Live probing – Checking the Audience’s Analogue Response to Your Smile

A presenter’s smile is the best probe signal to use to assess the good functioning order of the audience – so long as the probe is not faulty!

Apart from TDD, what other techniques have people invented to ensure that things are functioning well? Roll drum announcing – The Digital Signature.

It is a method invented by Gary Gordon from HP in 1976 to probe/check within seconds whether a complex electronic circuit is working fine. Great technique with an equivalent in the more analogue world of presentations. Continue reading “Live probing – Checking the Audience’s Analogue Response to Your Smile”

(TDD) Test-Driven Development – its use in scientific presentations

How does one know that everything is going to be fine “on the night”, or at least on the big day of our presentation? Of course, one could cross fingers – but should the index finger be over the middle finger or the opposite  🙂 One could rehearse, and rehearse, and rehearse as proposed here – this works but can one rehearse the unexpected? The rehearsal trap is so pernicious!

Do you know the meaning of the TDD acronym? If you do, you are a leading edge programmer.

“In Test-Driven Development, each new feature begins with writing a test. […] it makes the developer focus on the requirements before writing the code.” (Wikipedia)

 How does that wonderful concept applies to scientific presentations?

Continue reading “(TDD) Test-Driven Development – its use in scientific presentations”

What can the scientist who presents learn from Herbert Simon (Part 2)

I heard Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon speak at the end of last century (it’s not that long ago) at a conference in San Jose California on future trends. His insights on our information age will forever ring true.

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Who bears the cost of information overload? Continue reading “What can the scientist who presents learn from Herbert Simon (Part 2)”

Learning from Henri Poincaré (part 2)

By Jean-luc lebrun

I am satisfied with taking note of the difficulty, without pretending to solve it, thus ending on a big question mark. Still, it is interesting to state problems even though their solution appears remote.

And with that sentence, Henri Poincaré ends his chapter on the Milky Way. How do you end your presentation? A bored (therefore boring) plain restatement of your accomplishments, or do you show your willingness to share the open scientific questions your work has identified? In your opinion, which option highlights the scientist in you more?

Do you find yourself intimidated by the sheer brain power of some of the scientists attending your talk? Does knowing they are in front of you have a debilitating effect on your performance? Take heart. See how Henri Poincaré pragmatically considers his own mental abilities.

“No doubt a vaster and a keener mind than ours would judge otherwise. But that matters little; it is not this superior mind that we have to use, but our own.” (Science and method, Henri Poincaré, Dover Publications, 2003, translated by Francis Maitland)

Source Flickr, Author Dullhunk

Presentation traps 13 – The body trap

By Jean-luc lebrun

We are trapped in our body. Funny thing is, we never knew, but come the day of the presentation and body parts buried in the background of our consciousness surge to the foreground to make themselves known. Arms appear out of nowhere, with hands attached, turning us into stage puppeteers having to consciously lift and direct our limbs out of limbo. Legs descend to the ground like measuring tapes, bringing back to life embarrassing gaussian deviations in the tall woman and the short man. It definitely feels like an out-of-body experience! Continue reading “Presentation traps 13 – The body trap”

Using images in presentations – the legal issues

First of all, I am not a lawyer. Now that I have completely disqualified myself, and warned you that any information given hereafter may or may not be true in a given country at a given time for given people in given settings for given tasks, I can now broach the subject.

The other day I was looking at a medical clipart site which contained ancient black and white clipart images which had obviously fallen out of the copyright realm and were in the public domain – IT WAS NOT. Why? The people who had scanned the black and white pictures from ancient manuals in the public domain, considered that the work of scanning, cleaning the drawing (removing the aged paper color to make it white again), cropping the final art and giving it the clipart resolution was considered DERIVATIVE WORKS of a public domain image. In other words, if your aim is education, feel free to use it, but if you use it for a commercial presentation – find the book at your national library and scan it yourself :).

And now for another surprise. You visit an art gallery where a 1789 painting (surely no copyright issue here, right?) attracts your attention and you take a high resolution photo which you use on your slide and distribute or make available to others. Understand that the law in the US and in the UK is different. In the US, you could do that without problem. In the UK, the art gallery could make trouble for you unless you only use a low resolution image.

