Thursday, December 1, 2016

Day 8: Boredom and other issues

"Boredom is the shadow of boring people". This is a quote I learned from Dana in today's class. Many times we are 'stuck' in situations (such as waiting in a doctor's office). This situation is different from being bored. In order to address the issue of bored audience, the speaker should first take a look at himself.

I gave a talk about computer scientists in today's class. More precisely, it was about wrong perceptions about what computer scientists do. Next week, I will repeat this talk in an open-mice session. Also, Dana is planing for me to perform in a karaoke session (this is something I am not doing well even in Persian).

We watched the video of my today's talk. I am more comfortable with my body movements. I was joking that my body movements are at least better than Bill Cunningham, an extremely conservative radio host whom I learned about when driving to Montreal last weak. He apparently uses his hand movements to intimidate his audience, which is quite non-academic. Here, you can find an example (jump to 1:40). To connect with your audience in academia, you should fill the gap and make a bridge (via, e.e., a joke). This practice will be a good start for a critical discussion (and is widely different from talking with people who already agree with you in a conservative radio-show).

Dana asked me to listen to Dave Chappelle monologue on Saturday-night-live which happened on the Saturday after election. Dave apparently is an independent stand-up who rejected a 50-million dollars to perform a TV show to skip the pressure. He decided to go to Africa for a while, and now he is back with new innovative comedy.

I just enrolled in Dana's 'Intro to Standup' in ImprovBoston. It is going to be fun!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Improve - Nir Shavit

Last January, I attended the 1st Leadership and Management Skills workshop offered for MIT postdtocs. Here is a link to an article about that workshop. A part of the workshop was an imropv session by Nir Shavit. Nir is a professor at MIT CSAIL that I deeply respect. Last night, I attended a party held by Charles for Bradly Kuszmaul to celebrate Bradly's tenure at MIT. Nir showed up again and repeated the workshop. It is a nice experience about connecting with people. In both cases we were a group of around 20 people, and we were asked at the beginning to take off our shoes. Here is what we did.

  • We formed a circle and Nir asked us to clap hands one after another in the circle. We did it a few times, each time faster than the previous time. Then, we turned our backs, facing walls, and repeated. Finally, we did it with closed eyes. Clearly, it was much harder to do it smoothly and properly as we advanced. Communication is important, even for doing the simplest tasks.
  • The second game was about counting. The goal was to count from one to eleven. Each member of the group could say the next number. However, if more than one person said the number, we had to start from one again. It was hard to count to 11 this way, and it was harder when we were asked to count all the way up to 21. At the end of this game, 19 chairs were placed to form a circle for 20 of us in the group. We did the same game of counting, while walking around the circle. Now, when two people said the same number (which involved re-counting), we all had to find a seat. The person who failed to seat was omitted and had to seat for good (and not participate in counting). As more people are omitted, it becomes easier to count. Collaboration in a big group is harder!
  • We played 'cat & mouse' game. We were paired, and each person holded their partner's hand, while making their other hand 'available'. Two people are indicated as 'cat' and 'mouse'. The cat chased the mouse; the mouse could escape it with holding the free hand of one person from any group. In that case, the other endpoint of the three-person chain becomes the new mouse (whom the cat now chases). In the case cat can 'catch' the mouse, they change roles. 
  • We played the 'Assassin Game'. Nir asked us to walk in the room, exploring all corners. Then he asked us to stop and close our eyes. Then he indicated one of us, with a shoulder tap, as the assassin. No one knew who the assassin is. The game continued with us walking in the room. The assassin might decide to 'murder' a member by blinking at them while walking.  The victim 'dies' five seconds after the blink (while walking normally after the blink). Nir asked us to play dying a horrible death (and stay in the ground after that). If one is still alive, they can accuse someone as being the assassin. If they are right in their accusation, the game ends. Otherwise, both accuser and accused die. If played properly, it is a very nice 'zombie game'.   
  • We formed two groups on the two sides of the room. One group had to decide over an country and occupation in a ten second period indicated by the other group counting from one to ten.  The game goes on with the counting group marching toward the middle of the room asking loudly 'where are you from'. The other group responds by marching toward the center saying 'we are from ...'. The counting group marches again asking 'what do you do'. At this point the two group should be a couple of meters away from each other. The game continues with all members of one group miming the occupation they chose while the other group guessing what that is. In case of a right guess, the miming group 'escapes' toward the wall and the other group tries to tap its members before they touch the wall. The tapped members join the other group and it continues a few rounds.
  • We formed a big circle holding hands of our neighbors. Nir started walking, while holding hands of his neighbors, and passed the side of the circled he faced. In this process others had to walk also to keep hands locked. This is followed by a few other walks. The goal is to make a human knot as complex as possible. Then we were asked to use intuition of 'un-knot' ourself. 
  • The final part was actual performance. First, four volunteers danced with a music; each member was leading the dance for five to ten seconds and then rotated to give the lead to another person. Two groups of volunteers did this. Each person took the lead two times. The next part was that a volunteer told a story and four other volunteers had to play it. The playing was based on by forming a frozen scene of the story (as directed by Nir). Three to four scenes were played for each story.
Nir ended his improv with asking us to form a circle and play the most memorable part of the night. In conclusion, I find these exercises very useful for connecting with people, specially in an academic context in which it is not always easy to relate with people as humans.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Day 7: Delivery as a Salad Dressing

