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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Presentations: some thoughts about the performance aspects

Here are some suggestions for performing well in presentations. I originally wrote them after criticising a student for lack of ‘presence’ in a presentation, who then asked me “how do you do ‘presence’ then?” Good question, and Pete Posthlethwaite, the master of riveting screen presence, isn’t around to ask any more. So I went away and thought about it , and asked my son the Drama graduate, and put together some suggestions. I thought they might be worth repeating here.

Approach: The ideal line to take is “I’ve got something interesting to say, and I’d like people to hear me say it, and I really would like them to get the point of what I’m saying” – but you may find it difficult to feel like that.
Someone in a previous round of presentations said “it’s good to have a handout, because then people will look at it, and not at you”, which is logical enough, but the wrong way round. To present effectively, your manner has to say “look at ME! pay attention to ME!”, and that’s not easy if you’re really thinking “don’t look at me”. OK, you’re not that kind of person, but see it as an acting job: you have to pretend to be a show-off for five minutes. Most people can act to that extent.
Similarly, you may know that you’re only talking about your topic because you have to say something in the presentation, and you want to get through it as fast as possible and get off stage and relax. It’s not good if that comes through. Pretend that you’ve got something interesting and important to tell to the audience, and that it’s important that they understand it. If you were asked to do that with a shopping list or a telephone directory as an acting exercise, you could do it: so you could do the same thing with research findings.

Reading: don’t do it. If you try reading a presentation and video it (good practice, and with a webcam, or a book to prop your phone up, you can video yourself any time you like), you may be surprised at how wooden and unnatural you look and sound when you read. Also, if you’ve tried reading a presentation, you may have been surprised how many mistakes you made, and how easy it was to lose your place. This is not because you are stupid or incompetent: there is a good psychological reason for it. You need to be highly skilled to do several tasks at the same time. You can probably walk and chew gum at the same time, but reading (which imposes a significant cognitive load), and thinking about the content, and thinking about getting through to the audience, is just too much for most people, especially if you’re anxious. If you know about the Yerkes-Dodson graph of how arousal affects performance, you’ll know that it’s just these kinds of complex tasks which are messed up by moderate levels of arousal.

Of course, what I’ve just said may not apply to you. There are some people who can read material, make it sound sensible, and sound natural and connect with their audience at the same time. You may be one of these people. If so, don’t waste your time on a psychology degree; become a radio or TV continuity announcer. If you’re very good-looking, you could even be a presenter. It’s better-paid than being a psychologist, and probably easy work if you’re one of the very few people who can do it well. You might also consider politics, though not all politicians have this skill. Blair was OK, Clinton was brilliant, Bush is useless at it, Obama is great in big meetings, not so good straight to the screen. Bartlet is pretty good, as long as he’s not having one of his funny turns.

Visual aids: PowerPoint can be useful for getting information over to the audience – though if it’s used thoughtlessly it can be useless or insulting – but it can also be useful to the presenter. You can use it instead of the note cards to prompt you for the next point; you can put quotes up on the screen rather than having to read them out (remember that if you know that all your audience have normal vision and can read – don’t automatically assume that’s the case – you don’t have to read out what’s on the Powerpoint for them, and it’s a bit insulting if you do), and having something on the screen to point at is a good reason for purposeful movement. Purposeful movement is a good way of freeing up frozen, withdrawn body language, which lots of people suffer from, and giving you more stage presence, and it’s also a way of controlling too much aimless movement and irritating mannerisms, which some other people suffer from. Thinking of other things to do which require you to move is a good idea.
Think carefully about the content of the slides: what are they there for (showing things you can’t describe well in words, reminding the audience what the main points are, prompting you what to say next, whatever..)? Once you’ve decided what the purpose of the slides is, does the content you’re planning to put on them actually support that purpose?
You can do some fancy things with PowerPoint (don’t do fancy things unless there’s some point), but most stuff can be done just as well with OHP slides, and there’s nothing wrong with taking the non-data-projector route.
Everyone should view Don McMillan on PowerPoint:


Structure, changeovers and choreography: if it’s a group presentation, you will probably be changing presenters. Match the changeovers with the structure of your story, signal them well, and think about where people are (out of the way, and with somewhere comfortable to stand/sit if they’re not presenting, appearing in the right place with the right materials when they do take over, and moving gracefully out of the spotlight when they’ve finished). Watch how they do it on Channel Four news at 7pm – where they have more changes than necessary, I think, but they handle them well.

Endings: you have to make it clear to the audience when and why you’re getting to the end – of your section, or of the presentation as a whole. Some groups had to say ‘…and that’s the end’ before the audience realised it was the end – it should be absolutely clear, without you having to say it.

