Language, Words, Writing: TED Talks for Your Writing Courses


Happy 2015! May this new year sparkles a renewed spirit in all your personal and professional endeavors. Since classes here at the U don’t start until the 20th of January, I am having the time of my life just reading and writing this winter break (spending most of my time at a Starbucks that’s located a few blocks from my apartment). Of course, as a teacher, I’m never really on full vacation — so I am still thinking about teaching from time to time.

As I am preparing for the first-year composition class I will be teaching in a few weeks, I turn to TED for inspirations and materials to use in introducing students to the idea of writing and communication, and more importantly, the power of language. To cut to the chase, here are five talks that I think are appropriate for writing classes:

1. Anne Curzan: What Makes a Word “Real”?

I think this is a great discussion starter, especially for teachers who want to start out with something that’s closer to home (for students, at least!) — taking a look at the invention of words, including slangs like “defriend,” “hangry,” and “adorkable.” By evaluating the process of dictionary editing, language historian Anne Curzan charmingly finds crucial meaning gaps in the English language in a world of constant evolvement.

2. Mark Pagel: How Language Transformed Humanity

Biologist Mark Pagel shares his theory of the social engineering functions of language. He suggests that language is a social technology/learning that allow humans to cooperate. This may sound a little removed from the humanities, but I always like spicing up the class with some social sciences, what more a biological take on language!

3. Alan Siegel: Let’s Simplify Legal Jargon!

In our complex world, simplicity is bliss. Alan Siegel calls for a simple, sensible design — and Plain English — to make legal documents intelligible to laypeople. This may be a gem for technical and professional writing/communication classes.

4.  Andrew Fitzgerald: Adventures in Twitter Fiction

Here’s one for digital storytellers and media scholars! Andrew Fitzgerald, who works for Twitter, goes back in time to look at the (short) history of creative experimentation of fiction and storytelling through new-age broadcast tools like the radio, television, and now, social media.

5. Andrew Stanton: The Clues to a Great Story

This one is my all-time favorite. I show this to my students every semester. (Warning: it contains explicit language.) Filmmaker Andrew Stanton shares what he’s learnt about storytelling (through visual communication), giving his audience an engaging presentation that starts at the end working back to the beginning.

There you have it — five TED Talks you may use to jumpstart a class this coming semester. Have other videos that you might suggest to add to the list? Comment below to let me know!

A Dummy Guide to Creating and Giving a PechaKucha Presentation


You may have heard of the term “PechaKucha” and you are interested to learn more about the concept and how others have done it. Or, you might simply be required to do it in one of your classes or work meetings and you just want to get some tips. You’re in for a treat. In this blog entry, I intend to share with you my experience with PechaKucha presentations and some tips for planning and making one. I am also going to share with you an example of my own presentation.

I was first introduced to the idea of the PechaKucha (pronounced pe-charge-ka) presentation style in a classical rhetoric seminar at St. Cloud State University. The concept of PechaKucha is simple: 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide on auto-advancing mode. The idea was said to based off the Japanese “chit-chat” presentation format by shortening long presentations to 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

The presentation format was devised by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham of Klein Dytham architecture. The first PechaKucha Night was held in Tokyo in their gallery/lounge/bar/club/creative kitchen, SuperDeluxe, in February, 2003. Klein Dytham architecture still organize and support the global PechaKucha Night network and organize PechaKucha Night Tokyo. (Excerpt from “Who Invented the Format?”)

Even though the idea was intriguing to me, I never really had the gut to do it, until last week. Along the final project in my visual rhetoric PhD seminar this semester, I was required to present my work to my classmates and instructor in the PechaKucha style. I have to say that the overall experience was rewarding, even though I was nervous from the time the assignment was given up to the second I stepped up to present. (Yes, teachers get butterfly stomach, too.)

Nonetheless, I documented my thinking and design process as I planned out my presentation, thinking that this would be a valuable resource for future students or people who are willing to experiment with this presentation style. So, here goes it:

  1. Think in perspective. It’s all going to end in 6 mins and 40 seconds, for better or for worse. If you miss a slide or an important note, you miss a slide or an important note! There’s not room to “make up” or try to “save” your presentation. A strong PechaKucha presentation is one that is well planned, organized, and edited. Think of it as writing down to a word count rather than writing up — you will need to pay close attention to cutting the fluff and getting straight to the point(s).
  2. Start by planning. Failing to plan is planning to fail, especially in a PechaKucha presentation. I have learnt that it takes great mental effort to outline one’s presentation — deciding what needs to be delivered (and what needs not), considering the “flow” of the presentation, choosing and putting together the content (text and images) of the presentation, and editing it. The following image shows my thinking steps: 1. Drawing the canvas. 2. Planning what content gets in the canvas. 3. Deciding which content comes first and where on the canvas.

PK planning

  1. Focus on the visual. But do so with an eye toward the overall consistency of the look and feel of presentation and how images can be used to support your claims, not to decorate your canvas. I came to realize, rather quickly, that it is tough for an audience to pay attention to a presenter going tutu-train speed (trying to finish his/her sentence before the next slide kicks in) while looking at the mind-boggling images on the slides. As you choose your visual, think like an audience, i.e.: Is this particular image related to my claim-at-point? How does this image work in relation to other images in my presentation? Does it take longer than a few seconds to understand or “decode” the image? Is the image going to distract my audience from my verbal presentation?
  2. It’s OK to add texts. I personally think that textual elements help an audience to “get it” faster than pure images. This is especially true when you have to share a jargon or technical language that your audience may not have access to. There’s more to say about signs and signifiers (how words and images work together to enhance cognition and memory), but I will let this web text here do the job. Yet again, remember that you and your audience only have 20 seconds to look at a slide – think for yourselves how many words can you read in that time frame.
  3. Practice. Practice and practice. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of rehearsal in delivering a tight, eloquent PechaKucha presentation. You will need to almost plan and write out the exact content — down to the actual sentences — that you will present. Twenty seconds aren’t a lot of time (technically, one can speak about 40 words on a tutu-train speed), but it only takes a few quiet seconds to make an awkward silence. Practice. That way you can train yourself into pacing your speech and mentally register the rough duration of a 20-second period. (It’s amazing how “muscle memory” works: I can now count to 20 and get it almost right on the dot.)

Now, in terms of the actual putting together of your slides, you will need some technical knowledge on how to program your slideware. Since I am a faithful user of PowerPoint, here’s a tutorial on how you can create a PechaKucha presentation format on PowerPoint.

There you have it. It is no rocket science, yet it takes time and energy to put together an excellent PechaKucha presentation. As promised, here is my example of a PechaKucha presentation. (Notice I stumbled a little in the beginning… my mind went blank for a second.)

The following is the feedback I received from my instructor:

  • You offered a great clear introduction, followed by a clear statement of methods.
  • I appreciated the care you put into developing a harmonious look and feel to your visuals.
  • I would appreciate screenshots reinforcing your argument about the “flag” color schemes if there be such.
  • Your pechakucha had a terrific structure overall. You offered a very clear argument.

I felt good after delivering the presentation, as well as watching others present. Overall, students seem to put more effort into this format given the need for practice and really knowing the content by heart.

As a compositionist, I have learnt so much from doing this. As such, I am assigning this presentation format to my University (first-year) Writing students next semester. Any comments and suggestions are most welcomed! Drop your two cents below, or tweet to me at @jasoncktham.

PR Talk at #NCA14: Rhetorical PR and Postmodernism

PR PPT cover1

Tham, Jason. “Approaching the Rhetorical Enactment Rationale to Public Relations in a Postmodern World: A Hybrid Model Manifesto.” National Communication Association 100th Annual Convention. Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL. November 23, 2014.

See presentation deck here.

The Rhetorical Enactment of PR

Robert Heath, editor of the Handbook of Public Relations (2001) says that, at its core, public relations is discourse management. He believes that PR can be approached from a rhetorical perspective that studies PR discourses as symmetrical, dialogic actions that add value to the scientific assumptions that are commonly used to explain the processes of communication.

Entering a postmodern condition

As technology constantly evolves, changing the way in which communication is made, acquired, classified, and exploited, our society is in a state of advancement, with “citizens having access to unprecedented computer and media connectivity” (Radford, 2012, p. 50). In 1979, French sociologist and literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard recognized that such technological and cultural development has moved the society forward into a new form of “postmodern condition” in which “forms of knowledge and information, and the citizen’s relationship to these forms, are fundamentally different from those that came before (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 3, qtd. Radford, 2012, p. 50).