This is the election day and I talked with Dana a little bit about it. I have watched videos of George Carlin to learn from his great talks. We agreed that George is missed to comment about this election.

We talked about building a bridge, once again. Dana asked me what aspects of my first talk in September is improved compared to the last week's video. I mentioned that the unintended body movements (e.g., hanging hands) are removed. Also, I feel my talks do not seem as boring as before; I feel passion when talking and knowing this adds more energy to my talk. This sort of passion is directly affected by the type of relation a speaker makes with their audience.  Yes, it is about building a bridge.

Assume you want to start a lecture in a classroom filled by potentially bored undergraduate students. The first step can be looking at the students while remaining silent. This might go on a few seconds until a student asks what is going on, and you can answer: ``Yes, this question was what I was waiting for to start the class''. The class has started with dialogue initiated with students! Similarly, before talking about automatons, you might show a video about 'convey's game of life' or before teaching 'Turing machines', you might talk about Alen Turing's dramatic life. Even starting a lecture with a totally unrelated topic (e.g., a picture from a recent trip of the speaker) can be helpful in making the bridge.

An essential element about being 'passionate' when talking is to respect your audience. It is hard to imagine an arrogant professor giving a great lecture. Learning in a class should be preferable a group activity which involves the instructor learning. Say ``we learn together'' rather than ``I teach you this''.

The passion in talk has a universal language. You can see someone talking in another language and yet `feel' a sort of passion without understanding the context. Similarly, you can listen to someone without looking at them and yet feel passion (an example is the crazy man in the bridge scene in Paris Texas).

I was telling Dana that context of a talk is like a salad and its delivery is the dressing. To have a good salad, both are important. Metaphors like that can be useful in engaging audience, adding more passion to the talk, and eventually having an interesting delivery of the material.

Sometimes finding the right 'words' can help in improving your delivery. For example George Carlin used a term like `100 bucks' instead of `cache' because there is  more stress, pressure on the word 'bucks'.

I talked about Grizzly man in my presentation. He was a bear enthusiast who was eventually killed by a Grizzly. It seems my body movements and energy has improved (without me monitoring them when giving the talk). It is a good sign. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Effective Presentation Skills Workshop

I attended a workshop on Effective Presentation Skills by Bob Dolan. The workshop was held by MIT Global Education & Career Development (GECD). Bob is the Assistant Director for Postdoctoral Scholars. When I arrived, I saw nice photos on the screen from Barcelona (later I realised it has been from the last trip of Bob and taken by himself). These photos were coupled with a jazz music that was played before the start of the workshop. Bob started the workshop by indicating that this technique can release the pressure and stress from a diverse audience who were participating. I had heard from Charles that it is a useful technique and some professor(s) apply it in their classes.

‌Bob was dressed formally, and it was one of the messages in the talk. Although, I confirmed with him that this does not apply in all situations (specially in the field of Computer Science).  Some of the useful techniques that I learned from this workshop are the followings:

  • A study shows 55% of the messages received by a typical audience are not conveyed verbally. People make a lot of judgements from how you dress, how you move when talking, how you use facial expressions, how the slides are arranged, how confident you 'look', where you come from, etc. In fact, people make around 15 judgements in the first few seconds they see a speaker!
  • Control your body movements. There are a lot of undesired moves which are not even captured by the speaker himself. I have seen this in my first videos that Dana captured: my hands were moving without any harmony and control. I can still see trends of this problem in my body movement. Bob mentioned some people have their heads leaning toward one side for a long time without realising it. Monitoring yourself can greatly help.
  • When you have slides, or when you are working on board, never turn your back to the audience for more than 10 seconds. This is interesting and very important for making a bridge to the audience.
  •  TTT rule: when writing on board or slides, first Touch the board/slides (at most 10 seconds), Turn back to audience and point to the slides (with left hand so that you do not block what you pointed to), and Talk. Do not talk when your back is to the audience.
  •  Make sure to have eye-contact to all people or at least all parts of the class/audience.
I asked about opening a lecture with a joke, and as I had seen in another workshop, Bob recommended to start the talk in a serious manner and, as people start knowing you better, apply your sense of humour. A joke is suitable for closing a talk!
The workshop was fun and useful. Bob is definitely a professional in this field.

Day 6 - Natural Energy

I watched my previous talk about cemeteries in Paris. It is here.
I was happy about my body movements compared to previous videos. However, I felt I was 'boring' and lacked energy. Dana advised me that it should come 'naturally' and cannot be faked.  Exercises Dana taught me in the first class (such as taking deep breaths) can be helpful in that regard.  I feel
that I have different personalities that show up depending on the situation and the mood that I have (e.g., speaking in English about Computer Architecture in a rainy day would be different than speaking in Persian about Algorithms in a sunny day). By practice, one can minimize the effects of situation in a positive way. For that, Dana suggested me to brows 'speeches' in movies, songs (specially hip-hop), comedy shows (Dana introduced George Carlin to me), and political speeches. The important thing is that the energy, the jokes, the body movements, all should come 'naturally'.

At the end, I went through the 'you start dying slowly' poem one last time. I was happier about my energy. I tried to be funny. As for the body movements, I think they were not bad, but they can be improved. Dana is happy with the way I have improved. He asked me to go through all videos and see the improvements in my speeches.

The video of my talk is here.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Day 5 - More passion

Before attending this session, Dana asked me to list a couple of things that I am really passionate about. I chose history and travelling as my top passions. Today's class was mainly deduced to observe how passion affects the quality of my speech.

I have almost memorised the poem 'you start dying slowly'. It is incorrectly attributed to Pablo Neruda while it is actually a rough translation of a poem by Brazilian Martha Medeiros. Regardless, I relate well with it. The plan is that I memorise it and present to a real audience in a few weeks. Today, I presented it for Dana; I could not recall all parts but I could feel progress as the first step.

I talked with Dana about aspects of history that fascinates me. He wanted me to talk about things that I love to observe my talk quality and I felt into his trap. Apparently, the passion that comes out has a positive affect. I also casually talked about my trips to Japan and India and travelling in general, which is the second passion I had listed. Dana recorded a video of me talking about Paris cemeteries. An interesting observation was that, when I talk about these fascinating experiences, I talk well, my body movements are solid, and adapt myself to situations (e.g., rising my voice when a helicopter passes), without even paying  attention to techniques I have learned for giving talks.

I should find ways to direct my passion into my research talks and lectures. A part of the issue is that Dana as an audience member gives a lot of positive energy when I talk in front of him. This is not necessarily the case for a typical undergraduate class or a lecture talk in Computer Science.

The video of my talk is here.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Improve Workshop

I attended the Kaufman Teaching Certificate Program (KTCP) offered by MIT Teaching & Learning Laboratory in Summer 2016. As an alumni of KTCP, I was invited to attend an Improve Workshop offered by the same centre. The link to this workshop can be found in this link.

A group of around 20 PhD students and postdocs attended the workshop. First, we formed a circle and started to count loudly from 5 to 1, then from 4 to 1, etc. We repeated this four times, and each time we moved one limb as we counted numbers. This was a preliminary 'exercise' to feel comfortable and   confident (similar to alphabet exercise Dana taught me in the first class).

