No question during your Q&A?

Here are five reasons why people have no question after a talk.

elephant in the room
Elephant in the room Ann Large Valentine Flickr.

The Elephant in the room. In some countries, the attendees may consider impolite to talk before a more senior person in the room does ( a dean, an official,…). That person may just be there for politeness, but not interest. Or that person may be unfamiliar with your topic and does not want to appear ignorant in from of the rest of the audience. The questions will come as soon as that person fires the first question or leaves the room. Stick around outside the presentation room for a real Q&A.

The unquestionable. Some questions would reveal things about the questioner that the questioner does not wish the rest of the audience to know. Alternatively, things you said may be so obvious and clear that nothing you said raises question. You stated unquestionable facts to an audience already convinced of the facts. Your presentation may not have been bad, but it probably was not useful.

The unknowledgeable. Some things you said during your presentation are blatantly wrong, and the audience is knowledgeable enough to know it. They could attack you, but in the process, would embarrass you. So they simply stay quiet, and leave. They were there to learn for an expert. You were not that person.

The arrogant. Alas, some presenters have a knack to make you feel out of place. They mention their elitist friends during the talk, say several times that only a minority of people are smart enough to understand the problem. And by the time the talk ends, you know you are part of the majority. They cocooned themselves away from any potential question. Withdrawn, stern face turned away from the audience as they gather their makeshift notes, their body language clearly communicate they have no inclination to answer any question.

The Vanishing. WAIT! Do not do your disappearing act, immediately closing any opportunity for questions with a lame statement like “I must have been very clear since you have no question”, and rushing off stage. The audience needs body language to be encouraged to ask questions, your warming smile will get anyone out of a state of permafrost, let it shine! Give it time to work its magic. Unfold your arms. Invite. Move towards the audience. and wait. Let the unbearable pressure of silence work its tongue loosening magic. But let that not be your tongue! It is the audience’s turn to speak.

The jargonaute. The jargonaute’s talk is for people from planet science. Unfathomable, undecipherable, impenetrable, it is not of our world. As minutes pass by, you discover that an abyss of ignorance separates you from the jargonaute. You want their knowledge, but it turns out to be your kryptonite. No question the jargonaute is an expert. No question!

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).



Flickr – Benson Kua . Empty seats

Desktop picture: indiscretion or insight

Customizing the desktop picture on any computer is easy. Just select your favorite family or vacation photo from your photo album, and you are done! People do it all the time on their phone, revealing their intimate friends, their own narcissistic proclivities, or their taste for natural landscape. The default screen set by the manufacturer of your computer does not reveal anything about you. I can’t imagine hundreds of millions of Mac users express their love for El Capitan, a rock from the cretaceous age located in the American Yosemite National park. Likewise Windows 10 users may not care all that much about the 3D translucent glass frame diffusing an ethereal blue light.

The situation changes when you use your own computer to present your slides. Either when you quit your presentation and return to the desktop or when you set it up with the audience already seated looking on, you will probably reveal something about you through your customized desktop screen. The curious audience may enjoy that peep into the presenter’s life. But is it going to embarrass you? Hey, do you like my zany favorite nephew? – he is a riot!


On the other hand, you may wish to remove the sometimes intimidating academic barriers by showing the other you: the mum and dad with young children, the animal or nature lover.

To remain discrete, change your start-up screen to the manufacturer’s default screen prior to your presentation. To send a subliminal personal message to the audience, choose a desktop image that reflects your interests or humanness.




Automatic Line Break on the Title Slide: a readability breaker

Do not let your presentation software break compound nouns across lines. Noun-preceded modifiers should be on the same line. In the following example, it makes little sense to let PowerPoint or Keynote automatically place p53 and GADD45 on two separate lines because it makes your title unclear : “A mammalian cell cycle checkpoint pathway utilizing p53 and GADD45 is defective in ataxia-telangiectasia“. At first reading, the reader thinks each line makes a separate point.

“A mammalian cell cycle checkpoint pathway utilizing p53 and GADD45 is defective in ataxia-telangiectasia” is unambiguous.

How is one to avoid such incongruous line breaks? You have the easy and the hard choices.


1) Insert a carriage return at the appropriate place to avoid bad line breaks.  2) Reduce or increase the font size until the bad line break disappears. If it does not, try the first choice.
3) Increase or decrease the size of the text box by dragging its handles until the troublesome line break disappears.


1) Insert a hard space between the words that should remain on the same line as “cell cycle checkpoint pathway” in the example title. On my Mac, the hard break character in Microsoft PowerPoint is Option+Shift+Space.  2) Those who can’t find the hard space (also known as the non-breaking space), can fill the rest of the line with as many characters as necessary until the line wraps and give these additional characters the color of the background to make them disappear.
3) Rewrite your title and avoid placing more than two modifiers in front of a noun by adding a preposition to break the long chain of words into shorter segments. If we tried to do this on the sample title

“a mammalian cell cycle checkpoint pathway”

we would run into trouble. Adjectives like mammalian are not usually a problem, they can be separated from the noun they qualify at little readability cost. However, there is no such thing as a mammalian cycle, or a mammalian checkpoint; Mammalian belongs to cell. Long nominal chains like “cell cycle checkpoint pathway” or “checkpoint pathway” cannot be separated. For the uninitiated, a long modified noun is not easy to decode. Does “checkpoint” belong to cell cycle or to pathway? An expert would know, but not every reader is as expert as the writer. A preposition would clarify: “Checkpoint pathway of the cell cycle”, or “Pathway of the cell cycle checkpoint”, whichever represents the correct meaning. And “of” may not even be the right preposition!

The perfect presentation start: learn from the athletes

Presenters, beware of public warm-ups. A warm-up is not part of a race; likewise, it is not part of a speech. You warm up before putting your feet in the starting blocks. Athletes pre-visualize what happens in the first seconds in the race as their body spring into action. They rehearse the start, again and again, and again until in are at their best.

author tableatny source BXP135624
author tableatny; Sprinter at starting block
source Flicker.

Good speakers rehearse the first words of their talk again and again, and again, until they sound their best. Good speakers do not ad-lib. Ad-libbing leads to rambling. And rambling wastes valuable time. Make these words count. Do not say what you will say. No preamble.

Today, I want to talk about… Let me start by … Hello, my name is  so and so and the topic of my talk is …

The first few words you tell the audience should be direct. They should call for attention, bring in the audience into your world, make them active participants. The first few words should include a verb. Verbs call for action. They corral the wandering minds, the drifters. They knock on the door of their imagination.

Imagine… What would you do if…


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 Presenter-Lecturer: evaluating learning at end of a presentation

If you are a lecturer, you probably monitor how well your students follow your lecture. You check from time to time by asking questions or you rely on the barometer of puzzled looks and distracted students to determine whether your teaching is cloudy or the fog of incomprehension has lifted. Questions are great. They interrupt your flow of words, giving time for people to think. And thinking is how one converts words into knowledge.

iBook Author MCQ

I  recently started using iBooks Author, the free Apple software to create books or, in my case, multiple choice questions that I project from my iPad. Adding question slides that respond live to a click in a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation is near impossible. In ibook Author, it’s a cinch. You use questions as needed during the course (or at at the end of the course in a competition pitting one half of the class against the other to make things more fun). It takes time away from your  teaching but giving that thinking time to the audience multiplies the productivity of your teaching, whether they answer correctly or not!

By Jean-luc lebrun

What can the scientist who presents learn from Pascal (Part 5)

Of somebody eloquent, people will say “He as a gift with words”. Eloquent is a term associated with  statesmen like US President Obama in our time, or with  preachers like Bossuet in Pascal’s time. But could a scientist be eloquent? Blaise Pascal, the well-known scientist of old, defines eloquence in terms that make it relevant to scientists.


“Eloquence is the art of saying things in such as way that 1) those to whom we speak listen without pain and with pleasure;  2) their own interest encourages them to reflect upon what they hear.

It establishes a link between the heart and mind of the listener on the one hand, and between our thoughts and how we express them on the other hand; This assumes that one has studied the heart of man and knows its power so as to control how much and what to say. One must become one with the listener and test our heart on the very words we will use to see whether they fit and rally the listener to our views. We must, as much as possible, keep ourselves to what is simple and natural, refrain from making much out of nothing or nothing out of much. Being a thing of beauty matters little if it does not serve the listener; In beauty is nothing to trim or add.”

Pascal Thought 16.


What I observe in Pascal is his conviction that eloquence is not a gift, but a science and the fruit of labour to reach conciseness. It is based on our thorough observation and study of others enabling us to reconstruct them in ourselves in order to test the convincing power of our own words.The power of words, however, cannot be built on exaggeration. Self-control is necessary to avoid the distorted and the complex at the expense of the natural and the simple. Words gain power when their number is restricted.

Pascal describes eloquence as a tool that leads to reflection. Unless your audience reflects and thinks about what you have just said, you will not convince. A man of many words leaving no room for silence is not eloquent. Silence punctuates speech. The audience uses silence as a time to think. Silence keeps your sentences simple and natural. Paradoxically, with silence, your speech is more concise. Framed by two moments of silence, in your sentence “is nothing to trim or add” (see also Saint Exupery ).

There is no threat, no perceived accusation in eloquent speech. There is pleasure. Words that judge like limitation, failure, disadvantage are replaced with words that encourage like enhancement, extension, consolidation, strengthening, building blocks. Eloquence belongs in a scientific presentation. It befalls the scientist to reveal how beautiful a contribution he or she has to offer without putting others down.

Although Pascal referred to the eloquence of words, Saint Exupery broadens the landscape to include figures–the scientist’s best tool to convince. Figures are our most eloquent allies. How eloquent are your visuals? Is there nothing in them to trim or add? Have you looked at them with the eyes of your audience? Have you designed them to support a point that requires convincing? Are your visuals “things of beauty” or is complexity, judgment, or glut disfiguring them? Do your figures make people think?

By Jean-luc lebrun


Source: Flickr; Author Mkandlez


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”

Learning from Henri Poincaré (part 2)

By Jean-luc lebrun

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

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

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

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

Source Flickr, Author Dullhunk

Presentation traps 13 – The body trap

By Jean-luc lebrun

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

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.

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

Photo  Flikr; Author Corey Holms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Presentation traps 11 – the Q and A trap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I end with this quote attributed to Thomas Pynchon:

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Photo Flickr; Author: Andreas-photography.

Keep what the audience sees in sync with your speech

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

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


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

1) Guide the eyes to what you describe.

Discourage forward reading and re-reading.


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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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

From Presenter Ghost to Presenter Host

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Image source: Flickr. R Motti. XXVII


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Imager Flickr; Author Didier-lq

What can the scientist who presents learn from Benjamin Franklin

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

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

Image Flickr; Author Wallyq

026 Handling unfriendly questions and comments

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

Image Source Flickr; Author Zcopley

Presentation Traps 10 – The room trap

By Jean-luc Lebrun


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo source: Flickr, Author Mek22.

Presentation traps 9 – the rehearsal traps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Nothing reveals personal expertise better than questions; therefore,…

Image source: Flickr; Author :Tintin44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun


025 Speech Synthesis for the ESL Presenter

Flickr Image. Author: fatboyke (Luc)

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

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

By Jean-Luc Lebrun