In this blog I use a WordPress plugin called “Tagaroo” by Crowd Favorite and Reuters. Its own one liner description says “Find and suggest tags and photos (from Flickr) for your content.” The images are all under CC licence (Creative Commons). If you are not familiar with Creative Commons, STOP whatever you are doing and visit http://search.creativecommons.org/# From that page, you have access to the images that you can reuse under very well defined conditions. For example, I selected the button “Use for commercial purposes”, and deselected the button “modify, adapt or build upon”,  clicked on the button “Flickr”, selected “the Commons” in the menu on the left of the search line and then typed “eye” in the search window. I found a great image named “Elod-Eye” by Frederic Dupont (a.k.a darkpatator). Then scrowling down the page, at the bottom right,  I found the license type, in this case “Some rights reserved”. Clicking on the licence name in grey takes you to the page Some rights reserved which explains what are these rights. You can then use that picture on your slide according to the stated rights.Here are several sites where you can find public domain images: http://wellcomeimages.org and also the images of the British Library https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/sets/ and of course the huge Flickr internet archive book images

 

There are other issues of course. The first one is the display of recognizable people on an image. Each one of us has “personality rights“, which include the right to control the commercial ( and even non commercial) use of our image and likeness. They vary from country to country, and from State to State. So even if you yourself took the photo, as long as it contains a recognizable person, before using that photo for a presentation, it would be wise to make sure that this person has given you permission to use that photo in a presentation (there are release forms available online that you can base your form on).

Now for the case where your slide features diagrams from other published papers (say as background information), or images from a webpage, should you mention the source of the diagram or of the web-image on your slide under the image or diagram? ABSOLUTELY. If it is from a scientific journal,  you could write the last name of the author and initials, the year of publication, and the abbreviated journal name, in readable font size. If it is from a website, the URL of the site. You would not want to be accused of plagiarism in a public forum, now would you?

By Jean-luc lebrun

028 Convinced- yes but of what…

By Jean-luc lebrun

Convincing with a scientific presentation is of great importance, of course, but how does one convince with impoverished slides from which all complexity has been removed for the sake of being understood by non-experts in the audience? So, if convincing data is not around, what takes over the role of data?

Then, there is the matter of time: a scientific talk at a conference rarely exceeds 20 minutes with Q&A. What should we convince the audience of, given such a short time?

Our French guest on this podcast, Dr. Pierre Boulet, professor at Lille University (Sciences and Technologies), is also Vice Head of the Laboratoire d’Informatique Fondamentale de Lille (LIFL). I interviewed him in his office during the summer of 2010 . He gives his perspective on the art and the manner of “convincing”.

Looking at yourself from the perspective of the audience is a real eye opener!

Eye, by ERIO. on Flickr.

Presentation traps 12 – The trap of the introduction slide

By Jean-luc lebrun

You are certainly familiar with scientific presentation slides that have all the structural signs of the scientific paper they were extracted from (same headings, same figures, etc). After the title slide, you will often found a slide with the title “introduction”, “outline”, “motivation” or  “aims”. Anything wrong?

What is the function of that slide?

Yes, its function is to introduce… but not only that. Its function is make sure that the people sitting at the back of the room listen to your whole presentation. The back-sitters are migratory scientists eager to take flight when the temperature you maintain around your topic drops below hibernation temperatures. And they start packing as soon as they see the frigid outline/motivation/aim/introduction slide. After all, it is faster to read your paper than to listen to it (twice as fast, in fact). So the role of this introduction slide is to intrigue, to hook, to captivate the audience by asking a question that becomes the question of everyone in the audience, a question that will keep everyone awake and attentive for the next twenty minutes while you unravel and answer it. Put your question to your audience in a visual form. Make your motivation their motivation, your problem, their problem. Then, when you reveal your solution, it will be theirs also; what satisfied you will satisfy them.

Background knowledge is rarely captivating. You need better than that to hook your audience. Tell a story, give a compelling example, make whatever you are doing essential to THEIR lives. Do not state commonplace facts already known by all in attendance. State the surprise, the novelty, the anguish, the reward… Forget about the conventional wisdom which is foolishness: it is not necessary to give an outline for any talk that is less than half an hour. Would you greet the friend that comes to your home by keeping him one minute at the doorstep explaining the various rooms he is about to go through before sitting down? Or will you just open the door and let the perfume of that scrumptious cake you baked for her capture her pheromone receptors?

The introductory slide is a teaser tightly connected to your title and your purpose. It entices the audience, and keeps the people in the audience in their seat by riveting their attention on you, and your mouth watering topic. And, oh-by-the-way, The hook slide has no title. Save the electronic ink it would require for your visual.

Image Flickr; author: LunnaDRimmel

What can the scientist who presents learn from Benjamin Franklin (part 2)

Photo  Flikr; Author Corey Holms

You have to admire the scientific mind of Benjamin Franklin and his determination to check all facts for himself in this admirable passage from his autobiography where he tests the range of an orator’s voice.

The last time I saw Mr. Whitefield was in London, when he consulted me about his Orphan House concern, and his purpose of appropriating it to the establishment of a college.

He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observ’d the most exact silence. He preach’d one evening from the top of the Court-house steps, which are in the middle of Market-street, and on the west side of Second-street, which crosses it at right angles.

Both streets were fill’d with his hearers to a considerable distance. Being among the hindmost in Market-street, I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the street towards the river; and I found his voice distinct till I came near Front-street, when some noise in that street obscur’d it. Imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill’d with auditors, to each of whom I allow’d two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconcil’d me to the newspaper accounts of his having preach’d to twenty-five thousand people in the fields, and to the ancient histories of generals haranguing whole armies, of which I had sometimes doubted.

By hearing him often, I came to distinguish easily between sermons newly compos’d, and those which he had often preach’d in the course of his travels. His delivery of the latter was so improv’d by frequent repetitions that every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turn’d and well plac’d, that, without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleas’d with the discourse; a pleasure of much the same kind with that receiv’d from an excellent piece of musick. This is an advantage itinerant preachers have over those who are stationary, as the latter can not well improve their delivery of a sermon by so many rehearsals.

The more you present on the same topic, the better you are as a presenter. Even if your audience is not” interested in the subject”, it will be “pleased with your discourse”.

You will find Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography here – or you can listen to it on your iPod by downloading it from here.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Presentation traps 11 – the Q and A trap

Have you noticed that when you are under the gun, when a question is directly pointing at your chest, you feel you have to answer something – or lose face! Better give a wrong or an imprecise answer than no answer at all, some think. This is a trap.

To the question, “What is the number of genes in the human genome?”, are many answers.

The man who knows latin abbreviations writes ” ca. 23,000 genes” (ca stands for circa, a latin word meaning about).

The man who reads newspapers and loves maths writes: 20,000+ genes.

The scientist who wrote the Wikipedia entry on the human genome writes: “There is an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 human protein-coding genes. This estimation has been revised down as genome sequence quality and gene finding methods improved.”

The International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, reporting its findings in October 2004, writes: “Consortium researchers have confirmed the existence of 19,599 protein coding genes in the human genome and identified another 2,188 DNA segments that are predicted to be protein-coding genes.”

My grandmother thinks there are many. When pushed to say how many, she says: a few hundreds, I think… less when you get older.”

“IThink” , Therefore I am…. not an Expert!

When asked a question during the Q&A, if the first words that come to your lips are “I think…” STOP RIGHT THERE. You are about to answer an irrelevant question. Experts don’t think they know. Experts know. If you do not recall the exact number, or if the number keeps changing, give a range and explain why the exact number is not available. People will know you are still the expert.

What is the danger of giving the wrong answer? The expert in the audience (there is always one) knows the answer and either publicly shames you by telling the audience what the right answer is, or the expert keeps quiet and writes you off from his or her list of interesting people.

The expert answer contains precise words. Experts do not answer “the number of genes is…”, they say “The number of protein-coding genes is…”.

Experts are up-to-date with their knowledge. They can say “as of today, 19,599 protein-encoding genes have been confirmed.”

The moral of this story is not about my darling grandmother who tries to keep up with the times but has problem remembering what she hears on television. The moral of this story is about the presenter scientist taking Q&A after his oral presentation. The most important thing the presenter has to do after being asked a question that is clearly understood by all (scientist and audience), is to identify whether that question is relevant in the context of the talk. If it is not relevant, the presenter has the right to remain silent. It is a fifth amendment issue. Do not answer questions that might incriminate yourself and make the audience believe you are not an expert when , in fact, you are… but in your field!

Naturally, the “I do not know” answer is always available; It is not my favourite answer, however. The tactic I recommend is to acknowledge the question as an interesting one you wish you had the expertise to answer. But instead of ending there, I would relate that question to something inside your domain of expertise, and answer that other question. For example. If the question asks you to compare the efficiency between solar cells and hydrogen fuels cells, but you are an expert in hydrogen fuel cells only, indicate that you are not a solar cell expert, and offer to BRIEFLY give the increase in efficiency that hydrogen fuel cells have experienced over the last five years.

A last word of advice: there may be a gap between what you consider relevant and what the audience, for lack of knowledge about your field, considers relevant. Some of the questions may indeed become relevant in the next five year – for example questions on industrial availability of the product or technique presented in your proof-of-concept study. To answer such questions, simply encourage the questioner by stating that you are also eager to see your research benefit industry, but mention that the question arrives a little early because this and that (fill in the details) need to be done before.

I end with this quote attributed to Thomas Pynchon:

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers”

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Photo Flickr; Author: Andreas-photography.

