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.