We moved on with a game where the instructor, Jake Livengood, started with a random word (e.g., 'camel') and participants had to continue adding more words to that (until one uses the word 'period').
Apparently, this improvisation game can be helpful to handle real-world situations in classes or inter-personal communications. The workshop continued with a similar game where participants 'throw' words at each-other; you receive a word from a random person in the circle (e.g., 'banana'), improvise the first related word that comes to your mind (e.g., 'monkey'), and throw it to another random person in the circle. In another game we were asked to ask a random person to list 5 random things (e.g., five cities they want to visit) and they answer immediately. This last game was repeated twice with the second time we were asked to think and reflect on our body movements, reflecting our 'confidence'.

The last part of the workshop was about solutions for handling unexpected situations in a classroom. For example, when no student answers a question you ask in a lecture, you can grab students' attention by rephrasing the question, playing devils' advocate. When a student asks an offensive question, depending on the situation, you might rephrase it in a positive way (e.g., by saying 'I assume you mean... right?').

In summary, the workshop was fun. Other related workshops/talks were advertised that I might attend in the short future.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Day 4 - Passion

One of the hardest tongue twisters that I have found is the following: 

"The sixth shack's sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep 's sick" 

We tried it a bit with Dana; he believes it might be the hardest tongue twister in English. Tongue twisters are helpful for improving the intonation; hence I am putting some time on them.

Yesterday,  I was reading a poem which I used to love when I was younger and can still relate to. To fin it, you can google 'you start dying slowly'. Since I am very passionate about it, I thought it helps if I practice body movements with it. When I read this poem, I can move my hands better and even walk in more harmony. I talked about it with Dana, and he suggested that I memorise the poem and sometime read it in a micro night. Also, I red it again for Dana and could apply his techniques (pauses, hand moves, thinking when talking, etc.) and the outcome was good.

Today's class was partly about passion and its effect on speech. Conveying your passion when reading a technical script is much harder than a poem. To see that, besides the poem, I red a technical paragraph from a paper about 'semi-online' algorithms. Dana also red the same poem and paragraph. It was much easier for me to convey my passion in the poem compared to the paragraph (although the paragraph was about a research topic that I am very interested in). In contrast, Dana could show the passion for the paragraph (although he called it 'a very boring text'). As the first step to fix this, I am going to read some technical paragraphs and in doing so 'pretend' that I am reading a poem. As I said, I found it hard in the first attempt. Besides the passion, I had little issues like pausing between an adjective and its noun (as in 'robust algorithms), partly because I put too much stress on the word 'robust'.

For the body movements, Dana asked my to give two talks: one seating and one standing. Although the topic of the first talk (favourite food) was easier than the second one (traditions in Fall), the second talk went much better (both talks were improvised). Seating makes me feel restricted, I cannot approach audience or (pretend to) look at them. Apparently, this is a good sign that I am improving my body language -hence I need to stand and walk-. 

For the next week, I am going to find a dialogue from a novel that I just finished and talked with Dana (named 'The winner stands alone' by Paulo Coelho) and we will try to act it. Apparently, there is only a fine line between acting and giving a public speech. 

The video of my talks are here and here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Day 3 - Body movements

Yesterday, Dana sent the following about my talk last week:

“I noticed that you're relatively stiff from the waist down. Perhaps we can work on moving with your energy tomorrow. In addition, I noticed that your gesturing is consistent with your vocal tone. If you're putting emphasis on a word, you're probably making hand gestures that support that. That's good. We'll play with that a little bit tomorrow, too.”

We started today’s meeting with a discussion about Eric Demain. He is a great speaker and I wanted to know Dana’s opinion about his hand movements. I realized that Eric has been a student of Dana in a comedy class. Dana told me that Eric’s hand movements are in par with his other movements and their excessive move conveys a sign of enthusiasm: “It is like an unfamiliar birth species moving their wings differently but after all they can fly”. We continued with some tongue twisters with an emphasis on ‘Th’, ‘L’, and ‘R (these are harder for a native Persian speaker). Here is a website that Dana introduced:

Dana suggested to start and end a talk with a joke. Sometimes, to grab attention in a classroom, he said, I can say a sentence in another language (e.g., my mother tongue) to grab students’ attention at the beginning of the class (this does not seem to be appropriate for a research talk). In addition to be a comedian, Dana is also a mime artist. Practising mimes can be helpful in improving one’s gesture, facial expressions, and body movement. For that, Dana did a mime and I guessed what he wanted to convey, and repeated this with roles changed.

