Friday, April 5, 2013

Exploiting Your Social Network Through Delay Tolerant Talk Prep (DTTP)

What I Tried - Delay-Tolerant Talk Prep (DTTP)

While prepping for my NSDI talk, I ran into a variety of (relatively uninteresting) problems scheduling dry runs.  So I tried something new (to me and folks with whom I've spoken about it) - I recorded myself giving versions of my talk, distributed it to my social network, got feedback, and iterated.  While it started as a standard kludge, after thinking about it a bit more, it struck me that there might be more to it - so this post shares my thoughts on that, some questions to (hopefully) start up an interesting discussion, and details as to precisely how I implemented DTTP (tutorial below).  My hope is this will be of interest to the community and helpful to others (particularly those of us who are early in our career trajectories) in approaching what can be one of the most important and challenging parts of research - conveying one's ideas effectively in a live format.  

Why DTTP could be more than a kludge

Let's briefly consider some of the drawbacks of current talk prep mechanisms.  The three dominant ones which come to mind are:
  1. A live dry-run: closest to what you'll actually be doing when you give your talk - both in terms of the delivery and interaction with an audience (answering questions, debugging verbal and non-verbal delivery/presentation issues).  But difficult to schedule and you are likely to get lots of overlapping feedback.  Its difficult to include colleagues who aren't geographically convenient - thus you can't make optimal use of your professional social network.  Moreover, most of the folks you'll get to attend will be from your research group and thus already fairly familiar with the work (and not much like your audience, most of whom will likely be seeing your work for the first time). 
  2. A sit down one-on-one, walk through each slide: Very targeted, but requires a colleague who is willing to invest a lot of time - again won't leverage the power of your social network - and you won't get many of these for any given talk.  Doesn't necessarily give you a great idea of how things will actually flow.  
  3. Asynchronous sending-out-a-slide-deck, receive written and/or verbal responses: Much lighter weight, fewer scheduling issues, get geography-independent feedback, and finally a much more continuous feedback loop (w/ correspondingly less overlapping feedback if you iterate quickly)!  But lots of context is lost. E.g., slides w/o narration can be confusing - especially to colleagues who aren't very familiar with your work, restricting again how much of your social network can be leveraged.  Moreover the feedback you get might be "say these five things in your verbal delivery" (which you'd already planned to say), instead of information that will actually be helpful to you.
Considered in this context, DTTP provides another point in the talk preparation mechanism design space.  By utilizing electronic capture, and delay tolerant dissemination, you get all the benefits of (3), but b/c you've included the full audio narrative and visual slide flow you get many of the advantages of (1) without its drawbacks.  Further, you make it possible to obtain meaningful feedback from far-flung colleagues who know relatively little about your work (and thus match your likely audience better) - greatly expanding the portion of your social network you can effectively leverage. 

Of course, what you don't get is the experience of speaking in front of a live audience including practice answering questions on the spot.  Nor will you get (at least with my method of recording) useful feedback on non-verbal presentation issues (which can be just as important as the verbal ones).  So while I definitely wouldn't recommend DTTP as a replacement for in person dry runs (particularly for those who are just starting out), I think it could definitely be a good option to add to our talk prep toolbox. 

What do you think?  Directly below are a couple of issues I've been mulling, after which I provide a tutorial for implementing DTTP on Mac OS X (anyone want to write one for Windows, Linux, or Haiku?)

Some questions for discussion

For what types of talk does this type of prep make sense?
  • uninterrupted conference talk (good fit w/ recording)
  • research group presentation, w/ lots of interruptions and possibly even dialogue expected (a less good fit, but still worthwhile?)
How wide a net to cast?
  • Wide: wider range of feedback (less echo chamber), higher probability of smoother feedback loop. 
  • Narrow: you might not want folks who know you less well and are still forming their opinion of you seeing you at less than your best yourself.  Making sure you don't make folks you know less well feel imposed upon?
  •  Maybe increase the size of your net as your talk gets better?
  • Maybe ping more junior colleagues (e.g., fellow students) first to fix obvious flaws to obtain greatest value density of feedback from the scarcer/more-valuable resources of more senior colleagues? 
Where does this fit with other talk prep mechanisms / when should it be done?
  • Early on?  Feedback early is always good, but maybe it's better to iterate on an outline first.
  • In the middle? Build up to a version that's worth getting spending a large group's time on.
  • Close to the talk?  To fine tune.

How I Did It - Tutorial


  • A reasonably up-to-date version of Mac OS X 
  • Microsoft Powerpoint for Mac 2011
  • SoundFlower - a "Free Inter-application Audio Routing Utility"
  • Quicktime Player 10.2


On current students, though hopefully useful for others as well.  Many of the advice points may seem obvious, particularly to those who have already progressed in their research career.   The technical points are basically one way of obtaining a pretty good video with fairly standard tools (which is way more of a pain than it should be).


Step 1) Record yourself giving the talk (make a copy of your talk file to do this, b/c after you've done the recording the PowerPoint file will be bloated - and you don't want to have to go through and deleted the recorded audio from each page)

Step 2) Create a Movie from that recording. 
Step 2a) Set audio output to Soundflower (2ch)

Step 2b) Set Quicktime to use Soundflower (2ch) as input

Step 2c) Select the area to be recorded, start recording, and then play slide show starting from the first slide.  Don't forget to make sure "Play Narrations" and "Use Timings" are selected (also don't forget to disable these before actually giving your talk in person!).

Step 2d)  Walk away, set a timer to remind you when the playback will be done.  Take a break, put your feet up - you deserve it!
Step 2e)  Stop the recording, trim any extra recorded material at the beginning and end of your recording, save it with a clever and descriptive name (use a version number).  Also, don't forget to undo step 2a, resetting audio output to "Internal Speakers" or you'll find your video (and everything else) on your computer has no audio!

Step 3) Upload it to a read-only, private, shared folder which you've provided to your social network - I used SkyDrive.  Include the pre-recorded slides (so your friends and colleagues don't have to download a huge file if they want to do some marking up)

Step 4) Send out an email telling your social network what you've done.  Ask for their feedback and the meanest nastiest questions they can think of asking you.

Step 5) Wait for feedback, while doing something other than fretting about what you'll hear.

Step 6) Consider received feedback carefully, really thank each person who responded (after all they took time out of their undoubtedly busy schedules for you!), and revise accordingly.  If revision will be significant, ping your social network and let everyone know you've gotten enough feedback to realize how much better a version you will have in X hours, so, if-all-things-are-equal-for-them, please wait while you get that done.

Step 7) GOTO Step 1