22 October 2014

John Rauser: How to Present Statistics Without the Agonizing Pain

Does drinking beer make you more attractive to mosquitos? This is the question John Rauser—data scientist at Pinterest—wanted to answer in his presentation Statistics Without the Agonizing Pain at the 2014 Strata Conference in New York.
As counterintuitive as this may seem, the answer to this question can save lives. Malaria is transmitted via mosquitos, so “if you can understand which people are at greatest risk for mosquito bites, you can target your interventions much more accurately and you can do a better job at fighting malaria.”

If you ask around whether drinking beer makes you more attractive to mosquitos, there will be people thinking you are crazy and people thinking it might well be the case. This can be seen as a statistical argument. The way you can solve such problems is through a statistical procedure called sampling distribution. I’m not going to explain you how this works, don’t worry. Even because I wouldn't be able to. But there is something remarkable in the way John Rauser presented the problem.

John Rauser's slide: Analytical approach 
to sampling distribution
He showed that there are two methods you can follow: an analytical approach and a computational one. The former is the traditional, painful method most professors would teach you—a method which is purely based on theory; the latter is more tangible. The analytical approach includes formula after formula; the computational one is more understandable because it shows you the statistical process unfold so that you can understand the meaning behind the formulae. It makes the numbers and statistics meaningful. According to Mr. Rauser, the analytical approach is agonizing because “the idea of a sampling distribution is really hard to understand […] and when it’s presented in pure mathematical formalism […] it’s just hopeless.”
Thanks to his effort to make the complicated simple, the audience could understand his topic at a deep level.

Mr. Rauser’s goal was to convince the non-statisticians in the room that the road to statistical fluency is shorter than they think. To do that, he put a great deal of effort into making a complicated topic easy to understand. He put himself into his audience’s shoes. By no coincidence he used simple visuals that amplified his message. He even showed a few pictures. Have you ever seen a statistician showing pictures during a presentation?
Examples of slides used by John Rauser 
As a bonus, he also closed his talk in a powerful way: “The message that I want to leave you with is this...” Whatever follows gets remembered, because the audience understands you are about to conclude, so they will inevitably pay attention.

Does drinking beer make you more attractive to mosquitos? Now you know how difficult it can be to answer such a question. Yet, the good news is no matter how difficult or technical your topic is, there is always a way to make it easier for your audience to understand. [Tweet this] Whether you are a professor teaching a tough subject, an employee presenting a project to some colleagues, an entrepreneur pitching a world-changing idea to investors or potential clients, present your topic without the agonizing pain. If it's possible to explain the sampling distribution of the test statistics under the null hypothesis in a simple way, anything is.

I'd love to know your thoughts on this article. Let me know in the comments below or meet me over on Google+ or Twitter to join the conversation right now!

IMAGE: John Rauser via Pinterest

15 October 2014

3 Presentation Lessons from Singer-Songwriter Caparezza

Last week Italian songster Caparezza performed in London. I was lucky enough to be there to enjoy his show. For those of you who don’t know him, Caparezza is a talented artist from Southern Italy. Everybody knows him for his hair style, but trust me, there is much more than that. I’ve got curly hair as well, but that doesn’t allow me to consider myself an artist.
He is not only a great singer—he is a fantastic performer as well. He knows what to do to create memorable shows. Thanks to his concert, I’ve come to understand there is something in common between a singer and a speaker, even a business speaker. Here are three super serious presentation tips from one of my home country’s craziest singers.     
(1) Focus on how you say it
Caparezza always tries to come up with new ways to communicate his songs’ meaning. It’s not only what you say, but also how you say it. His new album Museica includes a song called Cover. It’s a story that he tells going through some of the most memorable album covers in the history of music—from The Queen’s Innuendo to Bob Marley’s Legend to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. Instead of just singing, last week he had all of these covers hanging from a whiteboard and showed them one at a time as he was singing. His words were in perfect tune with the “visuals” and that amplified both the song and its meaning.
Lesson for presenters: Content is king, but communication is its queen. [Tweet this] It doesn’t matter what you say unless you communicate it effectively. 
Just as Caparezza used album covers to bring his song to life, you should find ways to amplify your content. Here are three tips:
(2) Have fun
Caparezza is 41, yet he is still a child on stage. He enjoys the gig as much as his fans do. He is artist and audience at the same time. You can see it by simply looking at his smile. It’s authentic. He is not pretending he is having fun—he is really super excited about his show. 
Lesson for presenters: Don’t take yourself (or your topic) too seriously. Even if your topic is businesslike, a bit of humour may help. If you look at the world’s best speakers, they often use humour in their talks. In How Schools Kill Creativity—the most popular TED talk of all time—Educator Sir Ken Robinson made large use of humour to lighten up his speech. According to Carmine Gallo, “humor lowers defences, making your audience more receptive to your message. It also makes you seem more likable, and people are more willing to do business with or support someone they like.”  
(3) Connect with your audience
Caparezza is great at connecting with his fans at a personal level. He even knows some of them—the ever-present ones—by name. Last week he invited Fabio to jump on stage to help him with his performance. He surprised all of us with something that none of us would have expected. 
Lesson for presenters: Your presentation is not a monologue, but rather it’s an opportunity to engage your audience with a conversation. You can ask them questions and encourage them do to the same with you. Who said Q&A must come at the end? Remember, a presentation is a conversation, not a sermon. [Tweet this]     
Lessons are everywhere, as long as you keep your mind open to learning. If you want to master your public speaking skills but you don’t have £500 for a training course, go to a concert, have fun and the skills will come.  

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Album Covers from YouTube
Caparezza at BassFestival via Flickr
Caparezza at Koko London via Facebook 

12 October 2014

3 Can't-Miss TED Talks That Will Make You Think, Laugh and Cry

Last week Rio de Janerio hosted TEDGlobal 2014. As always, it was an amazing opportunity to talk about ideas worth spreading. TED Talks have been a great source of inspiration for me over the last years. They made me think, laugh and cry. Following the thrill of this year’s event, I’ve collected for you three of the best presentations in the history of the conference. Seriously, if you haven’t watched them yet, do it now!

Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about an injustice (2012)

Human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson reveals the injustice behind America’s justice system. “The US justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.” His talk is about humanity, compassion and justice. 
Stevenson received the longest standing ovation in the history of TED. If you ask him what he does to be so persuasive, he would simply tell you “I just tell stories.” Indeed, he spent the first 5 minutes telling a personal story of his grandmother to introduce a key concept: the power of identity. And throughout his talk he told other anecdotes that helped him make a personal connection with the audience.  
When Carmine Gallo asked him about his secret, he said: “If you start with something too esoteric and disconnected from the lives of everyday people, it’s harder for people to engage. I often talk about family members because most of us have family members that we have a relationship to. I talk about kids and people who are vulnerable or struggling. All of those narratives are designed to help understand the issues.” 
Stevenson’s talk is considered to be one of the most persuasive TED talks ever. Trust me, you can’t not watch it.
Why I chose it: it’s the best example of the power of a great story. After his presentation, the audience donated $1 million to his-non profit organisation. That’s the equivalent of $55,000 for every minute he spoke. Who said public speaking doesn't matter?

Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation (2009)

Daniel H. Pink—one of the top business thinkers in the world—makes “an evidence-based case for rethinking how we run our businesses.” In his funny, thought-provoking talk, he reveals the mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Traditional rewards (bonuses, commissions, etc.) are not always as effective as we think. In fact, when it comes to 21st-century tasks—the right-brain, creative, conceptual kind of works—rewards narrow our focus and lead to poorer performance. 
The solution is a new approach built around intrinsic motivation and based on three pillars:
  • Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives 
  • Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose: the drive to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves 
In a presentation being viewed more than 11 million times, Pink introduces revolutionary business practices that will shape the organisations of the future.
Why I chose it: it challenges conventional wisdom. “Science confirms what we know in our hearts,” Pink said. 

Simon Sinek: Why good leaders make you feel safe (2014)     

Leadership expert Simon Sinek explains what makes a great leader, starting from the innate human necessity to feel safe. According to Sinek, the business world is dangerous—the economy may go through a recession, your competitors will try to steal business from you—and the key to survive is in the environment created by the leader. “If you get the environment right, everyone of us has the capacity to do great things.”
When we feel safe inside our organisation—when we don’t fear our leaders—we are naturally driven by the desire to do remarkable things. 
“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organisation first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen,” Sinek said.
Why I chose it: Sinek shares ideas that inspire. In perfect TED style, his ideas are worth sharing. Head counts vs. heart counts; authority vs leadership. Plus, I love when he goes back to the beginning at the end of his talk. This is to me one of the most powerful ways to close a presentation.
These talks have one element in common: they are all built around a story. Each speaker presented his ideas in a way that was meaningful to the audience. They all thought about how best they could share their message in a way that was worth spreading. They didn’t just inform their audience, they changed them from a state in which they didn’t know or didn’t care about their topics to a state in which they did—from a state in which they didn't believe in their ideas to a state in which they did. And they achieved that through the power of storytelling.
Tell me, what’s your favorite TED talk?