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

Should one apologise in front of the audience? After all, the presenter is hosting scientists to the talk, and a host shows great respect towards his or her guests. Pascal, the great philosopher and scientist, has a few insights worth sharing.

(Thought 58) “It is not appropriate to say ‘I am sorry; pardon me.’ Had you not attracted my attention with such words, I would never have realised you had done something wrong. You say ‘With all due respect…’; Your contrite pretence is bad.”

I have encountered a number of situations where the presenter apologised to the audience for no good reason.

Declarations at the start of your talk such as “I apologise for my strong accent”, “I am sorry; I am a little nervous”, “I’m sorry; I hope you all can see me because I am so short;” all focus the attention of the audience on what you perceive as your own weakness. People may have noticed but not really paid attention, had you not made such declarations.

Declarations during your talk such as “I’m sorry I don’t have time to explain this slide in detail”, “I’m sorry, I have been a little long on this slide”, are just as inexcusable. The audience would be right to be upset; you should have controlled your time better; it is expected of all good presenters.

Declarations after your talk, during the Q&A, such as answers starting with the words

1) “I’m sorry, I haven’t been clear,” thus attributing to yourself the blame of the questioner’s confusion or inability to understand. Do not blame yourself. The questioner may have been temporarily distracted during your talk, or may have arrived late and missed the slide where you presented the information requested. If you apologise, you admit responsibility.

2) “With all due respect”, thus announcing that you are going to be disrespectful and formally disagree using combative words. The host shows respect to the guests by accepting their statements as true from their point of view (doing otherwise is publicly calling the questioner a liar). The host then proceeds to demonstrate that there is a different point of view sustained by much hard scientific evidence gathered over months or years of quality research.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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

004 Keeping to time

Saved by the bell? Not the presenter.  You may be cut off mid-sentence by the chairperson if you exceed the given presentation time . Your punch line  may never be heard. Where in your presentation are you most likely to drift? And how do you prevent drifting? Find out from our podcast experts, Dr Sinclair and Dr Curry.

The “B” key or the Black slide

B key or Black Slide video

Did you know that, while presenting your PowerPoint of Keynote presentation, you can press the letter “B” on your keyboard (or the little grey square on your presentation remote) and watch a miracle take place. At that precise moment, you, the cinderella-like presenter, turn into a beautiful princess or handsome prince depending on your gender. You, the presenter ghost lurking in the shadows surrounding the lectern, turn into a presenter host. You are finally rediscovered by an audience mesmerized  by the brightness of the screen and tranquilized by the darkness of the room. All eyes, now released from their hypnotic trance, renew contact with the most significant component of human-centered (not human-assisted) communications: YOU, the presenter.

How long should the screen remain blank?

At least 20 seconds. Short “B” keys do not work. To the audience,  it looks as though the screen is flashing on and off. People need time to focus on you. Long “B” keys, however,  may lead to rambling comments that tire your audience and make it lose the focus of your talk.

How does one get out of a “B” key?

Simply press the “B” key again. The same slide returns to the screen. Pressing the “N” key, the enter , the right arrow, or the return key sends you to the next slide but not cleanly. The slide you exit from is still shown a few milliseconds, long enough for the audience to see it.

When should presenters use a “B ” key?

1) When moving to another place on the platform or the podium also means crossing the projector’s light beam. Presenters may want to move centre stage to engage the audience, or to move from one end of the stage to the other where the presentation computer is because they need access to the keyboard. In either case, it often means getting into the path of the projected beam. The “B” key turns it off temporarily.

2) When they want the audience to focus on them, either to hear a personal story devoid of slide support, or to pause in order to summarize and introduce the next layer of information ON THE SAME SLIDE.

Why did you capitalize the letter “ON THE SAME SLIDE”?

Using the “B” key presents a small problem: when you press it again, instead of moving to the next slide of your presentation, PowerPoint remains on the same slide. If you intend to blank the screen right before you transition to the next slide/segment of your presentation, it is better to replace the “B” key with a Black slide.

The black slide differs from the “B” key because it is a permanent slide. You cannot bypass a black slide, but you can always decide not to press the “B” key if you are out of time. Other than that, the effect of a black slide is exactly similar to that of a “B” key. It effectively turns off the light from the projector without shutting it down or having to mute the video using the projector remote control.