Keep what the audience sees in sync with your speech

Take it from me, as a presenter, if you don’t sync, you do not exist. Have you ever wondered why the audience does not pay attention to you, but only has eyes for the beloved PowerPoint slide? Feel like a jealous lover? It’s apple of the eye for PowerPoint and tin ear for you!

When that happens, it is simply because you are not keeping what the audience sees in sync with your speech, in other words, the audience is suffering from a chronic case of divided attention. We, human folks, are not very good at doing two things at once when our senses are pulling us in different directions.

 

The cure to the presentation problem is actually straightforward – and it’s not “Present now and drink later to drown your sorrow!”

1) Guide the eyes to what you describe.

Discourage forward reading and re-reading.

 

Point, circle, color what you describe, remove highlights after description.


Move the pointing object, or ask the audience to track an object moving through the static slide .


2) Take the attention away from the screen when the screen does not support your talk.

Blank the screen (B-Key or black slide).


And finally, move away from your position, change your intonation, stop talking.

Our brain is actively engaged in determining what changes from one moment to another. It pays attention to what changes. Motion of the presenter is perceived at the same level as any change on the screen. Therefore, move from your base position, use gestures. A new voice pitch or added intonation is also perceived as change by the ear. Silence is perceived as change just as effectively.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Image source: Flickr,Author photo 1:  “pedestrian photography”; photo 2: “Colin Purrington”

From Presenter Ghost to Presenter Host

To turn a host into a ghost, just add the letter G. And to turn the presenter host into a presenter ghost, just add a computer and PowerPoint. When you invite other scientists to come and listen to you via the proxy of conference programs, you become a host, and the scientists who turn up for your talk are your guests. Yet, unbeknownst to you, you are sharing the limelight with a formidable co-host whose dream is to turn you into a ghost, a shadow of your own self. This co-host is the computer connected to the towering bright screen overhanging your lilliputian silhouette, a screen that plunges your face into semi darkness as effectively as the sun creates a moon shadow.

As host, you have to keep your giant co-host in its proper place: that of a servant, discreet and supportive. And for that, you have to be seen.

1) Keep the room lights full on, turning them down ONLY when a slide requires darkness for readability (fluorescent marker in protein tags for example). But for that, you will need to lose the dark slide background and go for the classic white background on which black letters stand out better even when the stage is lit. Keeping the lights on reduces the contrast between the screen and you, thus enabling you to stand out more.

2) Everything that moves on the screen attracts attention away from you. Therefore, remove these gratuitous animated gif files that constantly move on the screen, or the loop in looping video clips that mesmerize the audience and remove you from the apple of their eyes.

3) Everything that moves on the stage attracts attention away from the screen. Therefore, do not turn into a pillar of salt. Move, use gestures.

4) Disable your co-host out for at least twenty seconds, with a black slide or a B-Key; and enjoy the renewed eye-contact with the audience while your co-host is blindfolded and muted.

5) Keep constant eye-contact with the audience, but for that you will need to be so well prepared that you know without looking at the screen what appears on it as you click the advance button on your presentation remote. The people in the audience do not look at a host who does not look at them.

6) Vary your voice intonation and volume, they act as audio gestures, re-centering on you the attention of the audience.

7) Reduce the amount of information on each slide. When people have read a slide, having nothing else to read, they have no choice but lay their eyes back on you!

8 ) And for Pete’s sake, do not let the computer thank the audience and announce the Q&A. You are the host, aren’t you!!!

9) Do not stand behind the lectern. You want your whole body to be seen, not just a truncated version of you. Wear a wireless mike and use a presentation remote to be able to move away from your computer.

10) Be pleasant to look at :), not an disheveled eye sore.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Image source: Flickr. R Motti. XXVII

SMILE

The best ice breaker that I know of is not “a” smile, but “THE” smile.

Not the cheshire cat grin, but the HAPPY smile born out of the sincere happiness of being able to communicate something of value to your audience

Not the smile constantly deformed by words attempting to make their way through horizontally stretched lips, but the SILENT smile unencumbered by words

Not the smile that doesn’t even bring a sparkle in your eyes, but the GLOWING smile that radiates from your lips and touches your eyes

Not the stressed smile you put on by necessity, but the RELAXED smile from a relaxed face.

Such a smile touches your audience; it moves people’s attitude towards you from neutral to positive.

If you find it hard to smile, if audience pressure depresses your levator and zygomaticus muscles, take heart. Look at that smiling face in the audience and let it warm you and vaporise your anxiety. The great scientist and philosopher Pascal found that out. And never mind the number of muscles required to smile (13**), because what matters is the source of the signal used to trigger your smile: Your heart, a heart who cares about the people in the audience, a heart filled with gladness because the people in the room have accepted your invitation to come and listen to you. They are your guests, you are their host. SMILE :)

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Imager Flickr; Author Didier-lq

027 Speech first slides second

Dr Rao Machiraju, in the final part of the interview, suggests a provocative way to prepare a scientific talk…. the augmented speech. Be ready for Rao’s final one liner which is so good,  it should be carved in stone, or at least printed on a T-Shirt!

Image Flickr; Author Smilla4

What can the scientist who presents learn from Benjamin Franklin

Here is a passage of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, where he gives advice on how to handle people who contradict you. This is particularly applicable to situations you may encounter during your Q&A, or even in scientific discussions with other scientists. Brilliant advice, as you will discover! You may be unfamiliar with the word “Junto“: It represents a political group or faction. Notice how closely Franklin’s argument mirrors Pascal’s argument. It may well be that Benjamin Franklin was familiar with Pascal’s writings. He was living in Paris while writing this part of his autobiography. Pascal does not say what he observed as the consequence of following his own recommendations; fortunately for us, Benjamin Franklin does!

I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

Image Flickr; Author Wallyq

026 Handling unfriendly questions and comments

In this podcast (part two of the interview) Dr Rao Machiraju, CEO of REQALL and past colleague from the Apple days when we both worked in Apple’s Advanced Technology Group (ATG), shares with us his wisdom on how to deal with troublesome situations in Q&As, such as comments that could be perceived as aggressive, or downright hostile at times. This is a must listen-to for those who have not been there… yet!

Image Source Flickr; Author Zcopley

What can the scientist who presents learn from Antoine de St Exupery

“It seems that perfection is reached, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

(Terre Des Hommes, Chapter 4)

This is so applicable to scientific presentations. The starting point of a presentation is usually the scientific paper. Selection of the contents of the presentation is, for most, a subtractive process, the result of chiseling out and polishing of material until it looks deceptively natural, having “the elemental purity of the contours of a shoulder or a breast”, writes St Exupery.

The presenter knows that naturalness has come to a slide when side details that clothe the basic idea have been removed; when diagrams, transmuted from high density lead to light density aluminum, still conduct information to our resistive brains; when the eye and the ear, in total harmony, never divorce or separate because the visual life of any projected object, as it makes its way to our brain, never extends beyond its spoken life. Once the visual’s verbal amplification comes to an end, the clarity of the visual content is such that lingering on the visual is not required unless the presenter encourages further contemplation to give nascent ideas time to germinate.

What gives an outline that natural shape? It is the title of your talk. Let its invisible hand guide your chisel.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Source Flickr. Author bmhkim

025 Alternative Q & A techniques

I are delighted to feature a new guest on our podcast: Dr Rao Machiraju. Rao and I belonged to Apple’s Advanced Technology Lab in Cupertino California. He now heads his own company, REQALL, working on a fascinating product: memory recall enhancement tools. Rao is a master in the art of presenting. Today, he reveals his favorite ways to handle questions during the Q&A that follows a talk.  They depart from the conventional ways, as you will soon hear.

Photo Flickr. Author Scion Cho.

Presentation Traps 10 – The room trap

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Doomsday!

Your phone rings. The receptionist tells you the Japanese visitors have arrived. You take the elevator down five floors to the ground floor where the two meeting rooms are. Many people use them, and the furniture frequently gets changed to fit the requirements. You asked for a simple U-Shape table arrangement to accommodate 8 Japanese visitors in the “Small 1” meeting room. As you welcome the visitors, you are given a handwritten note from Suzan, the facilities manager, informing you that the room has been changed due to unforeseen circumstances and that you are now presenting in the “Big 1” – the tables have been arranged in U-Shape as requested.

The only problem is that the “Big 1” is a room for fifty people. The visitors come in and fill in half of the left side of the U-Shape – the side exactly facing the lectern… but perpendicularly. All heads turn right to face you, twisting necks; People bend their torso or move chairs back and forth to get a better view of you. Furthermore, last night you downloaded your presentation in the computer of the “Small 1” meeting room -and your USB drive containing your presentation is five floors up.

The “Small 1” room has a simple audio out cable that fits into the presentation computer and is always on. The “Big 1” has an audio mixer with multiple BNCs,mini stereo Din, XLRs and Mike jacks. The mixer is turned off, you need computer audio out, and the labels on the mixer are totally cryptic. On top of the lectern hiding the presentation computer, is a brief note that suddenly explains why the “Small 1” is taken and why the mixer is turned off: the room’s computer has been removed for repair.You then realize that you had assumed that each room would have a working computer and therefore failed to tell Suzan that you needed one.

As you are wondering what to do, the maintenance man appears with a tall ladder with the intent to change a broken light bulb. He had been told the day before that the room was not occupied since the computer was down. All the Japanese heads turn towards him, then back to you… You’ve reached bottom, or so you think.

