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!

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

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


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).

When The Scientist Presents Book Launch in Singapore today

When the scientist presents - book cover

Amazon page for the book and publisher page

Praise for When The Scientist Presents:

Roald Hoffmann
Nobel laureate in Chemistry and writer

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

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

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

Lisa B. Marshall

Communication Expert & Blogger at “”

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

010 Powerpoint and Shakespeare

What is the potential of PowerPoint, or for that matter, the potential of any software used in presentations? Does PowerPoint present an improvement over other methods of presentations? What is the danger of PowerPoint?

Find out from our presenter experts, Dr Alastair Curry and Dr Mark Sinclair.

Scaling a group image+ text – PowerPoint & Keynote

Scaling objects in PowerPoint and Keynote (video)

To resize a group that includes image and text, the group must first be converted to an image; alternatively, the group can be ungrouped and text can be be resized separately from the image.It is possible to reduce the decrease in legibility associated with vertical or horizontal downsizing by choosing a font of the appropriate type. This technique is useful to prepare a conclusion slide containing scaled-down visual reminders of what was presented on earlier slides. It is also useful to ease comparison by refreshing people’s memory via a scaled-down version of a previously shown visual.

Visible map and invisible shortcuts – navigation tools

The Map Slide (video)

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

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

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

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

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

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

hyperlinks gone wild

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

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

Dangling Hyperlink gets attached to wrong slide in PowerPoint 2008

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

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

Animate using motion path or action builds


Motion Path animation (PowerPoint)

The oral presentation surpasses the journal paper in many respects, but surely, one of the key differentiators has to be the use of animation to explain. Finally, a method can come alive on your screen whereas, on paper, it is mummified, embalmed in the  sarcophagus of a diagram. Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple Keynote enable you to put objects in motion. Trace a linear or curved path and have the object follow that path at a speed, acceleration and deceleration set by you. Decide on an angle and have the object rotate to that angle, fix a size and have the object grow or shrink to that size, set a transparency level and have the object gain opacity or transparency. Combine all these actions together (yes, it takes the skills of a choreographer sometimes), and you can resuscitate the dead… diagram, that is:)

A word of warning: Animations take time to build. It is not unusual to spend  an hour on a 30 second animation. But the results are beyond your wildest expectations. You, the presenter, will be a cut above the rest.

Use animations in the following circumstances:

Whenever you feel like using your hands and making gestures to explain something (this does not apply to Italians who feel like that all the time).

Whenever you want to describe the path followed by something in motion (an ion, electron, light, virus,…) through something else (a porous barrier, a membrane, a conductor, an optic fibre,…) over time, or over a number of sequential steps.

Whenever you want to guide the eyes of the audience to a succession of specific places on the screen without using the distracting laser pointer (yes, I don’t like red laser polka dots, and I’ll explain why in another blog entry).

Whenever you want to represent objects whose speed, acceleration, shape, action, colour, or transparency changes when time passes or when these objects interact with other objects.

Whenever else you deem necessary to explain something faster and more clearly, or more interestingly.

Do not use animations in the following circumstances:

You have not yet mastered PowerPoint Motion Path techniques, or Keynote’s actions.

When you have no good reason to use animation (gratuitous), but you just like it, and want to work for Disney or  Pixar.

The “B” key or the Black slide

B key or Black Slide video

Did you know that, while presenting your PowerPoint of Keynote presentation, you can press the letter “B” on your keyboard (or the little grey square on your presentation remote) and watch a miracle take place. At that precise moment, you, the cinderella-like presenter, turn into a beautiful princess or handsome prince depending on your gender. You, the presenter ghost lurking in the shadows surrounding the lectern, turn into a presenter host. You are finally rediscovered by an audience mesmerized  by the brightness of the screen and tranquilized by the darkness of the room. All eyes, now released from their hypnotic trance, renew contact with the most significant component of human-centered (not human-assisted) communications: YOU, the presenter.

How long should the screen remain blank?

At least 20 seconds. Short “B” keys do not work. To the audience,  it looks as though the screen is flashing on and off. People need time to focus on you. Long “B” keys, however,  may lead to rambling comments that tire your audience and make it lose the focus of your talk.

How does one get out of a “B” key?

Simply press the “B” key again. The same slide returns to the screen. Pressing the “N” key, the enter , the right arrow, or the return key sends you to the next slide but not cleanly. The slide you exit from is still shown a few milliseconds, long enough for the audience to see it.

When should presenters use a “B ” key?

1) When moving to another place on the platform or the podium also means crossing the projector’s light beam. Presenters may want to move centre stage to engage the audience, or to move from one end of the stage to the other where the presentation computer is because they need access to the keyboard. In either case, it often means getting into the path of the projected beam. The “B” key turns it off temporarily.

2) When they want the audience to focus on them, either to hear a personal story devoid of slide support, or to pause in order to summarize and introduce the next layer of information ON THE SAME SLIDE.

Why did you capitalize the letter “ON THE SAME SLIDE”?

Using the “B” key presents a small problem: when you press it again, instead of moving to the next slide of your presentation, PowerPoint remains on the same slide. If you intend to blank the screen right before you transition to the next slide/segment of your presentation, it is better to replace the “B” key with a Black slide.

The black slide differs from the “B” key because it is a permanent slide. You cannot bypass a black slide, but you can always decide not to press the “B” key if you are out of time. Other than that, the effect of a black slide is exactly similar to that of a “B” key. It effectively turns off the light from the projector without shutting it down or having to mute the video using the projector remote control.