What can the scientist who presents learn from Pascal (Part 1)

Pascal is a seventeenth century scientist who –like Watt, Volt, Ampere, Joule, Newton– has his name forever associated with Science via a Standard International unit of pressure, the Pascal (Pa). But Pascal is also a great philosopher, and his famous “Thoughts” (Pensées), contain valuable insights for presenters.

(Thought 47) There are some who don’t write well, but speak well. The place or the audience warms them, so much so that they are able to draw from their mind more than they could without that warmth.”

Some of us are like that. Our spoken English is better than our written English, even though it may still be broken English. During our face-to-face with the audience, most of us would feel much more at ease, if only we could find that warmth Pascal mentions… You will not find it if you do not look for it. Find a friendly face in the audience, and let its warmth release your thoughts. Return your smile, not just to that face, but to all, to thaw the audience. You may not have much control over the place, but your smile certainly has the power to defrost any audience. Then let the defrosted audience contribute to the total release of your brilliant mind 🙂

(Thought 369) “Memory is necessary for all the operations of reason.”

Your reasoning may be faultless, yet not be followed by your audience. All too often, the presenter ignores this fundamental need of the reasoning brain: memory. Naturally, in the presenter’s brain, knowledge is already memorised – not so for the audience. Here are six foolproof ways to care for the memory needs of an audience of scientists:

1) As with computer RAM, you need to refresh the memory. Do not say “as we’ve seen on a previous slide,” but say again what you demonstrated on that previous slide. Repeat. As you describe and explain the contents of one slide, make sure to give the audience everything it needs to understand it, right there and then.  Slide and narration together make one self-contained unit. But your slide illustrates your speech, not your speech illustrates your slide.

2) Avoid acronyms, pronouns, and uncommon abbreviations (in speech and on slides). Pronouns and acronyms are shortcuts which rely on memory for understanding. They stress the memory. Catch yourself saying “This shows,” and replace this with what it refers to as in “This increase in temperature shows.”

3) Announce what is coming on later slides. It prepares the memory, as the cup of water primes the old cast iron hand water pump before water gushes out its spout. But also announce what is coming on the next slide. The upward movement of the pump handle creates an air vacuum that lifts the next  load of water. The equivalent of this upward movement in a slide presentation is the oral transition. It creates a vacuum for your upcoming explanations and slide. The transition draws the audience into your next point.

4) As you describe and explain the contents of one slide, give the audience time to understand. Slow down the pace. To continue our hand-pump metaphor, fill the jar of water, one stroke of the handle at a time. Do not use the tap metaphor and drown the poor audience. The brain needs time to process and store the information it wishes to remember. Information flowing at too rapid a pace is bound to cause memory overflow and errors in reason.

5) The more points you make per slide, the more complex it becomes, and the more you stretch the memory. Therefore, make one single point per slide. One cannot memorise what one does not understand. And one fails to understand when the overloaded memory is unable to support the operations of reason.

6) Avoid lists, instead make your point visually. People do not remember lists, but they remember visuals. Be low on text content, but Be high on simplified visuals for which the density of information has been reduced to memory-acceptable levels.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Author: Jean-Luc Lebrun

This century: Writer on Scientific writing skills and scientific presentation skills, MC for scientific events, Podcaster, Radio Consultant, Trainer for Research Institutes in Engineering and Life Sciences, Singapore, and in European doctoral schools, as well as in South East Asia Universities. Last Century: Apple Computer, Advanced Technology Group, Technology Information manager. Then Director of the Apple-ISS Research Centre - a joint venture between Apple Computer and the National University of Singapore. Producer of TV program on IT for Singapore Channel 5.

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