Professional guidance
I talked to someone I know who has done a lot of performing, and has some professional experience directing plays and training actors, about presenting in general, and maintaining some level of ‘stage presence’ in particular. Here are his suggestions.

The first suggestion was a typical professional one – quite right, but maybe impractical in a class presentation: warm up. Get your voice working, stretch, all that stuff. Fine if you can do it, but whoever’s presenting before you won’t appreciate you doing it at the back while they’re on.

A bit more practical (sometimes) is to take some exercise – run up and down a couple of flights of stairs. Not so much as to leave you out of breath, but enough to increase your heartrate and make you warmer (if you know about some of the psychological research on the emotion/self-attribution stuff, you might be able to supply psychological reasons why this would be beneficial).

More practically, find opportunities to move as you present. Gesture at the screen, point out crucial bits, even walk over to it to emphasise fine details. Getting your body moving is good for keeping people’s attention on you, and this gives you a way of doing it which seems natural, and more importantly, can feel natural to you, so you don’t really have to think about what you’re doing: you can just do it.

Think of your presentation as a story, or a joke. There’s the scene-setting, the business, and the pay-off or punchline. This gives it a shape, a change of pace, an excuse to get animated, and natural places to pause and to emphasise things. It may not always be obvious to you just where to add emphasis, but with a bit of thought and experimentation you can usually find sensible places. A definite place to add emphasis is where you’re bringing in an important new point.
My advisor also pointed out that people usually find it easy to remember jokes and stories, so you might find the content easier to hold in your mind that way (again, good psychological reasons for this). This helps, because it’s easier to be animated if you know what you’re going to say next than if you’re striving to remember it. In a longer presentation, you might split it up into more than one story. Identify the key points in the narrative, and emphasise them as you get to them.

Look at the audience: people generally remember to do this a bit, but he pointed out that you train actors to look just over the heads of the audience, but you train presenters to actively catch people’s eye and make a direct personal contact. If you do it on a sufficiently strong and unarguable point, you may even be able to get a nod out of them, which is very encouraging for the presenter.

Be prepared to pause: one of the techniques of ‘stage presence’ is to make the audience wait just very slightly longer than they expect to for whatever you’re going to do next. If you’ve got something striking to say, you can pause just after saying it, to let it sink in. You can also do an anticipatory pause. Also, if you’re moving on to a new section, you can pause before you start it, which emphasises the shift, and also refocuses attention on you as people have to wait to see what you’re going to say next. (These are only very slight pauses, of course, but you can be more melodramatic if you’ve just told us or shown us something particularly shocking or horrible).

The last recommendation is the paradoxical one: don’t think about doing any of this. If you’re following a ‘body script’, you can seem just as stilted and limited in your movements as when you’re standing still. In fact, it might be best to practice doing it several different ways, then you will know that there are several ways you can do it, and just use whichever style seems more natural at the time.


Exam prep: how much further reading should you do?

Question on first year revision from a student:

I’m wondering if you could advise me on how much revision I should be doing. I am now using books to read over and make notes from in addition to the lecture notes. So how much more would you say is necessary for me to do in addition to revising lecture notes? I ask because I am finding some modules harder than others and perhaps would like to balance the revision evenly to give more priority to the modules I am struggling with.

That’s a good question (i.e. there isn’t a simple answer).
I’ve organised my ideas below in terms of what kind of mark each level of further reading might lead to at first year level.

Basic safe pass (50s, low/mid 60s)
I think the most important thing to go for is understanding  the basic lecture content. Two reasons for that:

  • Understanding (not just being able to repeat) the material is what we’re aiming at, so exam questions will be testing that.
  • We know from research in memory that people remember meanings better than specific details, that meaningful (i.e. understood) material is easier to remember than meaningless material, and that having a structure of understanding (a schema) makes it easier to remember new material which is related to that schema.

Now, we may be great at explaining things in lectures, so it’s always perfectly clear, and you may be great at making notes, so that you can always understand everything you’ve noted down afterwards – but i wouldn’t bet on either of those. So the first use of further reading is to read different  accounts of the lecture material – in textbooks, websites, whatever. Different people will explain stuff in different ways, and the chances are if you don’t understand one version clearly, another, different, version will work for you.
Once you’ve got a solid understanding of the main lecture material, you’re likely to be able to get a good mark in the exam (provided you can remember it in the exam and you use that understanding to actually answer the question).

Good pass (mid/high 60s)
But it’s worthwhile going further. (In the following two sections, I’ve guessed at what the basic lecture material was. If my ‘further’ examples actually were part of your basic content, then I hope you can think of equivalent examples.)
To start with, test your understanding and develop your schematic overview of the material.
For instance, if you know about the three-colour-receptor explanation of colour vision, what could you predict about different ways of being ‘colour-blind’? And why is it unlikely that people with anomalous colour vision don’t simply see in shades of grey? Then go and read up on anomalous colour vision, and see if your guesses are confirmed. Again, from what we know about memory, it’s likely that information gained as a result of active exploration like this is retained better than stuff that’s more or less passively read.

Excellent performance (70+)
Then, pick up on any extensions or complications of the main lecture material. For example, our main account of brain activity is in terms of nerve cells communicating with each other, and all the other brain structures, like glial cells, are just there to support the neurons. But you’ve probably seen some hints that people are beginning to think these other cells are also important in brain activity. OK, see if you can find any stuff about that.
The disadvantage to this ‘going further’ approach is that you’ll find that the picture gets more complicated the further you go (all this stuff is very complicated: that’s why we start out with the simple, ‘mythical’ versions to get you started) – but if you have a good basic understanding, you should be able to build the complications into your model, rather than finding them too confusing.

To go back to the original question: “I ask because I am finding some modules harder than others and perhaps would like to balance the revision evenly to give more priority to the modules I am struggling with”. I think that should be your primary guideline. If ‘struggling with‘ means ‘don’t really understand all of it‘, then the most important thing to do is to read around, at a fairly basic level, until you’re happy that you do understand the basic stuff in all the modules. Once you’ve got that basis of confidence, then it’s time to go for some more detail (and more complication).

Comments (from students: ‘I don’t get this’; or other teachers: ‘no. you’re wrong, because..’) are welcome.

“It makes perfect sense, then, to include our likes of big brands in our on-line identities” Antonia Senior, 2012

Short article in Media Guardian on 5 March on Facebook’s use of people’s product ‘likes’:

It’s mainly about the using your data/privacy/big business debate, and interesting from that point of view, but for my students interested in online identity, it raises some points about that, as well as identity and products generally:

Ten minutes in the British Museum suggests some of the reasons: humans have always been identified by what they buy. Ever since Stig stepped out of his cave with a particularly on-trend club, the link between who we are and what we possess has been there.

Well, maybe.* This is probably a culturally-biased view, and it’s definitely a data-biased one. What are you going to show in the British Museum except possessions? What can you show in the British museum except possessions? What can the British Museum curators argue from the evidence available to them except that there is a link between who people are and their possessions, even if they probably guess that there’s more to it than that? I think there’s a link between who I am and how I deal with problems, respond to people I don’t know, interact with small children, what I sing along with when I’m doing the washing up… (and, OK, the possessions, too). The only bit of that future archaeologists could possibly pick up is that I might have done the washing up, since there’s no robbed-out dishwasher space in the excavation of my kitchen.

The article claims that Coke (Rihanna, too) has far more Facebook likes than Jesus of Nazareth. Even as a non-Christian, I find that depressing. Makes me feel like seeking his page out and making my vote. From what I’ve read about him, he’d be prepared to friend even a poor sinner like me. We should all do it: “according to […] Jesus was in the top 10 risers last week.”

* analysis of this blog will show that ‘Well, maybe’ is the commonest phrase, probably

Unless it’s ‘probably’

Does having thin friends give you anorexia? …and should there be government intervention about that?

This is a long post about something people might have heard me going on about before, but I think there are some useful points near the end – and a personal confession. If you don’t want to go through all my nit-picking about the research behind these headlines, just scroll down to where it says RANT STARTS HERE.

A story cropping up all over this week (but please read on, past these headlines – because I don’t think the headlines are at all justified):

The Guardian: Anorexia research finds government intervention justified: Economic analysis finds that banning very skinny models from catwalk and pictures from magazines may prevent ‘epidemic’

Vox: Research-based policy analysis and commentary from leading economists: When distorted self-image takes its toll: The effects on the health of European females Joan Costa-i-Font &  Mireia Jofre-Bonet (authors of the original article)
Striving for the perfect body can take its toll, both physically and mentally. This column shows how excessive preoccupation with self-appearance can give rise to preventable eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, among European females. It is time for policy action to shift people’s perceptions of their ideal body closer to what is healthiest.

The Age (an Australian newspaper): Skinny model ban ‘could curb anorexia’
Governments are justified in using the law to stop modelling agencies using very skinny women on catwalks and prevent magazines from printing photographs that suggest extreme thinness is attractive, according to research from the London School of Economics.

