Friday, March 25, 2011

A Simple Kind of Magic

When Rita Skeeter coerced Harry Potter into a broom closet and forced him to spill his wizarding guts, little did she know that Livescribe’s Smartpen could have given her magic quill a serious run for her Gallions.

If you’re more of a Lord of the Rings devotee, I’m talking about the magic quill that Rita Skeeter dictated into. With a life of its own, the ebullient quill would absorb what the interviewees said and pour out fully fledged sentences.

In the real world, Livescribe created the SmartPen. This regular-looking pen comes with special paper. At the bottom of the paper, tap the word ‘Record’ with the pen’s tip. Next, write and speak at the same time. Solving a math problem? Utter your thinking process. Interviewing an AUSG candidate? Take brief notes and let her talk all she wants. Finally, tap the stop symbol at the bottom of the paper.

The SmartPen allows you to tap onto any word you’ve written and listen to the playback of what you were saying at the time of writing that word. What’s more, with its embedded camera, it lets you upload the notes and recordings onto your computer. On your screen, click on whatever note you want to revive, and watch as it gets animated before you. Magic.

The SmartPen is your memory storage outside your brain. It combines the archaic necessity of penning our thoughts—I’m thinking caves and walls—with the utility of audio tracing. Used right, it’ll help you take less vigorous notes, that are backed by the storage of exactly what you were thinking, rather than the elaborate coding I find in my notebooks long after I forget my meaning. From my Anthro class:

key distinguishes joking manner not from serious manner
secondary text needs to be framed as not misconceived as the primary text and cause butt offence

I no longer recall what I meant by ‘butt.’

The New York Times tells us, “A growing number of schools across the nation are embracing the iPad as the latest tool to teach Kafka in multimedia, history through “Jeopardy”-like games and math with step-by-step animation of complex problems.” (
Stanford professor, Larry Cuban however points out: “There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using these machines.”

Tablets are novel because they are multi-functional. Being multi-functional is also what makes them forces of distributed focus.

Since the iPad can do things your brain can’t (like access the web), it sometimes feels like your own brain is not doing the doing. But in education, no tricks or artifice should replace a learner’s mental work-out.

There’s also a cognitive distance when we use a not-there keyboard  that somehow the pen in your fingers does not engender. Perhaps our traditional form of note-taking has been hard-wired into us evolutionarily.

So why not keep the $750 per iPad and invest instead in things like the SmartPen? It blends the agility of new, clever gadgets with the promise of old habits.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Generation BM (as in, Business Model)

When Zach Allaun, BSBA '13, and Jorge Espinoza, SOC '11 won the Brigham Young University business model competition, naturally I had to corner Zach and ask him for input about presentation and communication brilliance. Turns out, Zach’s largesse with such input is considerable, and you can now hear the many useful things he has to say at and

For the BYU competition, contestants had to outline  the concepts and metrics that lead them to an innovative product. For Zach and Jorge, this product is Gamegnat, a gaming site that will—with the blessing of the $15000 award—expedite and sharpen the way gamers look for gaming reviews.

In the preliminary round of the competition, Zach and Jorge sent in a video presentation. In the final round, however, they presented live before Brigham students and a panel of judges. That comparison helped them see what’s ‘special’ about presenting before a live audience of 500. ‘We wanted to do something different. It’s not trying to get as much information in ten minutes. In a video, people can go back, they can rewind to better understand the material. In a live presentation, there’s no rewinding.’

Indeed, examing that difference between the cryogenically frozen (video, or text) and the organic (live) may help you understand the role of your presentation. What are the dynamics of a real spatial and temporal relationship, between speaker and audience, that you can use to your advantage?

That’s how the pair came up with the winning presentation: one that followed a narrative arc of sorts, that told the story like a story, with chronological ‘plot’ development and a lead-up to a ‘morale.’ And Prezi helped them narrate.

‘Prezi…set us apart. Because we used Prezi,  everything [was] animated.’ They used bubbles to represent their various ideas. ‘It was kinda silly and cheesy but we were able to create a very clear "We’re moving on to the next point"…a clear delineation between step 1, step 2, step 3.  Our presentation was completely different.'

Chronology and clarity then. What about characters?

‘Did you bring Jorge and yourself into the story?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, we did,’ Zach said with a smile. ‘Our presentation had quotes for things we were saying [while brainstorming for the product]. Little things like that.’

Zach and Jorge enriched the story with a personal touch and a strong visual (of themselves as the out-loud thinkers of the process). Rather than saying, ‘This was done,’ they said ‘We did this.’ Just like active verbs (instead of passive) can give a story vigor, so can “characters” sometimes give your presentation a stronger voice.

Would he recommend the narrative-arc presentation? Certainly, ‘if you’re in a competition that’s similar in nature. We identified early on that this competition was gonna be about input rather than output.’

What about Q&A? This is arguably the most difficult thing about comps. Luckily, Zach and Jorge both have debate backgrounds that trained them in rapid-fire speech and responsivity to the unexpected.  ‘This is where we shone above. We were [good] on our feet.’ 

‘The biggest thing is confidence,' he adds, 'even if you’re saying something you’ve never thought of before. Saying “I don’t know” and being confident in not knowing the answer to a question is better than being unconfident.’

By the way, you may want to check out the two books that gave fodder to Zach and Jorge’s business model trope: The Four Steps to the Epiphany, by Steven Blank,  talks about startup success, and The Business Model Generation, by Alexander Osterwalder, lays out the 9 quintessentials building blocks of a business. Zach, indeed, seems to be part of this very Generation. He emailed me the next day with some closing tips for presenters. In true entrpereneurial form:

The presentation that wins in a competition is likely going to be the presentation that stands out from the crowd…The ultimate winner will be the team that the judges remember. A safe and conservative presentation that breaks no boundaries will only give you a shot at beating the other safe and conservative presentations, because there will always be at least one team that tries something different, and that's who people will remember, good or bad.

All else held equal, the guy who spoke too fast and stumbled over his words because he was so excited about what he was saying will beat out the guy who gives a textbook delivery. Textbook deliveries are commonplace in these kinds of competitions. True passion, however, is not.