Author Archives: profgarrett

“On Writing Well” — simplify, lead, and closing

Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” reads like the author took his own advice; it’s short, memorable, and filled with examples of good writing from a zoo of different authors. It took me only around 4-5 hours to read, but someone who already writes well could take much longer to absorb the examples.  Below are a few highlights:

1. Simplify

“Clutter is the disease of American writing.” (p7)

One of the best parts of William Zinsser’s “On Writing” is on pages 9-11, where he shows the a roughly-edited draft of his own chapter.  Seeing the author’s editing reveals that (a) even a major author benefits from editing, and (b) just how can be cut without the reader noticing the lack.  When it comes to writing style, his statement that you must cut down to bone, and then rebuild, seems apt.

2. Opening

“[the lead] must cajole him with freshness or novelty or paradox, or with humor, or with surprise, or with an unusual idea, or an interesting fact, or a question.  Anything will do along as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeve.” (p60)

The stuffy format of the academic paper typically leads with a highly-condensed version of the findings, research method, and limitations.  It’s hard to liven up a format so deadly-structured, but the list of possible openers above is as good as any.

3. Closing

“We are most of us still prisoners of the lesson pounded into us by the composition teachers of our youth: that every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end…  This is all right for elementary and high school students…  But if you are going to write good non-fiction, you must wriggle out of [part] III’s dead grip….

“The perfect ending should take the reader slightly be surprise and yet seem exactly right to him.  He didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what is said.  But he knows it when he sees it.  Like a good lead, it works.” (p70-71)

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7 years at Woodbury

I started working at Woodbury 7 years ago as a half-time educational technology specialist.  Since then, I’ve had 6 offices, 4 bosses, earned 2 degress, and had quite a few title changes.  For all but 6 months of my marriage, I’ve been working at Woodbury.  I’ve been heavily involved in change initiatives, first for WASC and then for AACSB.

I really think Woodbury is a special place.  I don’t get to see students for more than one term, but my relationship with faculty and staff has been the best part of my job.  When I did IT tech support, the part I enjoyed the most was one-on-one coaching.  I met some of the oddest and narrowly-talented/focused people.  Curiously blind to larger topics, they so enjoyed their teaching that it was hard to not want to take their class.

Since Woodbury has on-going contracts with multi-year periods, below is my most recent packet.  While it is annoying to have to redo the materials each year, it’s good to look back and compare last year’s packet to today’s.

There are things I want to change in 2012.  I think that I’ve been very effective in service areas: co-chairing the EPC and leading the business assessment process have been a good opportunities. However, my research project re-orientation has taken a lot longer than I thought it would, and I have gotten too focused on software and not enough on writing.  It’s hard to say that I would have done it differently; I know a lot more now than I did when I started my project 2 years ago.  Playing a ‘if I knew then what I know now’ game is generally futile.

I don’t know where I’ll be in another 7 years, but hope to have similarly interesting people around me, and feel that I’m still making a contribution to something larger.

Below is my renewal package:


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Making your presentation interesting (or yes, you need a thesis)

What’s the point?  A common presentation mistake is to have slides with so much information on them that the viewer isn’t sure what to remember.

Below is a good sample:

This has a lot of information on the Khan Academy, but is too broad.  If asked “what’s the point,” how would you answer?

Every slide should express a single complete sentence.  For the Khan Academy, there are a variety that could be used:

  • Online videos are the future of education.
  • One person can do great things with technology.
  • Sal Khan has helped a lot of people with online videos.

Since the presentation is on how the Khan Academy is changing education through IT, a good thesis for this slide would be the last in the list above.

In slide design, it’s best to have a strong title.  This should be the thesis for the slide. A quick look at Khan’s YouTube channel and their homepage allows us to flesh out out our thesis with a few key points:

  • Sal Khan has had a major impact with simple educational videos
    • One-man’s non-profit started in 2006
    • 2,600 micro-lectures on YouTube with 107 million views
    • Expanding with exercises, knowledge maps, and badges

These key points should be turned into a story.  The presenter could start by describing how Sal made some simple videos to help his nephews learn calculus.  Then, they could talk about the expansion since 2004, the simple style of presentation and easy YouTube hosting, and end by describing the funding allowing him to create new features.

Once the story is designed, we need to finish the slide design.  While we could just use the bullet points as is, it’d be better to use visuals to increase the impact.

One option would be to try and show images of the people who have been helped.  Another would be to show a graph comparing the viewing hours generated by Sal’s budget with those created by another publisher.  But, the simplest way to highlight his impact is to show a short clip from a video and highlight the most critical numbers describing the organization.

Below is an plain slide with a clear thesis:

While plain, the above slide is easier for people to quickly skim, helps the presenter to avoid reading the slides, and has a much clearer thesis statement.

Ultimately, the goal of a presentation should be to have people remember it the following morning.  Which of these two slides would you remember?

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Add shadows to text in PowerPoint to improve image visibility on top of an image

Using an image as the background of a slide can add a lot of interest, but can have negative effects on an audience’s ability to read the words.  The example slide below shows how “text glow” shadows can make it easier to read.

The title uses no glow, the 1st bullet uses a 1 pixel border, and the 2nd and 3rd bullet points use progressively more aggressive border styles.

In a Mac, you can add this by selecting the text, and going to the Format menu, and selecting the Font option.

Then, choose the”Text Glow & Soft Edges” option.  From here, you can set the color, thickness, and transparency.  A high transparency value increases the background bleeding through the glow.

In a PC, right-click on text, and choose “Format Text Effects.”

Then, in the following menu,go to “Glow and Soft Edges” and add a color, size, and set the transparency.

While it takes a little hunting to find the option, this option can greatly enhance the legibility of text on top of a complex image.

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Nice list of free graphic design resources

Sacha Grief posted a great list of high-quality design resources.  Highly-recommended…

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What emotion does your slide convey?

Do you sound like Ben Stein?

Compare that to Professor Lewin’s speech below (start at about 1 minute in)

One of the critical differences is that Lewin conveys a sense of emotion.  Ben Stein actually has some good content, and is (trying!) to get some audience interaction.  However, his lifeless delivery falls flat, while Lewin’s obvious passion helps us engage with him.

After deciding on an organizing thesis for each slide, and choosing a story structure,  decide what emotion the slide should convey.

This Bill Gates slide from is a typically bad example.  Beyond violating the first two rules, can you say with confidence if what feeling the audience has (beyond wishing for their reading glasses)?

Gates is probably trying to show the scope of his services.  Good emotions for him to convey could be:

  • happiness (we’re pleased to…)
  • satisfaction (it’s been a long road, but we finally …)
  • anticipation (it’s going to be great…)
  • pride (this is amazing).

He could also choose to be self-deprecating by being:

  • embarrassed (it’s been a while, but we finally ….)
  • show a problem (we have a lot of services, but haven’t connected them well).

If he decided that this was a happy slide, Mr. Gates could try to convey more enthusiasm, smile more, and make larger gestures.  If he wanted to be embarrassed, he could hunch a bit, look abashed, and moderate his gestures.

A second example slide from the cio article is below.  This slide is overly cluttered, but it isn’t immediately obvious how we are a supposed to feel about this visit.

One immediate way to improve the slide would be to change the title to a strong declarative sentence, such as “Fantastic Results from Beijing.”  In giving the presentation, the speaker could decide in advanced to convey their sense of wonder a the different things in China, or a sense of awe at the history.

If you want a slide to fall flat, hope for the panic of being in front of a crowd to bring your material to life.  Unfortunately, you’ll probably end up more like Stein than Lewin.

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How to find good (free!) images without stealing them

Lara Jade never expected to find an image of herself on the cover of a porn DVD.  The 18-year old had posted a self-portrait to an online forum, and ended up suing TVX Films for using it as the cover of “Body Magic.” (source)

While you probably empathize with Lara, the way most people use images makes them more like TVX Films.  Using the result of a Google image search in a work website, student paper or presentation, or personal blog is just as illegal (while not quite as distressing).

Free high-quality and distinctive artwork is available — you just have to know where to get it.  This guide presents 4 categories of images and gives a short guide on how you can and can’t use each.  While not legal advice, it represents my best understanding of the current laws.

1. All Rights Reserved

The bottom line is you can’t use any images without the owner giving you permission.   Unless you can find a note on the image stating otherwise, assume that anything you locate falls under this category.

To use an “all rights reserved” artwork, you must be able to:

  • Show that there is a compelling reason why this image, and this image alone, satisfies some need for reporting, scholarship, critique, or analysis.
  • Provide credit (attribution) saying where you got this image, and make it plain that you do not own the rights to it.
  • Ethically, if you are making money from something, you need to show a higher need to use a particular image.

Some examples:

  •  There is an image of the GE Board on  You could use this in a presentation or paper talking about GE’s specific board.  You can’t use it if you just need an image of people in business suits, or talking about boards in general.
  • You can use company logos when you talk about them.  For example, using the GE logo from Wikipedia helps to identify the company and would be fine to use in a paper discussing the company.
  • In a presentation on the company Evernote, using a screenshot, chart, or diagram from the company website would be fine (with proper attribution).  However, using their image in a presentation about laptops in general would not be acceptable.

 2.  Free and Paid Stock Photography Websites

There are a variety of stock photography websites on the web.  While iStockPhoto costs from 5-20$ for an image, others, such as Microsoft Clipart Online and stock.xchng are free.