These are based on an upcoming paper in Economica. It’s not available online yet, though it looks as though Economica makes the current issue available free online, which is good, so you might be able to get to it in a few months. The authors link to CEP Discussion Paper No 1098 November 2011: Anorexia, Body Image and Peer Effects: Evidence from a Sample of European Women Joan Costa-Font and Mireia Jofre-Bonet in their Vox piece above, which looks as though it’s likely to be very similar to the forthcoming article.

The article is long and complicated and based on economic modelling, with lots of equations. I don’t understand the modelling process, and even if I did, I couldn’t follow the maths. So perhaps I shouldn’t comment, but I think I get the drift of the argument and the evidence – and how that relates, or doesn’t, to the headlines. I don’t think the article justifies the conclusions above, and I think it misses an important psychological point about eating disorders.

The research is a piece of economic modelling about the relative utility of health and body image, and how that might be influenced by various social and demographic factors, which comes to the conclusion:

Our results were consistent with the assumption that individuals trade off health against self-image.

Also, there’s a demonstration that ‘severe anorexia’ rates, as defined by the number of women who had a very low BMI (body mass index & so were extremely thin), who saw themselves as being ‘fine’ or ‘too fat’, and who also thought they were eating adequately, are higher in those European countries where women have lower BMIs generally. I don’t think that’s a great definition of extreme anorexia. But OK, then – and then what are their conclusions?

Also, in agreement with the epidemiological literature, we found that weight-related food disorders happen mostly at younger ages and require attention before they extend to older age groups. Note that the findings showed that anorexia primarily affected women aged between 15 and 34, and that it was primarily socially induced. These results have serious policy implications. They call for urgent action on individual identity, probably while it is still being formed, so as to prevent severe damage to women’s health and in order to improve their well-being and that of their families and friends.

Well, we sort-of knew about the younger-ages bit, and could have guessed that there are social influences (in accordance with a number of ‘you catch being fat from your friends & family’ findings),but does that really provide solid backing for the conclusions in the last two sentences?

Both the newspaper headline stories above talk about how this research supports a government ban on thin models. All I could find out about that in the article was the final paragraph:

In the light of this study, government intervention to adjust individual biases in self-image would be justified to curb or at least prevent the spread of a potential epidemic of food disorders. The distorted self-perception of women with food disorders and the importance or the peer effects may prompt governments to take action to influence role models and compensate for social pressure on women driving the trade-off between ideal weight and health. However, given the nature of the data and the absence of natural experiments we can’t prove our results as being causal and should be taken with caution.

Nothing about banning thin catwalk models (actually nothing about models at all) in the paper. The authors did try out a measure of exposure to inappropriate images by using subscription rates to ‘women’s magazines’ – and found it unrelated to anorexia rates. They comment:

The result of non-significance for the women’s magazine circulation per capita was quite puzzling as it was not consistent with some specific studies on the subject (Turner et al., 1997). This may be due to the crudeness of the country measure and the possibility that the categories are not comparable across countries; perhaps better quality data was required to measure the effect of environmental or media-related variables.

In other words, as good scientists, if we don’t find the results we wanted we presume it must be a problem with our measurements (this isn’t meant to be a snide criticism of the authors: that’s the way most people react to disconfirmation, really – and their measure was pretty crude). More importantly, it was NOTHING to do with skinny catwalk models.

Actually I think other measures in the paper seem pretty crude and/or inappropriate: for instance, their measure of health-consciousness was “the declared number of gynaecological screenings taken in the last 6 months.” The study uses a big general-purpose European dataset, so they have to use whatever measures were taken in compiling the dataset, rather than choosing appropriate measures – but it might be better not to force too much meaning into those measures.

The index of ‘severe anorexia’, as defined above, for women 15-34 varies a lot across European countries, from 4+% in Austria to 0.0% in Northern Ireland, what used to be West Germany, Greece, France and the Netherlands. What used to be East Germany (right next to West Germany) has a rate of 1.45%, and Ireland (right next to Northern Ireland) has 2.66%, so those are medium and high rates compared with other European countries. It’s a bit surprising that what you might think are closely related countries have such different rates of severe anorexia – though the mean BMIs of the population of young women in the those countries (the peer comparison measure) do go in the appropriate direction: higher in WGermany and NIreland than EGermany and Ireland.

So, I’m not convinced by the evidence, and it looks as though the ‘government should ban skinny models’ stuff just comes out of reporters’ fevered imaginations (or, more likely, the headline they’ve used several times before without thinking about it properly then, either). But on top of that….


Two things to rant about.