As Heath and other critical scholars noted, public relations holds a significant role in the creation and dissemination of information in the contemporary world. According to Derina Holtzhausen, public relations today remains in “management practices based on modernist principles of command and control” (2000, p. 93). Following this statement, Holtzhausen seemed to suggest that public relations practice today is “out-of-step” in the postmodernist society, which constitutes multicultural, multiethnic, and multi-gendered publics (2000, p. 93; Radford, p. 50).

The rest of my presentation will discuss the implications of framing discussions of public relations in postmodernist expectations and explore ways in which Heath’s rhetorical enactment rationale fits into a postmodern understanding of the publics.

The postmodernist expectations of public relations

To distinguish postmodernism from its predecessor, we need to take a closer look to the characteristics of modernist principles. Lyotard (1989) claimed that a modernist society operates with assumptions based on universal principles and reality. For better illustration of the modernist assumption, Radford (2012) elaborated how contemporary practices of public relations are like those of science:

The knowledge claims of PR work with a modernist sense of a singular reality that can be described, understood and ultimately exploited. Practitioners must work on the assumption that human behavior is the result of rational thought and irrational drives, and that the appropriate manipulation of those faculties will produce responses desirable to the sender. (p. 55).

Theoretically speaking, the assumptions of a positivist scientific method to practicing public relations contradict with the expectations of a postmodern society. According to Radford (2012), in the postmodern condition, as societies become more pluralistic, messages experience stronger competition across aspects of communication in the society.

Due to the contrast between the modernist world where public relations professionals operate and the postmodern society, a communication gap is formed between the sender and the receiver. In an information-dense postmodern society, Lyotard (1989) argued that people experience “a profound awareness of the competing narratives.”

Framing public relations discussions within a postmodern perspective means to forgo the modernist principles of command and control. A postmodern treatment of public relations is not prescriptive, but rather transcend the interests of the practitioner to play interests in the society’s metanarratives. A postmodern treatment of public relations “must self-reflectively stop privileging the notion that PR is about the management of communication and the search for best practices that inevitably lead to some idealized best solution” (Radford, 2012, p. 64). This context of prioritizing metanarratives that structure social and cultural environments opens up a new space for implementing Heath’s rhetorical enactment of understanding public relations. Based upon the notion of postmodernism, a hybird model for approaching public relations is created to outline how and where postmodern expectations and the rhetorical enactment rationale intertwine.

Postmodern rhetorical enactment of public relations: A hybrid model

The hybrid model consists of three postmodern-rhetorical conditions derived from Heath’s rhetorical contexts. These conditions seek not to generate a list of techniques for enabling public relations practitioners to be more effective, but to shed light unto a discursive world that differs from a modernist perspective. 

Negotiating a shared understanding of meanings through metanarratives

In postmodern principles, metanarratives serve to make the message recipient aware of the fictionality of the message and sometimes the presence of the sender. A postmodern assumption of public relations is there are competitions among narratives. A postmodern treatment to the rhetorical enactment of public relations assumes the messages created and distributed by practitioners “are inevitably received and interpreted in the context” of competing perspectives and interests (Radford, 2012, p. 60). It thus forces practitioners to consider critical counteractions to better understand their diverse audience and competition, and to create a shared understanding of meanings.

Forging a participatory culture in the ever-evolving marketplace relationship

As the rhetorical perspective presupposes the importance of building and maintaining marketplace relationships, the postmodern enactment takes it a step further by urging public relations scholars and practitioners to move beyond the notion that public relations is about managing communication and communities. A postmodern view of society agrees with Heath’s perspective of a “multipublic, multimarket, and multiaudience” community (2001, p. 47). With advancing technologies and passage of time, a postmodern view assumes that these active groups are constantly growing and diversifying. A postmodernist expectation further challenges public relations practitioners to fabricate a participatory culture among the ever-evolving groups in the society.

Considering cultural constructs and hyperreality

Cultural constructs are the essence of public relations practice. As culture informs the basis of a society’s shared meaning system, “it provides the classification schema we use to make sense of our world, making culture, meaning, and language inextricably linked” (Curtain and Gaither, 2007, p. 36). Additionally, a postmodern condition of a society is its shifting identities and subjectivity. Identities in postmodern assumptions are “social constructions emerging from discursive practices (speech acts), and they form in relationship to something else” (Curtain and Gaither, 2007, p. 168, elaboration added). And because each individual member of the society interacts within a number of social systems, identities are never stagnant; people assume different social roles and cultural classifications, subjecting themselves to various representations of the self. Due to such fluid identities, the experience of a subject in a postmodern condition, surrounded by multiple realities and information coming at them from a myriad of sources, is “seduced into a hyperreality” that is constituted by mixed texts and representations (Radford, 2012, p. 60). A postmodern-rhetorical model for public relations assumes that representation of an event is just as important as, if not more so than, the actual event. A key distinction in this insight compared to a modernist principle of control and command is that it no longer matters what the messenger says, but it is what has been heard and perceived by the audience that counts.

