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”

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

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

 

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

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.

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

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 “TheArtofSpeakingScience.com”

“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.”


013Three audience irritants

Our new guest, Dr Motiwalla, Professor in the practice of Entrepreneurship at the national University of Singapore, takes scientific presentations in the realm of venture capital. He tells us three ways to keep the audience listening… to you of course. Should you not follow his advice, the audience may still be listening, but it may be to their talkative (and bored) neighbor, or some may pretend they are taking notes on their computer when in fact, they are working on their next paper.

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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.

007 Dealing with Accent

Do British or american scientist-presenters have the advantage over people for whom English is the second language (ESL)? How does one reduce the impact of one’s accent? How can native English speakers make things difficult for the rest of us not born with English DNA :)?

Visible map and invisible shortcuts – navigation tools

The Map Slide (video)

“Keep to time” is good advice, but how? Since slide contents are the greatest time-consuming factor, it makes sense to adjust them until the presenter no longer faces the approaching wall of time with the fear of crashing into it. However, despite the best of intentions and preventive content pruning, the unexpected may bring that dreaded wall closer: an unplanned digression, a forced late start, or an improbable interruption maybe. Is the presenter ready for the unexpected? tools, such as hyperlinks and map slides demonstrated on this video, help the presenter manage time better.

The map slide is best used for long presentations. It helps the audience track your progress while revealing the overall structure of your talk. Hyperlinks are usually invisible doors (buttons, objects linking to other slides in your presentation) that allow the presenter to skip slides without the audience noticing it (thus saving time), or to insert slides on the fly as it were to answer some live questions during the talk (thus adding time).

All tools have intrinsic limitations. Hyperlinks and map slides are no exception.

The map slide (also called outline slide) is not useful in short (10-15 minute) presentations where it is preferable to go straight into your story after the audience has been hooked into it.

Hyperlinks force you to use a presentation remote with embedded mouse because you have to click on them to activate them. Without that, you are on a short leash. You are required to stand close to the lectern where your computer mouse is; this may not be the most advantageous position on the podium to host your guests scientists.

Hyperlinks, if numerous, create a labyrinth where the Minotaur (and you) could easily get lost (remember these links are supposed to be invisible).

hyperlinks gone wild

You want hyperlinks to remain invisible, so that the audience is not aware of your emergency shortcuts. But this great asset is also a great liability if you do not remember where you have hidden your precious links.To make matters worse, Microsoft PowerPoint hides non-text links in slide creation mode (thankfully, Keynote does not).

A Hyperlink is half witted.  Imagine you had to cross a hot stream by jumping from one stepping stone to another. If I were to remove one of the stepping stones, you would not jump. Microsoft PowerPoint 2008 for Mac jumps, landing you into hot water regardless (taking you to the wrong slide – the one with the same number as the removed slide). Smarter Apple Keynote ’09 disables the hyperlink.

Dangling Hyperlink gets attached to wrong slide in PowerPoint 2008

A Hyperlink is half smart because it keeps pointing to a slide even when you change the order of that slide in your presentation.

Link continues to point to slide even after slide is moved to another place in the presentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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