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.