Posted by: holdenlee | September 9, 2012

Patrick Winston’s communication advice

A preliminary version of the first lecture notes for 18.787 is up. This includes some of the stuff I promised in the Yoneda Lemma post.

This is the first in a series of posts I hope to write about what I learned in from my favorite professor, Patrick Winston.

Patrick Winston is a professor in the computer science department at MIT ( He heads Genesis, a project dedicated to understanding human intelligence and reproducing it in AI. He specializes in story understanding in artificial intelligence; for instance, he has programmed Genesis to understand the concept of “revenge” in Macbeth.

Winston teaches “”, The Human Intelligence Enterprise, every spring. In addition to giving a broad survey of artificial intelligence, he teaches students to communicate effectively in papers and presentations, and tell memorable stories.

One reason humans are so smart is our ability to articulate concepts – and stories – through language. Have you ever had the experience of failing multiple times at something and then “getting it” once someone explains clearly and concisely what you need to do – whether it is throwing a baseball or working an algebra problem? Once you have articulated a problem that you may not have been aware of, or a key principles behind something, the task becomes a lot easier. Here are two examples (from Winston):

  • A long time ago, Patrick took a painting class. “Look at these trees,” his art teacher said. “The trunks aren’t all brown. They’re shades of gray, black, blue and purple.” Patrick hadn’t noticed this ever before, but now he’ll always see it.
  • Someone pointed out to Winston that when he wrote recommendation letter, he used the word “charming” for female candidates and not male candidates. “Oh my gosh I do that,” Winston said. He never did it again.
  • The first edition of his AI textbook was terrible. It was brought to his attention that he didn’t write good introductions to chapters that motivated students. Thereafter he started every chapter with an empowerment promise (see for example

In this post I articulate several key principles behind effective communication – tips easy to remember and apply once articulated – as taught by Winston in


The beginning of a piece of writing should have an empowerment promise and possibly a hint of entertainment. Convince the reader that (s)he will gain something by reading it. The end of a piece should show the reader that you have delivered on your promise. Tell them “This is what I did” or “This is what you will be able to do now, now that you have read this.” Don’t be afraid to use 1st person.

Include specific details (because details sell!) and use active verbs whenever possible. Don’t expect people to reason too much as they read, so flesh things out. Err on the side of being explicit.


The VSNC paradigm gets your writing ”’read”’. A good paper should have the following components. All of these should appear in the abstract.

  1. Vision: What is the big idea? What concrete advances will it allow? For instance, “If we are to understand…, then we must…” Be explicit.
  2. Steps: List the steps needed to carry out the idea. Show the reader you don’t just have the idea, you also did something (or can do something) with the idea.
  3. News: List the results coming from these steps. Be as specific as possible.
  4. Contributions: What did ”you” do that hasn’t been done before? Use “sanctioned verbs” such as ”prove, demonstrate, implement, test (experiment), frame (problem), survey, identify (key problem), present, speculate, worked out (table, classification).”

This is especially important for an abstract. The following follows the VSNC paradigm quite well:; it’s not too technical for a general reader to understand. Note how each of V, S, N, and C gets one paragraph, how steps are numbered, how he marks out a key phrase such as “language of attention”, and how Rao includes specific details: “put down a cup, selects the shortest checkout queue in a grocery store,…”, “For example, one program determines what object a human is pointing to. Another learns a particular pattern of visual activity evoked whenever an object falls off a table.”

Inversion heuristic

The inversion make sure your writing gets understood. It is simple: Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Imagine how the paper would be understood by a reader. Is it accessible with the right background? Is it easy to navigate the paper, to find which sections cover which topics?

The 5 S’s

The 5 S’s gets your writing remembered.

  • Slogan: A repeated phrase that sticks in readers’ minds.
  • Symbol: A repeated picture that sticks in readers’ minds.
  • Salient: Have one idea that sticks out. (If you put “too many” good ideas in, then none of them sticks out and the reader won’t know what to make of the piece.)
  • Surprise: Something unexpected.
  • Story: Include a narrative.

Writing Textbooks

Begin each chapter (and begin each lesson in a classroom) with an empowerment promise – what you will be able to do after the lesson – and show that you have delivered upon that promise at the end of the chapter. For an example of a chapter opening, see

Break up the text into large number of sections/subsections for easy reading. (This limits the amount of time you have to read before you get to a place when you can pause, a kind of “local goal” you can keep aiming towards.) Lots of titles together act as a road map, and point out the salient points of each section.

Making section titles complete sentences helps the reader summarize the main point achieved from reading the section.


Ask people who are not your friends to evaluate your work, because they won’t hallucinate details that aren’t there.


  • Always include your vision, steps, news, and contributions. Having slides with these names is not a bad idea.
  • Always end with a contributions slide. Never end with a “thank you” or “Questions?” or “Bibliography” slide. When you take questions, people will be looking at the last slide for 10+ minutes, and you want them to see your contributions in those 10 minutes, rather than an empty slide saying “Thank you.”
  • Don’t say thank you at the end of the talk, especially if you’re female (!). The audience should be thanking you. Instead, salute the audience. “And with this slide I conclude my talk.” “And that concludes what I have to say.” Shake hands with the host. “I really enjoyed being here today.” “You’ve been a wonderful audience. You’ve asked good questions. I look forward to an opportunity to speak to you again.”
  • Do not use a laser pointer. It’s hard to aim accurately and the audience sees the back of your head. (Put arrows in your powerpoint instead.) Winston, of a laser offender: “We could all have left and he wouldn’t have known.”
  • People can’t read the slide and pay attention to you at the same time. It overloads the language processing system in the brain. Keep the text on the slides short and punchy, not a copy of (or even more than) what you say out loud.
  • Make font big. 20pt at the very least.
  • Always sound excited. If you say “I am excited” then you must sound excited! Use gestures!
  • Don’t put your hands in your pockets or behind your back. It’s insulting, in several parts of the world. Also, you might have a concealed weapon. If you don’t know what to do, clasping your hands in front of you always works.

During presentations, Winston always has the lights on. “But nobody can see any slides,” the AV person might say. “Nobody can see any slides if their eyes are closed,” Winston says.

A presentation is not a lecture. The main point of a lecture is to teach and the main point of a presentation is to impress.

Winston’s “how to speak” talk:

In future posts I’ll give more examples, and in particular talk about how I’ve used these heuristics, among others, when writing curriculum and taking lecture notes.


  1. […] I’ve learned from Gliya and all my other teaching experiences. Especially focus on adding VSNC-style overviews, explorations, guiding text, connections between different subjects and viewpoints, and problems. […]

  2. […] history of AI and told us lots of stories and life advice (I wrote on his communication advice here). I continued to take classes in creative writing. It was very discouraging: they brought down my […]

  3. I just listened to the lecture you cite and you did an outstanding job of capturing what I found were the important points. I will be including a link to Dr. Winston’s lecture in a blog site I am designing and would like to include a link to this article as well, unless you would prefer I not do that. I want to expand my readers’ understanding of the importance of “rhetoric” as a serious discipline. Amazing how timeless this stuff is.

    • Thanks, and feel free to include a link here.

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