As long as you don’t use the image as a logo for your company, you’re generally free to use them however you like.

3.  Creative Commons

While most of Flickr is not licensed this way under Creative Common’s permissive set of licenses, they do have advanced search option that gives access to some really interesting images.  There are some restrictions.  Look at each image to see if they have any of the following restrictions.

  •  Non-commercial.  If tagged non-commercial, you can’t make money from using an image.
  • Attribution.  Almost all require you to note the original creator.  Generally, a small link or note next to the image appears to be the best practice.
  • Alterations.  Some pictures do not allow alterations.

 4. Public Domain

Public domain is the easiest and least restrictive way to incorporate images into your work.  The best source for this is Wikipedia.  The major problem with public domain is that it’s complicated to release images into this license, so there isn’t as much out there included in this license. There is a decent amount of government-contributed artwork in Wikipedia, such as this 1937 image of Division of National Archives.

What you can do:

  • Use the image.
  • Attribution is not required.


Bruno Mercier found that a French Publishing House used his image as the cover for their latest book without paying.  In an email exchange, the publisher said that he thought he had the right to use any unprotected image posted online.  The author (a 70-yearold woman) even wrote him that it was on honor for his image to be used on her book.

Once lawyers became involved, he was eventually paid. But, it was a lot of trouble on everyone’s part for a simple, but complete, misunderstanding of how copyright works.

Posting an image online does not make it free, but there are good ways to find free images without putting yourself, your business, or your ethics in jeopardy.


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Finding appropriate and legal images

Unfortunately, most people’s first source for images tend to be Google Image search.  While effective in finding images, this is not an ethical approach.

Ethics of Copyright

Simple because someone posts material on the Internet does not mean that they are ok with you using them.  While it’s incredibly easy to rip off images, it’s not a professional or ethical approach.

Free Clip Art Sources

Microsoft Clip-Art is one of the easiest sources for good artwork.  The key is to go to their online website and search for images.  These are royalty-free, and do not require attribution.

Another source I recently ran into is StockExchange.  Registration is required, and you have to avoid the frequently listing of images from iStockPhoto (which are not free), but this is a great place to find mid- to high-quality artwork.

Creative Commons Sources

The Creative Commons license is a way for people to easily allow others to use their material.  The easiest way to find material with this license is Flickr’s Creative Commons Search feature.  Go to the flickr site, and start a search.  Then, click on the advanced search option.

After getting into the advanced search option, scroll down, and check the “Creative Commons” box.  This will only return images that other people have explicitly marked as being ok for you to use.

As long as you provide attribution, you’re generally ok to use any cc-licensed work in your presentations.

Public Domain Images

The last good source of images that I frequent is from Wikipedia.  You need to click on the actual image to find its licensing agreement, but generally, images posted there are licensed under the public domain.

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Sample Theme – Steampunkish

Glenna Shaw posted a steampunk-style PowerPoint Template on her blog recently, and I thought that I could create a slightly-darker template to complement her work.

Below are sample screenshots for the title, a bullet list, and the credits.  Thanks to Glenbledsoe and Amedina for allowing the use of their artwork through a creative commons license.

To use, just download the template potx file.  Go into PowerPoint, choose to browse for a custom theme, and choose the newly downloaded file.

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Mobile and Presentations – Data from SlideRocket

The image on the right is originally from SlideRocket’s research page.

The major take-away is the prevalence of mobile.  According to their statistics, 1 in 10 presentations are viewed on a mobile device.  Devices used seem pretty evenly split between Android phones, iPhones, and iPads.

I don’t personally use their service (due to cost/features mix, and having a Moodle installation at Woodbury).  But, if I gave professional presentations, seeing the large number of mobile devices would make me want to post slides online in a convenient location.

Beyond SlideRocket, there are other ways to easily share your content:

  •  This seems to be the most commonly seen location for posted slides.  It’s incredibly easy to view content posted here. While not incredibly nice to view (does the screen size need to be that small), and occasionally borks on complex layouts for the iPad/iPhone, it seems to be the most commonly used service.
  • Google Docs.  While I haven’t used it before, Google does provide an online slide editing program.  My wife and I have used the docs writer, and found it to be an acceptable scratchpad service.  It doesn’t have the polish to replace Word, but is good enough for simple tasks.
  • Microsoft’s SkyDrive service is another option. I’d never heard of this until following some Microsoft MVPs, but it seems to be a nice option for posting if you already have a Live ID.  However, I tried to test with Firefox on Mac, and it crashes every time with an unexplained error.

Overall though, I still think the best option is to get a free blog hosting somewhere and post the file yourself.  If you give presentations, you should have your own URL and web-space available.

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