Learning about your audience from where people sit

I want to sit as near to the stage as possible when I watch an opera or  a broadway show or the newest show at the Cirque du Soleil. Naturally, everyone want to sit there, so the most expensive seats are the front seats. You hear better, see better, and feel closer to the actors.

Now where do you sit in a movie theater? If you are like me, you sit in the center of the middle row, but if your intent is not to watch the movie, you may possibly sit in the back row. The back row is more secluded, whereas immersion into the story is better at the center in the middle rows where there is no need to get up as people fill the row.

Where do you sit in a restaurant? Again, depending on your purpose, and the restaurant location you may prefer a private alcove or sit at a window table from where to admire the beautiful landscape or the passerby.

Where do you sit in church? Late comer, not sure you want to be there? At the back, of course. Prideful today or filled with zeal and angelic fire? Front row, same as the preacher.

Note that where you wish to sit reflects your need and your intent. But it also reflects the quality of the “performer”. Where do you sit in a breakout room when you attend a scientific talk?  Let me guess… At the back or in the aisles, ready to make a fast exit should the presenter not meet your expectations and bore you or flummox you with jargon-laden text heavy slides. However, if the topic is of great interest to you, or if you know the presenter is of the captivating sort, you will probably sit in one of the front rows.

The presenter learns much from observing where the audience sits. Who to network with (front rows) – who to win over with a great start so that they do not make a run for the exit door in the first three minutes (aisle rows) – who to ignore because they just came to find a place to rest or to busy themselves with matters unrelated to the talk (back rows).

 

empty-seats

Flickr – Benson Kua . Empty seats

The perfect presentation start: Make your work relevant to the audience

I love watching Ted Talks. I often analyse them with the scientists who attend the scientific presentation class. One thing TED presenters do extremely well is to bring in the audience into their world at the beginning of their talk. Joe Landolina, in an excellent presentation on his wound-healing invention, starts with the following words: “I want you guys to imagine that you are a soldier running through the battlefield. Now you are shot in the leg by a bullet severing your femoral artery. Now this is extremely traumatic and can kill you in less than three minutes.” Behind him on the gigantic screen is the picture of soldiers walking away at sunset, followed by the image of a soldier on the ground with a leg wound. The images help your imagination. You are the first person witness to a traumatic life-threatening event.

I can hear some of you scientists already objecting! “Our scientific work is not traumatic. We rarely get to use emotions to pull in the audience into our topic.” Yet the presentation is about a polymeric gel that temporarily binds with the extracellular matrix scaffolding to help seal and vascularize a wound. The presentation includes analogies (forest canopy, etc.) and an animation to bridge the knowledge gap on the extracellular matrix. In this case, bringing the audience into the talk was through the application of the gel the scientist created. But you could bring the audience in through the context of your work.

I remember a presentation which took place on June 13 2016, the day England decided to quit the European Community – Brexit day. The presentation was about the impact of  political uncertainty on mergers and acquisitions. Instead of relating the political uncertainly to Brexit, the presenter talked about the 2017 US elections – forgetting all about the traumatic event that happened that day! I also remember that other presentation on Fluorescent GFP tag the very day after its inventor, Roger Tsien, the nobel laureate, passed away. The presenter made no mention of the fact!

Finding a relationship between your topic and what is in the eye of the media is one of the surest way to interest your audience and make your topic relevant.

To conclude: You want attention? Make your topic as close as possible to common concerns.

 

 

The Five Cs of Mike McCurry

WARNING: THIS IS AN OPINION PIECE.

Our former Press Secretary Mike McCurry was interviewed by Tom Fox of the Washington Post on “good communication and its importance for good leadership.” He described effective communicators in 5 nouns starting with “C”: Credibility, Candor, Clarity, Compassion, and Commitment. These five Cs also apply to scientific communications and scientists.

Credibility. Mike McCurry uses three adjectives to qualify credible communicators (as opposed to spin doctors): “authentic”, “straight-shooter”, and “factual”. Factual and authentic scientists have to deal with spin doctors. Spin doctors are not scientists. Under the thin disguise of pseudo-science, they promote their wares to a population eager for credible scientific solutions to their daily problems. Confident, straight-shooting spin doctors are vocal and credited, while tergiversating opinion-in-holster scientists are mute and discredited. The quack opinions of spin doctors are hash-tagged and re-twitted, while the scholarly papers of scientists are cited in circulation-limited scientific journals read by a precious few.

Candor. Scientists don’t lack candor. They are quite willing to state the limitations of their work as proof of their intellectual honesty. But candor outside the ivory tower of research can be crippling. Why interface with the world when, like Voltaire’s Candide character, it is so much easier to quietly work in the hanging gardens of science and grow tomorrow’s uncertainties.

Clarity. If only clarity were objective, for all to see through the eyes of the beholding scientists. Alas, what is clear to a few is unclear to many, and the vision-impaired public is walking with a white stick in a world of clairvoyant scientists. No amount of lasik surgery is going to fix the problem. Only scientists can correct public vision, and for that they have to understand that they need to communicate simply, and share their science in words all can understand.

Compassion. Medical Doctors are compassionate. They took the hippocratic oath. “I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.”  Is compassion compatible with science?  Is compassion an opinion? What oath have scientists taken? Have some taken instead an hypocrite oath for the good of their science towards which they will do no harm?

Commitment. Yes, it is up to the granting agencies: Will they continue to show their commitment to science? But it is also up to the scientists. Will they get out of their Science parks, their Science labs, and show commitment towards public issues? Or will they ultimately turn into the Essenes of Science burying their precious papers in jars of clay?

Having said my piece, I am honored to be the friend of many scientists who are credible, candid, clear, compassionate, and committed. I just wished there were more of them :)

By Jean-luc lebrun

Source Flickr, h.koppdelaney, Helper B-4

 

The perfect presentation start: No smalltalk

The play by Bernard Shaw “Heartbreak House” gives me the opportunity to make a point that separates scientific presentations from others. In the play, a man comes inside the home of the owner and introduces himself so: “Excuse my intruding in this fashion, but there’s no knocker on the door and the bell does not seem to ring.” To which the owner replies: “Why should there be a knocker, why should the bell ring: the door is open!” 

Flickr. gr0uch0
Continue reading “The perfect presentation start: No smalltalk”

Presentation preliminaries: Create a good impression

Source Flickr; Author Neovain

Your presentation is on day 2 of the conference, afternoon session. You follow the recommendations made in the posts in this blog, and you give a beaming smile to the audience right before the start of your presentation. Yet you notice that few return the smile, even though, in theory at least, the participants’ mirroring neurons should be firing by now and trigger the pulling of the zygomaticus muscles to lift up mouth corners everywhere in the room. You followed the instructions by the book, and it did not work!!! What went wrong? Continue reading “Presentation preliminaries: Create a good impression”

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”

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)”

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

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

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

 

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

 

Effective Variant on the Assertion – Evidence Paradigm

The Assertion – Evidence paradigm, promoted by Michael Alley, does indeed force the presenter to limit the information on each slide (and less is mostly more, even in scientific presentations – see limitations). But does Assertion follow Evidence, or Evidence follow Assertion as in the traditional scientific order? To determine which order is more effective, I seeked the opinion of the scientists in the audience during my communication skills seminars. Some do not care about the order. But some prefer to see the evidence before an assertion is made – particularly if a question is raised prior to showing the enlightening visual evidence. When asked to probe this visual evidence for answers, their mind leaves the passive show-me mode to enter the active let-me-see mode. They are more involved and interested. When they discover the yet-to-appear assertion by themselves, under the friendly guidance of the presenter, they are more likely to be convinced by it and more likely to remember it when it is revealed.

Food for discussion.

Here is an example:

Question

Hypothesis:

Observation:

Assertion:

Text and visuals by Jean-luc Lebrun

Is “Less is more” a presentation law as universal as the law of gravity?

Image Flickr. Cesar Rincon. “There is no spoon”

Most people who browse websites covering presentation skills stumble on the maxim “Less is more“. Usually, this principle applies to the content of PowerPoint slides. Less slide (text) content to be read by the audience is seen as more beneficial to the speaker. As scientists, we should question everything, right?

Those of you who are LinkedIn members will find an excellent discussion on this principle in the “Presentation Gurus!” discussion started by Matt Gambino entitled “Ways to convince co-workers that “less is more” in PowerPoint”.