To improve my movements, we went to the open area beside Stata. While Dana was swiftly changing his location, I started miming (talking silently) about a research topic. The idea was that I pay attention to different locations, approach to the people that I am looking at, and move smoothly back to the center.  For the second practice, Dana asked me to improvise a talk about Halloween. I was supposed to keep my hands up and moving (do not put the down) while approaching the audience and having eye contact with them. I tried to add  pauses in my talk, and I could see improvements in my body movements. Although, there is still a long way to go.

Video of my talk is here.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Day 2 - Building a bridge

I met Dana with a week delay; although unintentional, I believe more gaps between our sessions can be helpful for me to apply what I learn. Dana is becoming a friend and we started talking about personal matters like my parents visiting me. We reviewed the recorded video of the first session. My feedback on the video was close to what he wanted to tell. I had written:

“ My body movement is not natural. My hand moves seem a bit fake and do not sync with what I am saying. Too often I looked at the sky and this might make audience feel that I am stressed. I often put my weight on one leg which is also a signal for discomfort. I should have walked a bit, which I did not and it affected my other movements.. Basically, I was restricted to two stones :).
My speech lacked enough energy. Some sentences were monotone, and the stress were not on the right words, e.g., at 1:00, I say 'it was very quite' and there was no stress on any word. There should be some emotion in saying sentences; in the above example, when I say 'quiet', I should convey that I was surprised and yet happy (I am practicing how to say it). “
He had replied:

I LOVED your video self-feedback. I completely agree with everything you wrote.
Your eyes definitely looked up and around at times. I didn't necessarily think it was because you were nervous, maybe just that you were talking to just me and not a real audience.
Your hands seemed to lack purpose and your weight shifted from foot to foot without purpose / perpendicular to your intention / emotion.
You could have been more energetic and excited about what you were saying - we'll work on these things this week.“

Today we discussed a few topics related to connecting to audience. Dana mentioned that if he wants to read a book, the first chapter would be about ‘making a bridge’. Connecting to the audience helps in having them more engaged as well as the speaker being more confident. When giving a talk, don’t be far from your audience; this makes them feel you are protecting yourself and conveys a message of weakness. Eyes are windows of the soul; eye contact with the audience is very important (it sees I have no big issue in that sense). Sometimes having more eye contact with people who are engaged is better (e.g., stand-up-comedies in bars and restaurants) while sometimes focusing on less engaged members of audience is helpful to involve them (e.g., in a classroom where some students don’t pay attention). Sense of humour can be helpful to be ‘closer’ to the audience as well as being more confident. Think of including a joke at the beginning of a talk. When talking to an audience, it helps to say something particularly about that audience, i.e., make them a part of the story (e.g., when there is a couple, a joke about relationship helps in comedies). Also, talking about stereotypes (or contrasting them) can help, e.g., as a computer scientist, I can joke about computer nerds, or clarify them I am not one them (to connect to another audience). We played a game that we looked at someone and tried to come up with guesses about him.

To improve the low range of my intonations, we note that not only more stress on adjectives, adverbs, and important parts of sentences helps, but also stressing on certain phrases that convey emotions can help (e.g,. When some method was tried and worked, a sense of excitement can be conveyed). To fix a monotone voice, it is good to occasional talk softer to grab attention. Pauses are a great tool to convey confidence and let audience to think.  Dana also mentioned situations that monotone voice can be avoided by imitating other people in a story with a different peach (occasions like when he mimics his sister in a comedy show or when I can imitate a manager who wants a new software product).

Finally, having the audience in mind, I gave a short talk (about my parents visiting). I tried to have eye-contact with Dana, his phone, and my bag, who were audience in three corners of an open area in the campus. I tried to be funny, passionate, and ‘close to audience’; think it went well. However, connecting a real audience should be easier and more natural. This makes me think of professors teaching online courses in a room filled with cameras and no student.