A drop of water falls on your head. You look up. All Japanese heads look up,  and everybody discovers at the same time the fresh water stain probably caused by a leak in the lavatories upstairs. You return your eyes down to your guests, you raise your hand to apologize, and in the process knock down an empty stainless steel jug from which a large cockroach escapes, flying out and landing on the chair occupied by the head of the Japanese delegation. You swear. They hear you. Now, you have really reached rock bottom.

OK, so maybe I overdid it, but a presentation room is a dangerous place, full of potential unsuspected problems. Can the presenter prevent them all? No, but the presenter can be prepared for them all. What went wrong?

1) Never assume anything when it comes to the presentation room.

2) Always have a copy of your presentation with you, on you.

3) Rehearse in the presentation room the day of the event.

3) Be ready to do an impromptu presentation that does not rely on the computer (a flip chart will do).

4) Never put the blame on anyone because something goes wrong. You will be regarded as an incompetent person trying to discharge his/her responsibilities on others.

5) Keep control of your mouth and avoid foul language – whatever the circumstances.

This said, you don’t need to walk around with a large can of insecticide deforming your bulging trouser pocket… just in case. And when the man with the ladder comes, don’t ignore him. Recognize his presence, and ask him if he would not mind getting an umbrella, and holding it upside down above the leak while on the ladder, to avoid you being wet during your talk. By that I mean, think on your feet, and weave the circumstances in the tapestry of your talk.

Photo source: Flickr, Author Mek22.

Presentation traps 9 – the rehearsal traps

Try and find out what is wrong with the five situations described below.

1) Sylvia is in the University library facing the screen of her laptop. She came here to have a chance to be quiet and rehearse an important upcoming presentation. She methodically looks at each slide, and silently (she does not want to disturb her neighbors) rehearses what she will say.

One does not rehearse silently. You need to activate the pathway between your brain and your speaking apparatus, open wide a channel between your inaudible thoughts and your audible voice. For that, you need to rehearse at full volume, using the full range of expressive capabilities offered by your vocal chords. A library is not the best place to do that. Finally sitting is not the ideal position for rehearsing. Standing is.

2) Prasad is using the notes section of his PowerPoint presentation and writes down the talk he intends to give. To make sure he will not spend too much time speaking, he sets himself a target of a maximum note length for each slide. Then, sitting in front of his computer, he rehearses by reading the notes aloud, memorizing as much as he can in the process.

Only radio and TV professionals know how to write for the ear. Unless you are trained in the arts of oral communications, memorizing such written notes will make your speech sound unnatural. The audience knows that people don’t speak like that. Your words will be too complex, your sentences too long, etc. Finally, what dictates the time one spends on a slide is not defined by the size of the note section, but by the amount of information displayed on the slide. And remember point 1: stand up to rehearse.

3) Xiao Hong is standing a few meters away from her computer screen looking straight at it. She has entered the slide show mode and starting with the title slide, rehearses aloud keeping eye contact with the screen, moving from one slide to the next using her favorite presentation remote.

This looks like the perfect picture. What could possibly wrong with it? You should not rehearse while looking at the screen but looking away from the screen as if facing the audience. Rehearsing this way forces you to remember what is on the projection screen without having to depend on it. Each time you click, you must know WITHOUT LOOKING what will be on the screen at that time. If you constantly look at the screen, you will become dependent on it , and your transitions from one slide to another will be the unpolished “And here”,  “Next”, “On this slide”, “so, moving on…”, “And now”.

4) Tomi has rehearsed his presentation six times, from start to finish. He wishes he could rehearse a few more times but he has no more time. He is now convinced that whatever happens, he could not possibly do a better job. He hopes the Q&A won’t be too tough because that’s one thing, unfortunately, one cannot rehearse!

Similarly, you may think this is also ideal.  But actually, you can deliver an even better presentation by rehearsing some parts of your presentation more than others, like singers do. It is not necessary to rehearse the middle of your presentation as often as a) its beginning, b) its end, and c) the places when you transition from one slide to the next. Furthermore, a Q&A requires rehearsal, just as much as the presentation requires it. For that you need a mock audience to come up with unpredictable questions. As to the predictable questions, you need only look at each slide and ask yourself, what could they possibly ask me based on what they see here. Check everything: the sources of the data or of the visual (if it is not yours), the graphs, their axis, the boundary values, etc.

5) Kim is as ready as can be: many rehearsals, aloud, standing up and facing a mirror, perfect mastery of the presentation remote, perfect knowledge of which slide comes next even before it appears on the screen, perfect transitions. And all this without having to bother anyone!

You should bother more than one person and conduct at least one or two mock rehearsals in front of a small audience of people who are not familiar with the topic of your talk. That way, you can practice your warming smile without having to fake one. But more importantly, you can receive the feedback regarding the parts that people did not understand, and the parts that felt too long – AND modify your speech or/and your slides based on the feedback. Remember to also include a Q&A as part of the rehearsal.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Presentation traps 8 – the knowledge trap

“And here, you see…” These are the famous words that ring hollow to the blind. But the lack of knowledge leaves us just as blind – a temporary type of blindness, assuredly, but blindness nevertheless. For knowledge only lights up the world of the expert rambling along, finger pointing to familiar shapes on the laptop screen, and occasionally on the projector screen (the one everybody sees) whilst most of us in the audience, eyes stretched in front of us, grope in the dark and clutch at shadows.

The trap is common: the presenter expects all of us in the audience to be experts. We feel like the little Marys and Johnnys in primary school reading the story of the house cat. “The cat ate a mouse”, the story goes. “The rodent was fat.” At this precise moment, we all got the idea that the cat was a rodent – after all, it just ate a mouse!  The world has not changed that much for the scientist since primary school; the story just got a little more complex. “The felis catus ate a murine commensal. The mus musculus’s BMI exceeded that of a standard murinae.” At least scientists won’t mistake the mus musculus for a felis catus… or will they?

My advice to you is to look at the contents of ALL your slides from the point of view of ALL the people the title of your talk attracted. Who are they? What do they want from you? The answer is not a simple “they want to know about my contribution.” To know what they want, look at your title. Each search keyword in your title acts as a magnet attracting the expert AND the non-expert. For each keyword, the audience expects you to give new information AND background information. Redo and simplify your slides to remove the knowledge gap between you and the non-experts. And move your tough expert slides after your conclusion slide, ready to answer the experts’ questions during your Q&A.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Image flickr; Author Dnudson

The Acknowledgment Slide

If you are like most scientists, chances are that you will place the acknowledgment slide at the end of your presentation. But if you watch one of the Hollywood award events, or attend a Nobel laureate award presentation, chances are you will hear the acknowledgments at the very beginning of the acceptance speech. Why? Because the people you recognize as being part of your success are in the room, and if you fail to mention them as in “and others too many to mention”, chances are that the ones who are in the “too many” category will be miffed or downright offended.

In a scientific talk, the presenter acknowledges 1) the corporations which funded the research (they may have a representative in the room) and 2) the individuals who had a large part to play in the success of the research (their friends may be in the room). But where should the acknowledgments be? At the beginning or at the end of the presentation? On the title slide or on their own acknowledgment slide? And how long is the list of people/organizations recognized?

Let’s start with the first question: Where does one put the acknowledgment slide?

If you were to place it at the end, as in the scrolling credits of any movie, chances are the audience will have switched off or left the room by the time the credits roll; Or chances are you will go over time in your presentation and will have to skip the acknowledgment slide. Whichever way you look at it, the perspective is bleak. Take a clue from Hollywood. The great actors demand that their names be displayed AT THE BEGINNING of the movie for a duration and a font size that match their most excellent performance (and acting fee). Fortunately, your faceless research sponsors do not demand such status. And they will be quite happy to let you mention them through the use of a Logo – so you don’t have to remember their last name. Your collaborators, however, or those who helped you hit the mark, have a name, and a face. So you have a choice: use one or the other – but not both – and don’t add an aureole around your bosses’ heads, or add glow around their names. Acknowledgments are not an ego building or a sanctification thing. They serve two functions: 1) recognize and honor the work of your collaborators, and 2) establish credibility in you and your work. Think of it this way: why should prestigious donors partake of their money or the taxpayers’ money to fund you and your work if both you and your work are not worth it!

But how long is the list?

If you are like me, you love yet you hate these song request radio programs where popular songs are played only after a long list of thanks to the caring husband, the faultless children, the exquisite grandparents, the perfect neighbors, the pet parakeet, and the fire department and rescue squad – notwithstanding the radio host in the studio, the audio technician in the soundproof room, and the janitor  who cleans up the ashtrays and turns off the lights. Therefore, be brief and instead of mentioning individual names, use collective names to mention “many people” as in “our team”, or “our department”. A photo of the team flashed briefly does wonders to establish you as a team player, and an honest and fair scientist. Those mentioned by name in writing on the title slide are the co-authors of the paper you are presenting – and only them.

So where exactly do you place the acknowledgments?

Either with Logos and Names on the title slide, which tends to stay on the screen for a while at the beginning of the talk, or briefly and using photos, on the slide that follows the title slide.

Oh, and by the way… The BIG THANK YOU slide… Get rid of it! Don’t let the computer take over. You are the presenter.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

 

Photos: Flickr. Authors: image on top- Mangee

Nothing reveals personal expertise better than questions; therefore,…

Image source: Flickr; Author :Tintin44

They were certain that their expertise would be seen through the high density of information on their slides. They were certain that removing an ounce of proof would be like losing a pound of flesh – a tragedy of Shakespearian dimension. They were certain that confidence displayed would translate into expertise perceived. But their certainties were rational myths.

Slides never proved expertise. 1) Slides prepared by an expert may be presented by a non-expert. 2) Junior scientists not yet familiar with a field of research tend to densely pack facts and points on slides so as not to forget (mentioning) them. The more a presentation looks like a condensed version of a paper (for example by keeping the reference to figures used, or by packing on one slide all the visuals illustrating a point), the more the presenter may reveal lack of expertise. Why? An expert’s understanding of a problem is such that, what is principal claim, what is central proof, and what is key impact, are easily identified. An expert can easily unpack a slide; A non-expert can’t.

Confidence never proved expertise. 1) Multiple rehearsals give most presenters a higher level of confidence which leads to a smoother delivery – regardless on their level of expertise in the presented topic. 2) Over-confidence often marks ignorance. You only know that you don’t know when you know enough. Superficial knowledge may give you undue confidence. 3) Lack of scientific expertise cannot be inferred from the nervousness of a presenter.

Correct answers to unprepared questions prove personal expertise. It is through the Q&A following a slide presentation that the  presenter reveals the extent of his or her expertise. The unpredictability of questions and the presence of other experts in attendance guarantee it – for indeed, it takes an expert to identify an expert.

In conclusion, do not try to establish your expertise through packed slides. Let it shine during the Q&A session. But for that, you need to make sure that you have time left to answer questions! Indeed, finish slightly early so that you have more Q&A time. And when one asks a question, do not answer at length, thus wasting the opportunity to be asked more expertise-revealing questions, and to identify other scientists interested in your work.

Oh, and one last thing… An expert never answers a question with “I think”. An experts knows.

I Think, Therefore I Am…. Not an Expert (non-existentialist ending to the famous René Descartes quote)

By Jean-luc Lebrun

 

025 Speech Synthesis for the ESL Presenter

Flickr Image. Author: fatboyke (Luc)

Do you feel that speaking English is like driving your car on the left side of the road when you are used to driving it on the right? Is your spoken English bad because you are slowed down by  researchers from your own country who insist you speak to them in your own language? Do you want to slow down the aging process that is taking you downhill so that you can master English before your very own neurons tell you it’s too late? Does the road towards fluent spoken English seem endless and tortuous without a native English teacher by your side?Are you slowed down by the online dictionaries that speak one word when you want a full sentence? Can text-to-speech effectively replace a real English (or French) voice?

The ESL scientist who presents will definitely enjoy this podcast as it reveals the secrets of the incredible progress made in the naturalness in computer speech, as explained by one of its long time researcher and developer, Dr Kim Silverman of Apple Computer. But it does not stop there. Dr Silverman also explains how to use speech synthesis to improve the quality of your oral presentation. Don’t miss this podcast if you are an ESL scientist!

By Jean-Luc Lebrun

 

Look at things as if for the first time

Image Flickr. Author Jeep Novak!

While reading the great little book “Advice for a young investigator” by Santiago Ramon y Cajol, Nobel laureate 1906, I stumbled upon a quote the author attributed to another Spaniard, Perez de Ayala: “Look at things as if for the first time”. Somehow, this quote sent me back in thought inside the conference room where the scientist presents. There sits an audience looking at a slide for the first time. The presenter, however, may have been looking at it more than ten times, during its creation, revision, rehearsal, and presentation. Nothing is new. It is simply a slide to explain – in its broad lines.

The audience is puzzled. Why does figure A not quite overlap figure B? The title claims both findings agree… Is the presenter making things look better than they are to force conviction? Naturally, the presenter knows that the reason for the slight discrepancy is noise in the data; therefore, the conclusions stated in the slide title stand firm. But the audience is not told. Had the presenter looked at things as if for the first time while rehearsing, had the presenter probed every inch of the slide for all the possible questions the visuals could raise among the non-experts in the audience, such discrepancies would have been highlighted and explained during the talk. Naturally, that requires time, and less can be presented. But less is more. What the presenter buys in exchange for the loss of slides is credibility and authority.

My advice to the scientist who presents is to look at each slide as if for the first time while rehearsing, and let that rehearsal time be the presentation time. I would trade off time for clarity and authority, any time, at all times 🙂

By Jean-Luc Lebrun