Generally, I agree with the “less is more” principle and promote it in my courses. Why? The more there is on a slide, the more that slide has separate areas of focus. The problem then becomes one of synchronicity between the oral comment of the speaker and the visual focus of the audience on the part of the slide that visually matches the oral comment. Perfect synchronicity is impossible in practice. Either we linger on points for which we have insufficient prior knowledge while the expert speaker moves on to other points. Or we disagree with the point made and stop following the other points, constantly returning our eyes to the point of contention. Or the speaker fails to verbally or visually identify on the slide the target where our attention should be focused, imagining that we are able to use our knowledge or his speech to figure it out by ourselves. Most of us, non-experts, can’t.  To reduce such synchronicity problems, presenters use layers, laser pointers, they introduce one bullet at a time, or they make each bullet become one slide. The problems are reduced, but not to the point they disappear!

So… Let’s start questioning the assertion “Less is more”, as scientists.

1) Is there a lower boundary to less under which less is less?

Clearly, one cannot push the limit past a certain lower boundary beyond which, slide support is no longer effective. The sketchy or vague information on each slide may become so cryptic that the oral comment is bound to go beyond the slide content, thus creating an attention divide between slide content and oral content.  Research shows that, in such situations, memory is less effective and brain activity is lesser than under full undivided attention (encoding slows down in the”hypoccampus, temporal and prefrontal cortex of the left hemisphere*”).

The lower boundary is also defined by the interdependencies within the points made on a slide. When a slide makes multiple inter-related pojnts, these points must remain on the same slide for the audience to see the interdependencies. In this case, less, would force the presenter to divide the slide into multiple slides, and that in turn would force the audience to remember the contents of the previous slides to be able to see the interdependencies. In reality, we don’t remember. Working on making slides independent of each other is a move in the right direction.

The lower boundary is also influenced by the gap between the prior knowledge level of the audience and the knowledge level expected by the speaker. If that gap is large, less “just in time” background information, results in less understanding.

2) Are there situations where, clearly, less is not more, but more is more?

I can think of at least four situations where this would apply:

If providing less contents does not fulfil the expectations your slide title raised in the audience (even the title of your talk), more is more as the speaker needs to meet the expectations that any slide title raises.

For the second situation, imagine a scientist with an accent so thick that the audience understands less than a quarter of the words pronounced. In this situation, the scientist could say less, and possibly read more or display more while giving ample time to the audience to read along and to figure out what the graphics contain since graphics are usually understood regardless of language for the most part.  They are vital when it comes to understanding and essential when it comes to convincing. In this case, the audio track is not essential as long as the video track is self-explanatory. More (legible) text on a slide would bring better understanding. Since the memory required to associate the sounds heard from the speaker with the written words on the slide is far too large, the audience rapidly gives up and reads.

A third situation arises when we consider that, since the lack of synchronicity is one of the causes for the “less is more” principle, the speaker can increase synchronicity by slowing down the pace, but also by adding arrows, circles, and other attention-calling methods such as callout boxes, colour /size change, animation, etc. In this case, more is more.

Lastly, my fourth example is inspired by an earlier comment of Ed Skarbek: more is more if you have access to more than one screen to visualize your information, and facilitate comparisons – assumed here is that the extra screens carry visuals, not just text.

I hope this provides a more balanced perspective to the “Less is More” maxim.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

“The Effect of Divided Attention on Encoding and Retrieval in Episodic Memory Revealed by Positron Emission Tomography”. Tetsuya Lidaka & Al,*Journal of cognitive neuroscience archive. vol.12. issue 2. March 2000,p267-280

Presentation traps 6 – the conclusion traps

Think about it. You have done your best to gather the interest of your audience around your topic for a full eleven minutes. The chairperson just looked at his watch, and corrected his sitting position to move closer to the microphone. Your talk officially ends in one minute. If you play the prolongations, it will be at the expense of your three minute Q&A time during which you intend to identify who else is interested in your research for later networking opportunities. You want to keep to time. So far, so good. You bring up your conclusion slide… and you are in danger of falling into one of three conclusion traps.

1. Your conclusion slide is a summary of your results.

2. You know you are close to the end of your talk, everything has been said, and you rush through that slide, simply reading its bullets.

3. You do a great job with your conclusion slide, and after clicking one last time the next slide button on your presentation remote, you land into one of the following slides: a) the black screen indicating the end of your presentation (a PowerPoint feature); b) the traditional Acknowledgment slide; or c) a black slide on which the words “Thank You” are written in Font size 88 – for good luck 🙂

Everything you have read so far does not explain why the image used in this post (Source Flickr, author Shenghun Lin) is that of someone running a relay race. You are about to discover why.

Conclusion trap 1 – the blind hand-over of the relay baton

The conclusion is the place in your talk where you will hand out the relay baton to those in the audience who could benefit from your scientific contribution. You want these people to read your paper, or to ask you questions, or to network with you at the end of your presentation. And you certainly want them to know how what you have discovered can be of value to them. Therefore, the conclusion slide is not about your results, your research outputs; It is about the audience “Take-Away”, your research outcomes. That is why I used the metaphor of a relay race. With your conclusion, you will hand out the part of your research that is directly applicable to the people in the audience. You might argue that “anyone is able to judge the impact of my work. I do not need to state it.” What you say is true for the experts in the room. The non-experts, however, are often unable , for lack of knowledge, to determine what these outcomes are, and how they are of value to them. You must see the hand of the next runner. You must have identified and thought about the people who were the most likely to benefit from your work. Do not hand over the baton with your eyes closed!

Conclusion trap 2 – the dropped relay baton

Singers know that the two places in a song that matter the most, and which they rehearse the most, are the beginning and the end. Often, because presenters do not control their time well, they rush through the conclusion slide  (and read it). Or, because presenters are exhausted by the time they reach the end of their talk and want to end it quickly, they do not even bother to comment on that slide and let the audience read while they just thank the audience for their attention. There is no call for action, no USE MY RESEARCH FOR THIS OR FOR THAT. As a result, the relay baton is not properly handed over, it is dropped on the ground before the audience has had a chance to grab it. They may still do, but the momentum gathered through your words will be lost. What a crying shame 🙁 This time with the audience is face to face. It is a time to plea, to sell, to tease, to encourage, not a time to turn your back on the audience and read in a flat low tone. Surely, having rehearsed your conclusion slide so many times, you know by heart what appears on the screen after each mouse click, and never need to turn to it.

Conclusion trap 3 – the fumbled hand-over of the relay baton

The last slide of a presentation is the conclusion slide. Don’t fumble this. It remains on the screen until one of the questions demands that you bring another slide to the screen. The reason why it is not a thank you slide is because having the computer say thank you on your behalf is demeaning. You are the host; the computer is only there for support. The reason why your conclusion slide should not be a black screen is because you must help the audience remember the main perceived advantages of your research by maintaining the conclusion slide on the screen, at least until you move to another slide in answer to a question. And finally, the reason why the last slide is not the acknowledgment slide is because acknowledgments are best given on the title slide (see trap 5 – the title trap); furthermore, time may have run out and you may have to skip that slide anyway – thus risking disappointing the sponsors attending your talk.

in conclusion – make your conclusion slide:  the last slide, the most audience-centered slide, the most rehearsed slide.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Presentation traps 3 – the joke is on you

Photo Source: Flickr; Author: By Creativity+Timothy K. Hamilton

“Start with a joke”, “deride the audience”, “make them like you by making them laugh”, the pundits say. And out they go, on a limb as always, out go the serious presenters who end up being the only ones who laugh at the end of their jokes. The day before the event (it is easier to remember), they rush to the web for recycled jokes, or they try out the latest joke heard in a bar or at the canteen where everyone burst with embarrassed laughter. That joke often has sexual, religious, or racial connotation, and upon hearing it, the audience instantly moves from a I-am-neutral-towards-you state to a I-intensely-dislike-you state. Some may even get up and leave. I know you will say it never happens this way. Well, it does, and I witnessed such disastrous joke-telling at an international gathering of scientists. Some refrain from risky jokes and instead use self-deprecating jokes; after all, it’s ok to laugh at yourself, is it not? : “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, or it might have been… had you been able to skip my talk and run to the beautiful beach in front of this hotel.” or ” I’m delighted to be the one who has been selected to help you sleep after today’s copious lunch. So I’ll do my best to make this talk as boring as I possibly can. Could we have the lights down now? Thank you very much.” The audience did not come to attend your talk expecting to be bored, but to discover new things. Your self-deprecating humour, will be translated by the audience as follows: “His slides are boring. He has not even bothered to rehearse his talk at all. He really doesn’t enjoy presenting to us, but he’s doing it because he has to.” To conclude, avoid jokes altogether at the start of your talk, even cartoons that may be funny. A play on word requires a good understanding of English. Idiomatic expressions, or culture specific jokes are beyond the level of comprehension of scientists with English as a second language or from different cultural backgrounds. If you want the audience to relax, use the only way that works 100% of the time: Face the audience, and SMILE 🙂

 

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Presentation traps 2 – Forced Audience Interaction at the start of the talk

Source: Flickr; Photo by Jesarqit.

“Probe the audience”, “Interact with the audience”, the pundits say. And out on a limb they go, the misfortunate presenters for whom good advice but poor timing garner nothing but the deathly silence of  an unsympathetic audience. I recall the young scientist whose work featured the discovery of a gene associated with some sort of cancer. After introducing himself at the beginning of his talk, he probed the audience with this memorable question: “Has anyone here had a family member die of cancer?”

Naturally, the long silence that followed was not an indication that the audience was made of healthy individuals whose parents were healthy and grand parents were still in their prime. It meant that the presenter had frozen the whole audience. As he waited for his answer, looking straight at the audience, no-one spoke or raised a hand. He must have felt like the scientist listening to the SETI space probe waiting for a signal betraying intelligent life in the universe 🙂  for there seemed to be no life at all in this audience. What had he done wrong?

1) The question was too  personal and far too risky: What if one participant had replied: “Yes. My mother died of cancer last week.” What would the presenter have responded?

2) The timing was wrong. At the beginning of a talk, the audience is still in neutral gear, adopting a wait-and-see attitude, and certainly not yet ready for interaction.

At the beginning of a talk, the presenter has to move the audience out from a “Tri-State” or “high impedance” mode (infinite resistance) into a positive state (hopefully not a negative state).  The presenter has to make the current pass between him and the audience. To do that, two things are necessary. First, the presenter must open an invisible low resistance channel between his or her positively charged personality and the down-to-earth audience. And I know no better way to do that than by smiling and welcoming the audience. Secondly, the presenter must establish a difference in potential between him and the audience – for example, by creating a knowledge gap that the audience is eager to let him fill. The question is a good way to bring to life that knowledge gap, particularly an intriguing, provocative question or statement like Friedman’s assertion that “the world is flat”. But that question expects no answer from the audience. It is a rhetorical question. The presenter is expected to bridge the gap he created.

Do not rush the audience into action. An audience that has had time to be interested in both the presenter and his topic is easier to engage. By the time the talk ends, the audience is ready to interact through the Q&A: the time is right, and the audience is ready.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

 

020 Telecom metaphor for effective scientific communications

Our new guest, Dr Francis Yeoh, CEO of the National Research Foundation, is drawing a useful analogy from the field of telecommunications to clarify the duties of the scientist who presents, and clearly define the conditions under which communication to an audience is effective. Transmitter, Receiver, Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR)… This fruitful metaphor will open your eyes so long as you open your ears… to this podcast!

(Flickr image by Woodleywonderworks)

Learning from Henri Poincaré

Henri Poincarré

Henri Poincaré, the French physicist and mathematician was an outstanding scientist. In his book, La Science et la Méthode (Science and Method – Dover publication translated by Francis Maitland), he states that “to understand” means different things to different people. The scientists in your audience expect to be able to “understand” what is presented, so it is worth thinking about what people require to reach understanding. Poincaré identifies two classes of people: the validating and connecting type, and the associative and transformative type (my choice of words).

The validating and connecting type

“They want to know not only whether all the syllogisms of a demonstration are correct, but why they are linked together in one order rather than in another. As long as they appear to them engendered by caprice, and not by intelligence constantly conscious of the end to be attained they do not think they have understood.”

In other words, they need to see, understand, and find believable the fragmented evidence, but they also need to see, understand, and find believable the logical thread that connects these fragments together. Poincaré describes what happens when understanding is incomplete.

At first they still perceive the evidences that are placed before their eyes, but, as they are connected by too attenuated a thread with those that precede and those that follow, they pass without leaving a trace in their brains, and are immediately forgotten: illuminated for a moment, they relapse at once into an eternal night. As they advance further, they will no longer see this ephemeral light, because the theorems depend upon one another, and those they require have been forgotten.

You cannot memorize what you do not understand and further understanding stops as soon as memorizing stops.

Making sure that each slide in the presentation offers the right conclusions is not sufficient. The scientist who presents should also identify and explicitly reveal  and explain the logical connectors between any two consecutive slides.


The associative and transformative type

Others will always ask themselves what use is it. They will not have understood, unless they find around them, in practice or in nature, the object of such and such a mathematical notion. Under each word they wish to put a sensible image; the definition must call up an image, and at each stage of the demonstration they must see it being transformed and evolved. On this condition only will they understand and retain what they have understood.

Some may place more emphasis on evolution kinetics than on evolution logic.

These often deceive themselves: they do not listen to the reasoning, they look at the figures; they imagine that they have understood when they have only seen.

It is not sufficient to make sure that the content on each slide in the presentation is easily associated to prior knowledge and visually or conceptually connected to prior slides. The scientist who presents should also take the time to make explicit the reasons for the change in content from one slide to the next.

Since people understand things differently, the scientist who presents is well advised not to privilege one type of understanding (his own) over another. Therefore, to be effective, the presenter should do the following:

1) Since people need to validate what they see and hear at the level of a slide, give them the time to do so. Justify your logic, and ensure that each element on a slide is related to prior knowledge.

2) Because a slide delivers information in a discrete, and not continuous manner, each new slide introduces a discontinuity. Therefore, a bridge needs to be built between two consecutive slides. Verbally state the reason for the change in content that will be perceived by the audience.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

019 Dancing around outputs and outcomes

Did you ever wonder why your presentation, which looked and sounded awfully good, had little impact on your audience? The answer is found in this podcast… It is a matter of being able to tell the difference between a research output and a research outcome.

Learn more from our guest, Dr Leong Munkew, CTO of the SingaporeNational Library Board, a stellar presenter, and a brilliant technologist in the field of information retrieval.

(Photo by Zachstern, Flickr)

Blessed are the nitpickers

By Jean-luc Lebrun

If in every scientist lurks a nitpicker – a person who fusses over details – it is simply because scientific experiments require great attention to details. Nitpicking talents vary from one person to another. But, in any group of twelve people, I always have the good fortune to find one perfect representative of the nitpicking species. Nitpickers are part of any audience. They are easily distracted and annoyed by inconsistencies in your slides- and there always are inconsistencies such as misalignment, inconsistencies in font choice, size, colour, and style, inconsistencies in layout, spacing, spelling (spelling mistakes are very irritating), use of capital letters in titles, or inconsistent bullets. The nitpicker will even look at your clothes and nitpick on the way you dress, your choice of colours, etc… The nitpicker is by definition a neat and orderly person, with a particularly developed critical sense. Even if you are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a messy person, the nitpicker may find you “sloppy”, “careless”, or unskilled in design. If the nitpicker is your boss (or your spouse), you know what I mean.

Why are the nitpickers blessed? Because their talent is also a burden, to them and to others. Their highly developed critical eye is a curse. They have to repress their feelings because all that negativity in comments is not good for making friends. They need your gracious spirit. Given a chance to provide honest feedback, they will love you for letting them inspect your slides, particularly if you thank them profusely after their expert nitpicking feedback and take them out to dinner to show your appreciation. It does not matter how good you are, you will never beat the nitpicker at his/her game. And this is not a gender specific skill. Men and women are equally gifted.

The nitpickers are blessed because, without their honest feedback, your slides could be considered sloppy by some in your audience… including people who could influence your career. To them, sloppy slides points to the sloppy or junior researcher. Even if that deduction is far from the truth, you cannot afford to have people associate the two.

Therefore, when your presentation is prepared, and prior to delivering it in front of your audience, identify a nitpicker and ask for help in debugging your presentation to remove all pesky misalignments and inconsistencies. Your audience will be impressed by your care and attention to detail. But give credit where credit is due: always look to heaven to thank the blessed nitpicker 🙂

(Photo by VMOS, Flickr).

018Sequencing the scientific talk

What can you expect to accomplish in the typical 12-minute presentation one gives at a conference?  Does the expectation of the audience change during the course of a presentation? What do people expect at the start of your talk? Do they keep the same expectation throughout your talk? Be ready to be surprised by the answers to these questions. Our guest, Dr Leong Munkew is CTO and deputy CIO of  the Singapore National Library Board.

017Presenting patents and formulas

Strangely enough, knowing what is important in a patent presentation enables us

1) to bring light on an age-old question: Should one display formulas in a scientific talk?

2) to learn how to position our scientific contribution in the best possible light

Our guest, Dr Leong Munkew, was until recently CTO and deputy CIO of  the Singapore National Library Board.

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

Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, in a 1969 article entitled “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World”, points out the problems created by the wealth of information.

A rabbit-rich world is a lettuce-poor world. […] Now, when we speak of an information-rich world, we may expect, analogically, that the wealth of information means a dearth of something else – a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. 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.

Let’s step back from this world view, down to the ballroom where the scientist presents. The problems are similar. During a presentation both presenter and slides are competing for the attention of the audience. Attention, Herbert Simon points out, is not easy to divide.

Human beings are essentially serial, 0ne-thing-at-a-time devices. If they attend to one thing, they cannot simultaneously, attend to another.

Expecting the audience to discover alone how to connect what is heard with what is seen on an information-rich slide, is expecting far too much! Discovering which area on the slide is alluded to by the speech, requires much attention. Because attention, like the time it requires, is scarce, little attention is left for the later (and much more important)  stage of knowledge extraction from the message content. By the time the audience is ready to process the information, the presenter will often have shifted to a new area of interest. And the twain do not meet!

Matching what the eyes see with what the ears hear is not simple. It is not just a matter of helping the eye focus on the area being described (although it helps). The audience has to be familiar with the vocabulary and symbols used, and has to have prior domain knowledge before being able to match oral information with visual information. For example, display multiple colorful shapes on a screen, say a blue dodecagon, a red circle, and a green cone,  and ask the audience: focus on the polygonal shape with an infinite number of sides, and whose shape reflects light in the 620-670 nanometer range. The audience is presumed to have sufficient prior knowledge to identify the shape. But how learned is the audience? How much of the vocabulary used by the presenter is understood by the audience? And what is wrong with “look at the red circle”.

What can we learn from the time-bound antagonistic relationship between attention and information-rich slides?

1) Help the audience visually identify the object requiring people’s attention using the simplest possible vocabulary before you talk about this object, in order to minimize the demands on what will always be a limited attention pool.

2) Decrease the amount of information on a slide (by layering, pruning, or condensing) to a level that allows the audience to have more time to pay attention to what you say because it has less to look at, in a given amount of time.

3) Confine your oral comments to what is visually singled out –  To be matched, oral and visual information require co-location of attention. Synchronize the two. Do not digress.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Robert Geroch suggestions applied to the subtitle of your talk

You will find Dr Geroch’s “suggestions for giving talks”, online. The paper is stored on arXiv.org, the open access site managed by Cornell University. I have read this excellent paper many times and recommend you do likewise. My intent is not to ask you to change the title of your  talk. As soon as your conference abstract or paper has been accepted, this title is pretty much carved in stone. It will bring the audience to you – and, justifiably, the audience expects the title of your talk to be the same as that featured in the conference program. A dull demagnetized title or a title replete with repealing highly technical keywords cannot be repaired post publication. Expect experts or sleepers to your talk. If, on the other hand, your title has centripetal appeal, if it is a centre of interest to experts and non experts alike, you can enhance its understanding and appeal, right there and then, on the title slide, by adding a subtitle that really makes your focus clear. A good subtitle is easily understood by ALL.

Dr Geroch writes

“Thus, for an audience of relativists, “Linearized Fields in a Kerr Background Metric” sounds technical, “Perturbations of the Kerr Solution” sounds dull, and “Black Holes are Stable” sounds good.”

Questions are often frowned upon by editors when used as titles, but they are always acceptable as subtitles on a title slide. “Can a mesocellular siliceous foam firmly entrap a catalytic enzyme?”, “what if we could actually firmly entrap a catalytic enzyme in a mesocellular siliceous foam?”  Notice that the expectations set by these two questions are different. The first question focuses the audience on the couple of words “firmly entrap” – a method -, while the second question prepares the audience to a presentation of the outcomes of firm catalytic enzyme entrapment.

Use the subtitle to guide audience expectations, but do not let that be an excuse to skip the presentation of the keywords that brought the audience to your talk in the first place.

By Jean-luc Lebrun