Dana has sent me a few TED talks as well as my video to review for the next week. TED talks are great for public speaking practices. I also have an exercise for my body movements (getting a bit closer to the member of audience which I have eye-contact and backing off after the eye-contact). I am sending Dana a lecture by Erik Demaine. I am curious to know his opinion about his hand movements. These sessions are going very well.

The video of my talk is here.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Day 1 with Dana J. ‌Bein

I met Dana in front of Stat Center. I was a few minutes early and he was already waiting. We went to the back of the building to start the first class in the public space. A part of Dana’s plan is to be teach me be comfortable with people who sometimes stare at us or even take pictures.  

Dana suggested that before any seminar or class, I do a few exercises. A couple of minutes for stretching the body, especially the parts that are numb or painful  (in my case shoulders), can help reducing stress and give more energy to the speaker. This was followed by a couple of breathing exercises (breathing in through mouth, holding for a few seconds, and breathing out with noise). Then we ‘shouted’ English alphabet with a stress on the sounds that letters make. This can be helpful for people like me who have monotonic voice to prepare for putting enough stress on letters of each word during a talk. Finally, Dana asked me to repeat a Shakespeare's poet that was aimed to put stress on the right word of a sentence.

After the above preliminary exercises, Dana asked me to talk about my morning for three minutes. I improvised my short talk and it was recorded to be used as a reference point. As I realized, a few problems were observed in my talk:
  • (1) I need to convey my emotions/energy
  • (2) I need to have better body movements
  • (3) I need to address my monotone sound
  • (4) I should add more ‘pauses’ in my talk (I am too fast in connecting sentences).
In fact, the above problems are all related. To investigate these, I gave two short talks, first in English talking about an issue that makes me angry, and second in my mother tongue about something that makes me excited. In the first talk, I was asked not to move my legs to observe how it affects me. It was observed that this restriction has a dramatic affect on my presentation as I looked stressed and did not move my hands either.  

It turns out that language barrier plays a role the level of my excitement. I could convey my emotions much better when I talked in Persian (Dana could figure it from my body language, facial expressions, and intonations). I tried to follow up this issue by observing Dana’s talking; I figured out that he puts a great stress on the words that convey emotions; these are usually adjectives and adverbs, and often come at the end of a sentence.  An example was when he said ‘look, this is a GREAT stone!’, and the stress on the word ‘great’ could convey the message. This is an issue that I am practising to address starting today.

I have found Dana’s tips helpful in improving my communication skills. An important part of this process is me observing him as a great speaker; it seems he naturally uses tips that can be formulated (e.g., putting stress on adverbs or putting his hand on his chest when he is talking about himself). We ended up talking different aspects from architecture (Stata building versus Boston city hall) to politics to music (how rappers use intonation to convey a message). Dana is going to send me the video of my talk to observe myself in action, as well as the Shakespeare's poem to practice it more.
In general, this is a great experience and I am thankful to Charles for it.

September 8th, 2016
Update: The poet that I mentioned is not from Shakespeare. Dana updated me that it is from  Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado:

To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison, with a lifelong lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block

The video of my talk is here.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

About this blog

My name is Shahin Kamali. I am a postdoctoral associate in MIT CSAIL. I work in Supertech group under the advice of Prof. Charles E. Leiserson.
I was born and raised in Arak, Iran. My mother tongue is Persian. I did my B.Sc. in University of Tehran, Iran, and then migrated to Canada and did my M.Sc. and Ph.D in Concordia University and University of Waterloo, respectively.  My field of study and research is computer science.
I joined MIT in September 2015. I look forward to joining University of Manitoba as a faculty member in Summer 2017.

In the years that I have been in academia, I have given many research talks and taught a few undergraduate courses. Nevertheless, I have had some issues communicating with my audience. To address these issues, Dr. Leiserson kindly suggested and financed private classes for me with Dana J. Bein. Dana is a stand-up comedian who is very experienced in teaching communication skills in different levels. Since the problems that I am facing are common with people in academia (issues with body movements, monotonicity, etc.), I am publishing what I learn from these classes in this weblog. This is meant to serve as a reference for me and hopefully others can also find it useful.