Wednesday, January 28, 2015

It’s a presentation! It’s a document! No, it’s a slidedoc!!

The new Slidedoc tool can be helpful in organizing complex information for maximum impact -- an important goal in communications and advocacy for technology, agriculture, food and international development work.

About six months ago, I came across an interesting new communication design approach – Slidedocs --  from my favorite guru on this topic, Nancy Duarte, author of Resonate and Slide:ology.

At the time, I was studying Resonate for the second or third time. Her call to tune our messages so that they resonate with the audience, rather than trying to tune them to us, has become part of the bedrock of my own communication philosophy, as has her idea of taking the audience on a journey that moves them from one way of being to another.

Duarte makes a clear distinction between oral presentations that activate, motivate and engage people, and report documents intended to convey information and facts more exhaustively. Presenters sometimes try to do both, and accomplish neither.  Garr Reynolds, my other presentation guru, refers to presentation slides containing too many words as ‘slideuments’, to be avoided at all costs. Audiences cannot listen while reading.  

However, Duarte’s new concept of slidedocs is built on a recognition that complex topics in today’s fast-moving world need to be organized in ways that are easy to grasp and refer to quickly. Because it fosters an ‘at-a-glance’ succinct format and use of visual elements, presentation software can be helpful in achieving that. 

Duarte's Slidedocs website explains the tool and offers a free 160-page e-book that describes the rationale and step-by-step advice for writing, designing and delivering a slidedoc. You can also download two free templates for making your own slidedoc in Powerpoint.

A slidedoc is a document
  • created using presentation software
  • where visuals and words unite to illustrate one clear point per page
  • intended to be read and referenced, instead of projected
Slidedocs are designed to be easily skimmed, read, shared, and referred to (especially electronically). Think of it as a ‘pre-read’ or ‘leave-behind’ on steroids, with a structure and look & feel that is complementary to more cinematic slides that are optimized for in-person delivery.

The slidedoc approach can be helpful in organizing complex information for maximum impact -- an important goal for those of us involved in communications and advocacy for technology, agriculture, food and international development work.

Last year, a client asked me to prepare a report for one of their flagship projects, operating in several countries for several decades with important impacts on the lives those they serve. There were so many possible ways of organizing this material that I got stuck trying to decide how to organize the sections in my Word document. 

So I spent a day plugging some of the text into one of the Duarte slidedoc templates, along with pictures and graphs that I’d gathered during the research. After just a few hours of work, the client and I were stunned to see how the words came to life with a completely fresh energy in this format. I could easily see how the pieces of our story fit together most powerfully, as well as the places where we went into too much detail, or not enough. 

Of course, many reports will eventually be given to graphic designers for publication, but for a writer or project manager, developing a slidedoc as an interim step can identify ways to boost the impact of material in the meantime.

Interestingly, about the time that I was reading up and playing around with this tool, I found the annual reports from the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), which appear to use the slidedoc design approach. It is highly visual, and even though it’s pretty long and text-intense, I find it easy to skim and navigate both in hard copy and electronically.
GAIN's Slidedoc-style Annual Reports

A well-organized slidedoc can build understanding, support and broader awareness for our work, and we need all the help we can get!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Gates’ big bet in farming increases the odds that poverty will lose

This week the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released their annual letter.  In it, they make a ‘big bet’ that the lives of the poor could improve more in the next 15 years than at any other time in history

As we’d expect from those who bet on the transformative potential of personal computing 40 years ago -- and then made a bet that their wealth could make important differences the world when they established the Foundation fifteen years ago --  this big bet is based on a lot of data. 

It’s also based on hope that a few key accomplishments in development will trigger others. One of those areas is particularly close to my heart – Farming.

The Gates Letter headline in this section is “Africa will be able to feed itself”.  Increasing the yields of staple crops, such as maize, will feed people directly but also enable farmers to grow a greater variety of food.  Nutritious vegetables, eggs, milk and meat are crucial sources of micronutrients, which will also help achieve the Letter’s first goal of decreasing child deaths.  The Letter focuses on the importance of agricultural extension to help farmers, especially women farmers, get better information about how and when to plant.

In short video about his own bet for the future, Harvard’s Calestous Juma eloquently goes even further in connecting agricultural technology innovations with a growing potential for young African entrepreneurs. In turn, they will contribute not only to Africa’s food security and economy, but to the world at large. 

For my part, I’ve had the honor of working with many dedicated people in nutrition and agriculture research organizations that have received grants from the Gates Foundation in pursuit of healthier, hardier crop varieties.  The Foundation’s sustained vision, attention and investments, even when faced with inevitable research and policy challenges, makes it possible for the rest of us to make our own contributions to the ‘big bet’.   

So here’s my little voice, added to those of Bill & Melinda Gates, Calestous Juma and other global citizens:  Let’s all do our part to make sure that the lives of the poor improve faster in the next 15 years than ever before

Jill Kuehnert

Thursday, January 22, 2015

How do you say 'I don’t know'? That’s a good question!

This week’s episode of the very excellent Freakonomics podcast is a fascinating quest to understand why so many people – especially experts in interviews – begin their answers by saying “That’s a good question.”

Host Stephen Dubner looks at a couple of possibilities. Experts commonly learn to say “That’s a great question” in media training. Why? To buy a little time to think about their answer, or to bridge to a response that leads to a different topic. Some people may just say it out of habit or to flatter their interviewer.  For others it is a genuine expression of admiration for the thoughtfulness of the question.  

Dubner even talks to Charlie Rose about this phenomenon in a delightful little segment that also emphasizes the importance of preparing good questions to foster genuine interaction. Also, we learn to notice President Obama’s verbal tics (“Look…” and “Listen…”) when he think the question he’s being asked is not a great one! I highly recommend listening to the entire episode.

I think people often say “That’s a good question” as another way of saying “I don’t know”. How to say I don’t know is routinely one of the most popular segments of communication training I give to science communicators and policy advocates here in Asia and Africa. We’re all uncomfortable when we’re asked a question we don’t know the answer to, and experts most of all. 

What I teach is based on the principles of risk communication, as I was taught years ago by Dr. Vince Covello.

1.       Repeat the question, without repeating any negative allegations that may have been in the question. For example, if the question refers to  a claim of danger reported in a new paper,  

You’ve asked me about…(a specific aspect of the safety of …).”

2.       Say you don’t know.

I wish I could answer that”
“My ability to answer that is limited by…(my expertise in a different area).”
“I don’t know”

3.       Say why you can’t answer.

We’re still looking into that.”
“I don’t have that information.

4.       Provide a follow-up, with a deadline if possible.

I expect to be able to tell you more by….”
“I will ask the expert on that specific topic to respond to you....”

5.       Bridge to what you can say

What I can tell you is….

Of course, you can always just say “That’s a great question” and then go on to bridge to another topic. The risk communication approach can still be a little awkward, requiring some practice beforehand and courage in the moment. But going through the step of explaining why you can’t answer the specific question that was asked -- and committing to follow-up with more information --  builds  trust and credibility more than bridging directly to the answer you can give. 

Next question??

Jill Kuehnert

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On the fun of learning about a new crop

I didn’t grow up on a farm or study biology in college.  But in spite of that (or perhaps because of that), I find plants, agriculture and food production absolutely fascinating. 

I would rather go to a great farm or botanical garden than to a zoo any day. 

In my work so far, I’ve been lucky to support communications and policy advocacy around fascinating crops, ranging from the more familiar crops that are planted on millions of acres (corn, cotton and rice) to those that are planted in smaller areas or in more specific places, such as papaya and sweet potato.  

In 2015 it looks like I’ll have a chance to add a few more crops to my list. Here are the kinds of questions that I love to research:

1.       Where does it grow? The different ecosystems and climates around the world. From the rice terraces of the Philippines and Indonesia to the dusty sweet potato plots in Kenya, one of my favorite activities is getting out in the field. I am equally entranced in a big field stretching as far as  the eye can see, amidst straight lines of trees in an orchard, or kneeling in a small plot where vines curling around other crops which produce a diversity of nutritional food across different seasons. 
From IRRI's flickr collection

2.       Who grows it? Some crops are grown only by big farmers who specialize in only growing that crop, often exclusively for sale, or only by small farmers who plant it as a one of several crops they plant for their own consumption as well as sale. The economics of production, consumption and sale of agriculture can make life easier or more difficult for farmers of all kinds. I especially enjoy learning about the challenges and triumphs of women farmers!
Jill Kuehnert
Me and a farmer in China

3.       How does it grow?  Despite our name, Seed Stories, not every crop is planted from seeds. Some crops are easy to breed with other varieties, like corn and rice, while others are more difficult while the biology, breeding and reproduction of plants like papaya and sweet potato are much more difficult. There’s an entire field of technology required to create planting material for sweet potatoes that are free from disease. 

4.       What is it used for?  Maize (corn) can be used for animal feed, fresh food, food ingredients and fuel. Cotton fiber is used to make clothes but its oil is also used in food. The different components of rice grain are used for just about everything! 

5.       How nutritious is it? Some food crops are loaded with vitamins and micro-nutrients that help people stay healthy, while others are primarily a source of energy  -- the so-called starchy staples. Sometimes certain varieties of the same crop are more nutritious than others, or can be made more so thanks to biofortification. 

Different varieties of rice in Indonesia
6.       What challenges does it have? Some crops require a lot of water, including rice, requiring farmers and scientists to work out adaptions when water is scarce, or too much, or too salty. Other crops, including papaya, are susceptible to diseases that are easily spread from tree to tree.  Some varieties of crops have special traits for nutritional content or disease resistance, but have to be combined with other varieties in order to yield as much as farmers are used to. 

7.       Finally, who can teach me more? The internet, especially sites of the major international agriculture research centers, are great resources – but my favorite teachers are farmers and scientists who work with these crops every day.  I’m looking forward to meeting more of them this year!
Jill Kuehnert
Learning about rice from the experts!

 Jill Kuehnert