Applying the hybrid model

To better understand principles underlying the postmodern-rhetorical model and how it can be used to guide discussions in public relations and its practices, I will use an award-winning campaign to introduce each condition described before to show the hybrid model in action.


In 2010, American Express created Small Business Saturday, a new shopping day between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, to support small businesses nationwide (, 2012). In 2011, the brand decided to turn this grassroots campaign into a permanent fixture on the American calendar. The first step to achieving this goal was for American Express to situate itself among the metanarratives about holiday shopping and small business entrepreneurships. Since meanings are presupposed to reside within the discourse community, American Express needed the marketing to come from the people, not from the brand. They did so by launching a marketing campaign that included social media strategy and media relations to articulate the reasons and means to activate various local audiences to carry out the marketing for them. This strategy leveraged the American Express’s brand voice from its competitors. As a result, the holiday generated over 1.5 billion earned press impressions, and according to Facebook Studio (2012), three times on November 26, 2011, “#SmallBusinessSaturday” became a national organic trending topic on Twitter.

Participatory culture

Using social media tools such as geo-targeted Facebook Ads and digitally activated storefronts with customizable QR-enabled signage, the public audience was empowered to join the ongoing conversations in the campaign. According to Facebook Studio (2012), the campaign measured 350% increase in social buzz from 2010, and public awareness nearly doubled to 65% from 37% in 2010. As the grassroots campaign was made to promote local shopping, more than 500,000 small business owners felt they have more skin in the game and so leveraged the promotional tools American Express provided to advocate for their business and spread the word about the big day. So while American Express established a hub for the movement, it was really its participants who made it a success.


In the Small Business Saturday campaign, American Express augmented social actions to scale. From Facebook to YouTube to Foursquare, American Express put out online and offline platforms to amplify small business voices for their audiences. The key of this campaign was to decentralize and mobilize shoppers to make them feel as though they were shopping for a cause together, but in their own local business communities across the country. A website was set up to ask Americans to pledge to make a purchase at a local business. Consequently, 103 million Americans shopped on Small Business Saturday 2011, including President Obama and his daughters. American Express also saw cardmembers transactions increase 23% at small merchants on the day (, 2012). More importantly, a resolution supporting Small Business Saturday was passed by the U.S. Senate unanimously.


The overview and the case have illustrated how the postmodern-rhetorical enactment model can inform public relations practices. Some clear lessons emerged from this case study include: 1) there’s a need to situate an organization’s voice in a leveraged field to rise among metanarratives; 2) the most rewarding relationships are ones that directly involve the participants, not just the decision makers; and 3) pseudo-realities can lead to spikes in community participation if they are managed delicately.

The framework presented here is meant to provide an alternative, theoretical model that suggests critical evaluation of current public relations practices and invokes different approaches to discussing public relations in a postmodern world. The hybrid model seeks to promote an appreciation for postmodernist expectations in our society.

What is Postmodernism? Watch this:

Vine Talk at #NCA 2014 Social Media Communication

Tham, Jason. “Vine: Redefining Racial Stereotyping in Six Seconds.” National Communication Association 100th Annual Convention. Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL. November 21, 2014.

Read manuscript and presentation deck here.

In early 2013, a new mobile video creating and sharing application, Vine, was launched to allow users to record and share video clips up to six seconds in length. Soon after its inception, the app became a frontier for racial comedies, including distasteful stereotypes similar to those of blackface minstrel shows in the 19th century. By identifying the likeness between Vine and early minstrelsy, and by scrutinizing the identification process in racial stereotyping, this paper considers the ethical dimensions in the video-sharing app as a new stage from racial comedy. The author also seeks to establish strategies for confronting stereotyping on social networking platforms based on three major ethical theories in moral reasoning, namely deontological, teleological, and virtue theories.

Referenced videos: