Presentation traps 1 – Hazardous comparisons

With this, the first of several blog entries on presentation traps, we are entering the quagmires and the quicksands where many presenters get trapped. These traps are mostly concealed and presenters realise they are trapped far too late to fix the problem. These traps are avoidable because the ones who lay them are none others than…the presenters themselves.

(Photo source: Flickr – author: TheBusyBrain)

So let’s look at trap #1: the hazardous comparisons.

In your presentation, usually at the beginning in the motivation part, a  slide appears, and on that slide your method is compared to previous state of the art methods, or methods widely accepted and recognised as adequate by practitioners in the field. Of course, the comparison makes your work seem vastly superior. You feel good – after all, you are good and you have listed the weak points of other methods, either because you found out or because their authors had the intellectual honesty to recognise them.

Here is where things go wrong:

1) Because PowerPoint does not give you much space to illustrate each limitation, you simply list them all (it looks so good, doesn’t it :), in bullet point form, relying mostly on the use of adverbs, adjectives, and judgmental verbs to describe them: slow, computationally  intensive, unfeasible, limited, complex, expensive, fails to, suffers from…

2) In the room, attracted by your title, chances are you will find the very people whose methods you disparage: the experts, the “related work” folks. They came to learn from you, not to have their contribution to the field questioned or featured in a poor light.

3) Your summary judgmental evaluation on their methods is probably based on old reading, and the state of the art may have progressed much since you last looked at the related work papers, thus rendering our evaluation inaccurate at best.

As a result, your comparison strikes a match that will light the short fuse of the bomb bound to explode during your Q&A. These scientists you indirectly attacked will dispute or question your claims – because any adjective or adverb is a claim and a claim deserves fair justification before it can be accepted. Because the reputation of their work is at stake, they will bring you onto their turf – a place you know little about – and take great pleasure to demonstrate your ignorance through incisive questions!

So here are your solutions:

If you have to expose limitations:

Firstly, choose the main limitation, illustrate it visually and scientifically so that it cannot be contested, and make sure you clearly define the scope under which that limitation applies.

Secondly,  find a way to praise the method whose limitation you are presenting.

Of course, you do not have to expose limitations. Avoid comparisons altogether. If the experts are in the room, they will ask questions to assess how well your method is likely to work in their field (and this is good!). If you do not know, you will be able to deflect such questions on the grounds that you have not tried it there. At the same time, you will welcome their interest to see it applied in new fields and express your wish to collaborate to extend your method’s application scope – or discover its boundaries (don’t say limitations!). Again, if you don’t know, you could also delay your answer on the grounds that your data and their data may differ and that it would be better to compare apples with apples, and oranges with oranges before drawing conclusions.

Be conservative. Do not say “This method should also work in your field, or on your problem”, just in case they ask you the question “On which basis do you form this opinion?” if you answer is based on factual evidence, however early it may be, you will be seen as an expert. But if they detect a lie in your answer (it is often so because, from your angle, your perspective is distorted), you will be seen as a scientist of much enthusiasm but somewhat junior in experience. Look at the photo above, how much bigger the orange seems depends a lot on the perspective, doesn’t it. An architect who has studied perspective would have a more accurate answer than a researcher in life science. But someone who has handled both fruit would have the best answer.

Next trap: Forcing the audience to interact.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *