The Five Cs of Mike McCurry


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


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 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:





Text and visuals by Jean-luc Lebrun

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

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)

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.

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, 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

When The Scientist Presents Book Launch in Singapore today

When the scientist presents - book cover

Amazon page for the book and publisher page

Praise for When The Scientist Presents:

Roald Hoffmann
Nobel laureate in Chemistry and writer

“This is by light-years the best guide to designing and presenting lectures. Lebrun writes in a lively, direct way, and every page is brimming with good sense and practical hints. It’s just plain fun to read When the Scientist Presents, even if your lecture is perfect!”

Alastair Curry
Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia & Former Senior Lecturer, University of Hertfordshire, UK

“In this masterful and enlightening contribution, Lebrun builds on his reader and writer’s guide to ‘Scientific Writing’ to expose the essential ingredients of effective scientific presentations. Fresh and entertaining, full of practical advice and highly readable, this is a most instructive and enjoyable work. Postgraduate students, supervisors and many an experienced researcher will welcome and benefit tremendously from this book, together with its wealth of accompanying resources, as an essential guide to effective communication.”

Lisa B. Marshall

Communication Expert & Blogger at “”

“Finally! A comprehensive, engaging book full of practical tips to improve the organization, the delivery, and visuals of scientific presentations. If you are serious about your professional success, then I strongly recommend you read this book.”

011 Benefits of Presenting

Why do these benefits vary according to the type of conference?  Are these benefits broader than the communication of your scientific findings in a journal?  Dr Mark Sinclair and Dr Alastair Curry enumerate a long list of benefits, some of which may even surprise you!

Buy your way out of troublesome questions

Preempt. Nice verb, but little used. It is composed of two parts: “pre” which means “before”, and “empt” which comes from the latin “emere” –  “to buy”. In essence, to prempt is to buy your way out of a potentially difficult situation before it has a chance to happen.

What is there to preempt when you present?

1) The embarrassment to have to admit that you are not the expert the audience thought you were

If you have been asked to present on behalf of the first author, chances are, that during the Q&A, you will get expert questions only the first author (not you) could answer. Naturally, you should have turned down the invitation to be a substitute, but you may not have had the choice, or you may have found the invitation to attend that conference in sunny Hawaii, just too tempting! It is best to preempt such expert questions by warning the audience prior to the q&a session that you are not the first author, and that there could be questions you might not be able to answer immediately. Of course, as its name indicates, such a preemptive move has a cost: you will not be considered an expert, and networking with experts will be limited. But it is far better to honestly set the expectations than to have to face experts noisily expressing their disappointment towards your lack of in-depth knowledge, live, in front of your audience.

2) The embarrassment to have to admit that your contribution cannot immediately solve people’s real problems

Often times, you are presenting mouth-watering research, at least in terms of potential, but it is based on modelling, or it is still at the proof of concept stage. During the Q&A, questions abound on the significance of your work, or on its manufacturing or marketability. All your answers end up sounding like “we haven’t done that yet”, “we’re looking into it”, or “this is yet to be determined.” The audience is disappointed. Your title seemed to indicate the contribution was real and had already gone beyond the experimental stage, but it was a pipe dream. Therefore, preempt such misconceptions. Set up the scope, the exact nature of your accomplishments up-front in your talk. That way, the audience will not have the wrong expectations. During your conclusion, honestly announce what are the next steps necessary to take your contribution closer to a real tangible product or application. As in the previous case, this preemptive move has a cost. It might deflate the enthusiasm of a few people in the audience, but preemting is better than to have to minimise the impact of your work during the q&a.

009 not so expert audience with distracting laptops

Most conference proceedings now come in CD or DVD format instead of paper. How does that change the behaviour of the audience?

Presenters often assume that the audience they are facing is made up of experts in their field. Is that assumption valid? What can we assume our audience really knows? Should what earlier presenters say during their talk influence what we should cover during our talk?

Two questioners raise their hand – who you’re gonna choose?

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Your formal presentation is over. You are now taking questions from the audience. Two people raise their hand at the same time. Who are you going to choose?

Is it the woman – if the two people are a man and a woman?
Is it the senior person – if one is elderly and the other one young?
Is it the foreigner – if one is from your country and the other one is not?

Actually, I would like you to consider yet another choice:

Is it the one you know – if one is known to you and the other one is not.

Here is Kevin’s advice. Kevin is a lecturer at the School of Information Systems of the Singapore Management University. He answers the question without hesitation.

“I would choose the one I do not know because I want to expand my network of contacts. Of course, time allowing, I will answer both questioners, but if there is time for only one question, at least I will possibly discover someone else interested in my research.”

Kevin is wise. The Q and A session is not just for the audience to refine their understanding of your work and identify its practical use. It is for you to identify people interested in your research, with the intent of building your network of contacts. You may have up to five minutes of Q&A. If your answers are long winded, you’ll have time for only one or two questions. Therefore, keep your answers short to be able to identify as many interested parties as possible in that short timeframe. While answering a question, keep an eye on the audience, not just the questioner – you may notice someone trying to raise their hand. If this person is a newcomer, not yet part of your address book, do not lose the opportunity to network. You may even want to briefly interrupt your answer and say “Yes, sir (madam) I will be happy to take your question next.” This accomplishes two excellent things. Firstly, it pre-empts a possible follow-on question from the current questioner thus protecting you against the trap of the prolonged time-sapping dialogue. Secondly, it provides relief to the next questioner, who knows he or she will be heard.

So who you’re gonna choose when the two people are unknown to you?
Here again, the answer is not obvious for it depends on who you are, and on what your secondary presentation goals are.
Is it the woman – if the two people are a man and a woman? If you are French, choose the woman 🙂
Is it the senior person – if one is elderly and the other one young? If you are looking for opportunities, choose the elderly person, but if you are looking for a postgrad to work in your team, choose the young scientist, regardless of gender.
Is it the foreigner – if one is from your country and the other one is not? I will let you answer that question in your comments. But if that foreigner is an elderly gentleman measuring 6 foot 2 inches, and has a slight French accent and a long nose, I recommend you choose him because it’s probably me 🙂

008 Presenter Mistakes

Dr Sinclair and Dr Curry share their favourite presenter “crimes” against the audience, and in the process, article one and article two of the universal rights of scientific audiences are drafted.

Learning from Peter Feibelman

In his marvellous little book, “A Ph.D. Is Not Enough”, solid state physicist Professor Feibelman uses a metaphor near and dear to my heart, that of the fugue.

“But in giving your talk, you should just tell a story. Its structure should be organic, invisible. Your listeners should be propelled from idea to idea with the same sense of inevitability they feel on hearing a Bach fugue.”

Professor Feibelman likes fugues of the musical kind, and to help you understand his point, I ought to explain what he means by “the sense of inevitability”, but without a fugue to listen to, it is an impossible task!

So, given the tremendous restrictions one faces when playing back (and Bach) music on the web, I decided to download the music score of Bizet’s Symphony in C, now in the public domain, and spend the rest of the day to enter the music score inside Logic Pro 8, hire a few Garageband instruments to play the cello, violins, viola, and basson, and give you (a royalty free) 52 seconds of the fugue contained in the second movement of the symphony (adagio). I added the sound of the bell right before the theme of the fugue is played. Listen to the mp3 file, and come back to this text, otherwise, you will not appreciate Professor Feibelman’s “sense of inevitability” comment.


I know, the music sounds robotic without quantization and cheesy without the high end Native-Instruments samples, but the purpose of this piece is not to stop you from attending an orchestral performance of Bizet’s symphony in C, or from buying Charles Munch‘s great rendition of it. The purpose of this piece is to describe the “sense of inevitability”.
The same theme is presented five times in the space of 50 seconds or so. You cannot ignore it, and you cannot forget it. Between each presentation of the theme, the composer uses musical glue to enhance the theme and bring cohesion to the piece. As more and more instruments are added, the music rises to a crescendo.  How aptly the metaphor applies to presentations! The theme of your presentation is your title. Each one of your slides refreshes that theme. Your title “organically” moulds  the structure of your presentation. From time to time, you may have a transition slide, or you may transition between two slides while the screen behind you is blanked. These transitions are the equivalent to the musical glue the composer adds between the end of the theme’s presentation and its inevitable resurgence in a richer environment.

The fugue inevitably rises to a crescendo as more and more instruments are added. In the fugue metaphor, each slide is an instrument. Your past slides have to be so clear that their theme continues to ring, reverberate in the recesses of your mind, blending harmoniously with your future slides. A fugue becomes more and more complex as the various parts contribute their melody, but not one of these parts disregards the theme of the fugue. They all support and enhance it. The end result is a harmoniously complex musical delight whose greatest strength is the focus of your attention on ONE THEME. May this be true also of all your scientific presentations, and let that theme be your title.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

006 Presenting Limitations of Research at conference Talk

Should one present research limitations during the ten minutes of a scientific talk at a conference? Would one be breaching academic honesty and integrity if one did not present them? What has this topic got to do with how well the Q&A goes after the talk?

Find out from our cast of profs, Dr. Sinclair and Dr. Curry, in the profcast segment of this podcast.

What can the scientist who presents learn from Pascal (Part 3)

Modesty, respect for others, are often found in famous scientists. Sir Isaac Newton (a contemporary of Pascal) did not say “If I have seen further, it is because they were all as blind as a bat”. He wrote “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. These qualities are also found in Pascal:

(Thought 43) “Certain authors, speaking of their works, say: “My book,” “My commentary,” “My story,” etc. They are just like middle-class people who have a house of their own on main street and never miss an opportunity to mention it. It would be better for these authors to say: “Our book,” “Our commentary,” “Our story,” etc., given that frequently in these, more belong to other people’s than to them.”

How are these qualities found in your presentation?

1) By acknowledging those who, directly or indirectly, contributed to your work.

2) By never failing to mention the source of the visuals you borrowed from other people.

3) By never comparing your work to other people’s work through the use of adjectives only, usually with the intent to demonstrate that you and your work are the greatest. The very people you slighted may be attending your talk, and sharpening their knives. Compare based on undisputed facts that you are ready to defend.

An audience senses arrogance as quickly as it senses fairness.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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