost.

On interruptibility, he advocates following the human 7-step process of greeting negotiation:

  1. sighting
  2. orientation – looking back
  3. distant salutation (head toss, which is culturally independent)
  4. approach (step towards and look away)
  5. end approach (stop and look up)
  6. close salutation (handshake, utterance, etc.)
  7. reorientation (90° conversational stance)

If computers were better at following this type of process, they could more effectively negotiate for a user’s attention.