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 Withdrawn, stern face turned away from the audience as they gather their makeshift notes, their body language clearly communicate they have no inclination to answer any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!

Where do you 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, the everyone want to sit there, so these are the most expensive 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 of the middle rows and there is no getting up and down as people fill the row.

Where do you sit at 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.

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 you, 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

Throat Clearing and Starting Blocks

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.

Today, I want to talk about… Let me start by asking you… 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, not a reference to what you will say and do. 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 do wonder. They call for action. They corral the wandering minds, the drifters. They knock on the door of their imagination.

Imagine… What would you do if…


Involve your audience from the word GO.

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 call 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 hand witness to a traumatic life-threatening event.

I can hear some of you scientists already object! “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 replaces the extracellular matrix scaffolding (EMC) and forms different tissues help the blood seal and vascularize a repaired wound. The presentation includes analogies (forest canopy, etc.) to bridge the knowledge gap on the EMC, as well as an animation. In this case, bringing the audience into the talk was through the application of what was created (the gel). But you could bring the audience in through the context surrounding your work.

I remember a presentation which took place on June 13 2016, the day England decided to quit the European Community – Brexit day. It was about the impact of  political uncertainty on mergers and acquisitions. The presenter talked about the 2017 US elections – forgetting all about the traumatic event that happened that day! And there was also that other presentation on Fluorescent GFP tag the 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


No smalltalk, please – We’re scientists.

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 “No smalltalk, please – We’re scientists.”

Creating a good first impression starts early

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 “Creating a good first impression starts early”

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.

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

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 6 – the conclusion traps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion trap 2 – the dropped relay baton

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

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

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

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Presentation traps 3 – the joke is on you

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

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


By Jean-luc Lebrun

Presentation traps 2 – Forced Audience Interaction

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


Presentation traps 1 – Hazardous comparisons

With this, the first of several blog entries on presentation traps, we are entering the quagmires and the quicksands where many presenters get trapped. These traps are mostly concealed and presenters realise they are trapped far too late to fix the problem. These traps are avoidable because the ones who lay them are none others than…the presenters themselves.

(Photo source: Flickr – author: TheBusyBrain)

So let’s look at trap #1: the hazardous comparisons.

In your presentation, usually at the beginning in the motivation part, a  slide appears, and on that slide your method is compared to previous state of the art methods, or methods widely accepted and recognised as adequate by practitioners in the field. Of course, the comparison makes your work seem vastly superior. You feel good – after all, you are good and you have listed the weak points of other methods, either because you found out or because their authors had the intellectual honesty to recognise them.

Here is where things go wrong:

1) Because PowerPoint does not give you much space to illustrate each limitation, you simply list them all (it looks so good, doesn’t it :), in bullet point form, relying mostly on the use of adverbs, adjectives, and judgmental verbs to describe them: slow, computationally  intensive, unfeasible, limited, complex, expensive, fails to, suffers from…

2) In the room, attracted by your title, chances are you will find the very people whose methods you disparage: the experts, the “related work” folks. They came to learn from you, not to have their contribution to the field questioned or featured in a poor light.

3) Your summary judgmental evaluation on their methods is probably based on old reading, and the state of the art may have progressed much since you last looked at the related work papers, thus rendering our evaluation inaccurate at best.

As a result, your comparison strikes a match that will light the short fuse of the bomb bound to explode during your Q&A. These scientists you indirectly attacked will dispute or question your claims – because any adjective or adverb is a claim and a claim deserves fair justification before it can be accepted. Because the reputation of their work is at stake, they will bring you onto their turf – a place you know little about – and take great pleasure to demonstrate your ignorance through incisive questions!

So here are your solutions:

If you have to expose limitations:

Firstly, choose the main limitation, illustrate it visually and scientifically so that it cannot be contested, and make sure you clearly define the scope under which that limitation applies.

Secondly,  find a way to praise the method whose limitation you are presenting.

Of course, you do not have to expose limitations. Avoid comparisons altogether. If the experts are in the room, they will ask questions to assess how well your method is likely to work in their field (and this is good!). If you do not know, you will be able to deflect such questions on the grounds that you have not tried it there. At the same time, you will welcome their interest to see it applied in new fields and express your wish to collaborate to extend your method’s application scope – or discover its boundaries (don’t say limitations!). Again, if you don’t know, you could also delay your answer on the grounds that your data and their data may differ and that it would be better to compare apples with apples, and oranges with oranges before drawing conclusions.

Be conservative. Do not say “This method should also work in your field, or on your problem”, just in case they ask you the question “On which basis do you form this opinion?” if you answer is based on factual evidence, however early it may be, you will be seen as an expert. But if they detect a lie in your answer (it is often so because, from your angle, your perspective is distorted), you will be seen as a scientist of much enthusiasm but somewhat junior in experience. Look at the photo above, how much bigger the orange seems depends a lot on the perspective, doesn’t it. An architect who has studied perspective would have a more accurate answer than a researcher in life science. But someone who has handled both fruit would have the best answer.

Next trap: Forcing the audience to interact.

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).

What can the scientist who presents learn from Santiago Ramon Y Cajal

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Santiago Ramon Y Cajal was a neurologist who shared with Golgi the nobel prize in 1906. In his excellent little book “Advice for a young investigator”, translated for MIT press by Neely and Larry Swanson, one finds some remarkable insights on the perfect scientist presenter host. In the preface to his second edition Cajal writes about scientists.

While not large, there is nevertheless a group of young enthusiasts who stay in constant communication about their ideas and feelings because of their love for science and desire to collaborate on the magnum opus of progress.

If I am to accept Cajal’s definition of true blue scientists, I cannot help but wonder where has the presenter’s enthusiasm gone? Where is the passion? Why let fear strap and padlock your passion in a straightjacket prior to delivering the scientific talk? Yes, the fear may be there, let it be. But then, be a Houdini presenter, deliver your passion, let its fire ignite interest in your work so that like-minded international colleagues from your audience desire to network with you. How do you do that? First and foremost, prior to climbing on the stage, recharge yourself with the excitement that ionized you when your working hypothesis was verified by your data. Then banish the thought of captivating minds with result outputs, because people do not celebrate outputs, they celebrate outcomes.

Nothing highlights the energetic personality of the investigator better, distinguishing him from the throng of automatons in science, than those discoveries where perseverance and logic get the upper hand over mechanics, where brain is paramount and material facilities are negligible.

Never miss a chance to present your current achievements in the context of your past work, to establish credibility through tenacity, to dazzle by the power and soundness of the thread of reasons sustaining your hypothesis, and to confound the big spenders with the frugality of your data needs because of the excellent representative and discrimination power of your data. Do not belittle or silence the story of your data if that story builds your credibility. Do not brush aside the history that led to your findings, if that history forged your expertise.