Yes, anorexia can be dreadful, both for those individuals who want to starve themselves, and for those around them, but it’s not the important weight epidemic. Overeating and obesity are what kills many more people, and looks to be getting to be a bigger and bigger problem. So if underweight models really do encourage young women (and men) to eat less – bring them on. Starve them more: their sacrifice will be worth it for the good of the nation. When I walk down the street, I don’t see much evidence of the malign influence of skinny models; more the effect of cheap calories and low-effort transportation, and I’m sure that’s the case in the diabetes clinics, too. [Disclaimer: my BMI is around 30, so I could definitely do with some of that influence, if it worked].


Whenever I read first-hand accounts of anorexia, the thing that strikes me most are issues of control, not body dysmorphia or inappropriate models. A couple of recent, anecdotal, examples: Gok Wan talking about his anorexia on TV last week: ‘I felt I couldn’t control anything in my life except what I put in my mouth, so I started to control that’.

Laurie Penny (identifying herself as a recovered anorexic) in the New Statesman, 5 March, 2012 (this article may appear on her blog:, which has other interesting stuff on it, though it’s not there as I write):

The most important thing to recognise about eating disorders is that starving, bingeing, purging and puking are not causes of distress, they are symptoms of it. The diseases are replete with contradictions, at once about denying hunger for food, for rest, for fun, for sex, for freedom while the sufferer – a curious combination of aggression and compliance. Eating disorders are what happens when youthful rebellion cannibalises itself.

She compares anorexia with work-to-rule strikes:

Women, precarious workers, young people, and others for whom the stakes of social non-conformity are high, lash out by doing only what is required of them, to the point of extremity. Work hard; eat less; consume frantically; push yourself to the point of collapse.
We followed all the rules, sufferers seem to be saying – now look what you made us do.

Seems a more psychologically (and socially) sophisticated account to me – and suggests that even if we locked up all those skinny models, the problem won’t go away.

Final admission That’s my position, intellectually, but actually, deep down, I’m influenced by the skinny models, too, and they’ve led me into dysmorphia. I would love to be able to put on a light-coloured linen suit and look like Bill Nighy

 or Dan Cruickshank,

 but when I look in the mirror, all I see is Sydney Greenstreet (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and below):

Why does Scottish Country Dancing (SCD) make you happy?

Michael Argyle, who I think is one of the unrecognised founders of the positive psychology movement, always used to maintain that as well as being married, having a religion, and various other things, taking part in Scottish Country Dancing made people more likely to be happy. Argyle liked to play the part of the English Eccentric, and he enjoyed Scottish country dancing, and he knew people would think it ridiculous and eccentric to propose it as a route to happiness.
But, actually, if you look at modern guidance about things that tend to promote well-being, as in the headings below, SCD does fit a lot of the criteria. I think Michael Argyle knew this, and that’s why he used to mention it – but I think it just made him happy, and he didn’t see why it shouldn’t work for others.
For Argyle, it was SCD, but many types of traditional social dancing fit this pattern, and have probably evolved for just this reason, just as many traditional board games are optimised to support flow.

Moderate levels of exercise With the option of making it more or less strenuous to fit your needs, without upsetting the rest of the group.

Mindfulness/alertness/awareness You have to concentrate on the patterns of the dance, fitting in with the music, matching your movements to your partner’s – and you swop partners as you go through most dances, so you have to be aware and responsive to a number of people. You also have to keep track of where you are on the dance floor, and where others are – there should be a coherent pattern of movement within each set, and several sets often dance together in a space which is a bit too small, so you have to avoid collisions with people from other sets.

Sociality Needs a number of people, and likely to be an organised occasion which puts pressure on you to go and be sociable, whether you feel like it or not. The structure of many dances ensures you look at and touch a number of other people. So if you came with a partner, you can’t ignore everyone else. If you don’t have a partner, whoever you start the dance with only has to put up with you for a small proportion of the dance, so people are fairly likely to agree to dance together, even if the prospective partner doesn’t look promising. On top of that, the dance structure requires certain numbers of couples, so there is social pressure on the unchoosing and unchosen to pair up and join in to make the dance possible.

Cooperativeness Obvious, to make the dance work, but also skilled dancers are motivated to help/tolerate/support unskilled dancers (especially ones who are uncertain about the figures) to enable the dance to proceed, and to make the experience satisfying for themselves.

Varying/developing skill levels, so encouraging flow Can be done by novices (simple patterns, support from others, you don’t have to get the steps right as long as you get the main movements right) but capable of developing a long way in precision, delicacy, vigour, etc. Experienced dancers will choose more complex dances and more subtle tunes.