Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Verbal Illustrations

For the next two weeks, as you give your presentations G and I will be looking at visual and verbal illustrations. Your topic, as we've previously mentioned, will be about a specific area of research or specialization within your field. This can be a presentation about research that you yourself are doing, but you shouldn't feel limited to your own specific research.

Presenting your research to a non-specialist audience is difficult, isn't it? You've been experts in your fields for years and years-- some of you for decades. It's hard to imagine what it's like to know almost nothing about your topic of specialization. But in order to effectively present information at any level, you must be able to identify with your audience. One great, great way to present complex and new information in an understandable way is to use visual illustrations and-- even more importantly-- verbal illustrations.

Many of you have been using visual illustrations, and suitable visual illustrations should absolutely be used whenever possible. You've mostly been relying on PowerPoint, and to a more limited extent the chalkboard. But there are other kinds of visual illustrations-- props, for example. A student in M's class gave a presentation several weeks ago on how to do a certain kind of paper-folding art, and she actually gave us all paper to fold together.

Presenting information visually as well as through sound is a good way to help your audience understand what you're presenting. This doesn't mean that showing pictures always helps your presentation. Let me emphasize that you're presenting information. So the visual illustration should be an aid in presenting that information to the audience.

In the next set of presentations, I want you to be sure to use at least one visual illustration. More importantly, I want you to make sure that all your visual illustrations are clear presentations of information-- a visual should add something to help clarify your presentation. Your presentation should not rely or depend on the visual, and the visual should not be your presentation, word-for-word. So be cautious, careful, and frugal in your choice of visual illustrations.

A good visual illustration is not an excuse for a poor presentation. And often, a concept is too abstract to be represented visually. So this is when we use verbal illustrations. I'm going to talk about four different kinds of verbal illustration-- examples, analogies, anecdotes, and metaphors. And in each of your presentations, G & I will expect you to use at least one of each kind of verbal illustration.

An example is one representative of a group as a whole. Use information that your audience already knows to help them learn what they do not know. Choose examples that are creative and interesting. For example, last week in M's class a chemistry student gave a presentation on a feature of some molecules called chirality. Because this is a concept unfamiliar to most of us, he gave the example of a mirror image. The mirror image of some objects, like a piece of paper, can be superimposed exactly onto it. But the mirror image of other objects, like a human hand, cannot be superimposed on the original. Molecules that, like a hand, do not have identical mirror images, are called chiral. So he used a concept-- mirror imagess-- that is familiar to all of us, in order to explain chirality, an unfamiliar concept.

There are two types of analogies-- correspondences, and inferences. The first kind of analogy is a correspondence in some respects between things otherwise dissimilar. You want to make an analogy to some other concept that your audience knows. So think about a pattern, relationship, or function that is similar to the concept you are defining. Use analogies especially in situations where the concept is so unfamiliar that you simply cannot think of any ordinary examples of it. Use the words "like" or "as." For example, if you're describing the structure of an atom, you might make an analogy to the solar system. Electrons orbit around a nucleus in the same way that planets orbit around the sun.

The second type of analogy is an inference that if two things are alike in some respects, they must be alike in others. For example, you might say that if higher tuition in California universities meant that fewer international students could study there, then it follows that raising tuition at UF would make life more difficult for international students here.

Another great kind of verbal illustration is an anecdote. An anecdote is a very short account of an interesting or humorous incident. Try using a story or event from your own life to help your audience understand new material. People have an easier time remembering stories, and anecdotes can be very effective attention-getters. Practice telling the anecdote in advance, so that you can tell it without hesitation or looking at your notes. Even if the anecdote is humorous, don't laugh while telling it-- let your audience do the laughing. Earlier in this semester a student in Melanie's class was talking about Hurricane Katrina, and she used a short anecdote about a friend of hers who was living in New Orleans while the hurricane hit. This really helped us to visualize the catastrophe, and understand the point of her talk.

Finally, let's talk about metaphors. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a term that ordinarily designates an object or idea is used to designate a different object or idea in order to suggest a comparison or analogy. A metaphor is often helpful in creating visual images. One example of an analogy I think you've all heard is the University of Florida marketing campaign that uses the phrase "Gator Nation." They don't actually mean a country full of alligators, but since the university's mascot is a Gator, the Gator Nation is a metaphor for students, researchers, faculty and alumni of UF.

To conclude-- these two coming weeks, as you present an area of your specific research, you should focus on making the presentations clear and understandable by using visual and verbal illustrations. Your visual illustrations must be aids-- not substitutes-- to the presentation, and you must use a minimum of four verbal illustrations-- an example, an analogy, an anecdote, and a metaphor. Don't forget to employ all the skills and techniques we've worked on up to this point-- audience awareness, good organization, and effective questions. I'm confident that your use of good visual and verbal illustrations, in conjunction with the skills you've already mastered, will make this next round of presentations clear, understandable, and interesting.