003 The chairperson and the presenter

What is the relationship between a chairperson and a presenter? What can the presenter expect from a chairperson?

Find out from a chairperson, Dr Mark Sinclair.

002David Peebles’ argument

Depth of Conviction counts more than height of logic, and enthusiasm is worth more than knowledge.

This quote attributed to David Peebles may not seem to apply to the scientist who presents. After all, Science is all logic and knowledge. The enthusiastic exclamation mark always rises someone’s eyebrows when it appears in a scientific paper, and the deep seated down to earth conviction is rarely born from height of logic.

Our two guests on this second podcast give their opinion.

Presentation traps 5 – the title trap

Image source: Flickr, Author: Docman

Time after time, presenters repeat the same mistake: the title slide is on the screen behind them, they turn towards the screen, read the title, and possibly also read their name (why stop now), then immediately move on to the next slide.

Dear presenter (you don’t mind if I call you dear, do you, for I really care for you), WHY DO YOU DO THAT?

The audience can read; the chairperson can read and has probably already read aloud your name and title anyway; and I have no doubt the audience already know you can read 🙂

The title is there, on the screen, simply because it is also on the conference program, and the participants eager to attend your talk want to make sure they are in the right room when they come in. The title is not meant to be read: it is meant to be explained, to be paraphrased, to be demystified. To prepare for that, simply picture yourself having to explain your title to someone who is not quite an expert. Listen to him or her ask: “So what does it mean?”. That is what you tell the audience while your title slide is displayed. There is no need to even look once at the screen. You want total eye contact with your audience during the whole time your title slide is on the screen.

No reader ever spends much time on the title page of a book, so why should the presenter spend more time on the title slide than it takes to read it? You do not need to spend more than 30 – 45 seconds on the slide, but you definitely cannot spend less than 5 seconds. People in the audience need to reset their attention on you and on your topic as they move from one presenter to another, and that takes time. They need time to look at you, absorb you, move from a neutral to a positive attitude and like you (don’t push it though, they don’t need to love you 🙂 ) and know a little more about your title than its dry condensed word-encoded meaning. Some, usually half of your audience, the non experts, need a little help from you to increase or validate their understanding of your title. They need time to see who else is working on your research or who else is sponsoring you to trust you as an authority on your topic.

In summary,

Your  Title Slide – don’t face it, don’t read it, and don’t rush it.

And you’ll be –          more affable, more audible, more credible, and more understandable.

By Jean-luc Lebrun


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

Are you frightened to speak because you have an accent or a speech impediment? Consider Churchill’s problem, as described by his granddaughter Celia Sandys in the book “We shall not fail”.

“Churchill had to overcome a speech impediment that might have silenced many prospective public speakers.[…] Churchill spent countless hours trying to get his tongue around sentences featuring the dreaded letter s. […] Fortunately, he did not entirely succeed and the defect became his oral signature”

What struck me in that last sentence was the word fortunately. We think that our accent should be completely eradicated, but it the end, it reflects who we are, and testifies to our origins. I have a French accent and will always have it. It is not so strong that people can’t understand me. Sometimes, I even “turn it on” and slightly increase it because people find it charming.  Accent is good. It provides identity, and even charm. But if your accent is heavy, if it gets in the way of people understanding you, like Churchill, you have no choice but to practice and practice some more to lessen your accent. I often observe that researchers with a strong accent tend to speak their native language in their research lab, as well as watch TV programs and read newspapers in their native language. This prevents them from making rapid progress in their spoken English. Practice reshapes your mouth, lips, and jaws to make your foreign sounding English words sound English. Correcting an accent is done through speaking, and comparing your sounds with those of a native English speaker. Do not be fooled by the fact that your lab colleagues understand you. They have had months or years to get used to your accent. The audience you will face during your presentation will have had no time to get used to your accent.

“He began pacing about. Inspiration came and he began dictating, voice rising and falling, hands gesturing as if making the actual speech.”

Rehearsing your talk is never done silently in front of a computer screen. I witnessed ex-Apple Chairman, John Sculley, rehearse a talk in his Cupertino office. He was speaking aloud, gesturing, walking back in forth, stopping now and then only to press the spacebar of his Mac keyboard to go to the next slide. Words come to you in action. Speaking aloud with intonation and gestures helps you anchor your words to your body movements and convey your conviction and your passion. Rehearsing aloud, you create a path for the words to travel from your mind to your lips. Later, once the path is set, the same words will easily return and travel on the same path back to your lips.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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

In her book We Shall Not Fail the granddaughter of Churchill comments on her grandpa’s speaking skills. Here are sentences that are of immediate value to the scientist who presents.

“[…]strike when the voice or pen is hot.”

If you have just published a paper, or  better, before you submit it for publication, find any opportunity to present its contents… to your peers, to your group. Don’t wait for the invitation, arrange the talk. Your pen is still hot, may be your paper has reached the final draft stage, and you want feedback. Everything is still fresh in your mind. It is by presenting that one becomes a better presenter.

“The best speakers share a common trait. […]. They never end a speech without asking their audience to rise to an occasion or to meet a challenge.”

Read President Obama’s last sentences of the inaugural address, you’ll find a call to action. But what is the call to action for a scientist? What occasion? What challenge? The occasion of partnering with you. The occasion of commenting on your work. The occasion of financing your work or extending the research scope. The challenge of removing the limitations you faced. The challenge to prove you wrong 🙂 or confirm your findings.

“Becoming a strong speaker, however, is not something to be learned from a book. Leaders need role models.”

Who is your role model? Who presents really well? Find out why. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Ghandi said that. Let their style inspire you. It does not need to be a nobel prize winner. Churchill was inspired by Bourke Cochran, a charismatic Irish American democrat, whose Google hits score less than 600 compared to Churchill’s 24.6 million!

“[Churchill’s] central tenet was simple and applies to nearly all forms of business as well as political communications: find the strongest reason in an argument and marshal all the available facts behind it.”

This also applies to scientific communications. The effect of a drug overdose is similar to that of an overdose of facts and slides during a scientific talk. The audience is in stupor. Focus on only making one point per slide. Do not present all the possible graphs that help you make that point. Use the most convincing one, and be ready to defend it and explain it in the most minute detail – if need be.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

“Society still cherishes its gifted speakers”

Here is a link to the… “Public Speaking Today” manual written by Dr. Frank Lockwood (U. Arizona), and Clarence Thorpe (U. Oregon).  Time stood still on the subject of public speaking. “Today” in 1922 is today in 2009. Judge for yourself.

 " Society still cherishes its gifted speakers;
and every national crisis gives added proof of their value.
[...]In times of great national danger and excitement it is almost
necessary to reach the people thus, by direct appeal through the
eloquent voices of trusted leaders. Great reforms are seldom
carried through without the aid of impassioned orators.[...]
There is no surer or simpler way to effect this change from cold
knowledge to urgent conviction and flaming action than
through the living personality of the orator. But the speech
can be no greater than the speaker; eloquence is chiefly char-
acter put into words and deeds."

Getting your project proposal accepted and funded is as much a matter of scientific excellence as one of character and of attitude towards your audience. Later on in the manual Dr. Lockwood defines that attitude.

The men who have most constantly won their way into the
hearts of audiences have been the men who have shown genuine
interest in the people. They have desired to be on good terms
with their listeners, and they have made this plain in the
frankest and most unmistakable ways.

So smiling at the beginning of your presentation is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Showing a genuine interest in your audience cannot be done unless you have prepared your talk with your audience in mind. What interests the people attending your talk? Are you tailoring your talk to deliver what they need or do you hope one size (your size) fits all? When difficult questions come during the Q&A, do you answer in a way that demonstrates you wish to remain in good terms with the questioner? The audience hears the depth of your science in your assured voice, but does it also hear the whisper of your heart? 🙂

By Jean-luc Lebrun

001What does the audience remember

What do people in the audience remember once your presentation is over? The answer may surprise you! Our two guests, Dr. Mark Sinclair and Dr. Alastair Curry share their experience. Dr. Sinclair suggests that the presenter, not just the audience, may also be given something to remember. Early in his career, one insightful question from a friendly questioner led to a breakthrough in his research. Now is your chance to be my next guest on this podcast by adding your comments. Here are my questions to you.

What do you usually remember two days after a scientific talk?

Which talks where particularly memorable to you? Why?

Do you agree with Dr Sinclair’s statement that the presentations “that don’t take you to the [presenter’s] paper, they fade away; they’re gone […] in just a day or two”?

My Podcast Alley feed! {pca-20707d74f1a9238af9d0cea5685c6d5f}