No question during your Q&A?

Have you ever wondered why people who are neither dumb nor blind become mute when the time comes for them to ask questions at the end of your presentation? The reasons are audience or presenter-related.

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

AUDIENCE-RELATED

The Elephant in the Room. In some countries (Japan comes to mind), 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 moral support, politeness, or prestige, but not interest. Often unfamiliar with your topic, that person does not want to appear ignorant in front of the rest of the audience by asking an unprepared question. However, fear not, 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 Shy Audience. Some people are as petrified to ask questions as the presenter is to present. They want to know more, but to leave their permafrost state, only the presenter’s warming smile, genuine openness and generous eye contact may take them out of that state. The audience needs body language to be encouraged to ask questions. 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 Proud or Discrete Audience. Some questions would reveal things about the questioner that the questioner does not wish the rest of the audience to know. They may reveal their lack of knowledge, ethics, of social skills, a speech impediment, a strong accent, or unsightly corporal features.  A one-to-one question after the talk is less intimidating. So make yourself available right after your talk.

The Inordinate Time to the First Question. The audience expects someone somewhere will ask a question. It usually comes from center front, rarely from the sides. If the first question does not come within a time collectively felt as being reasonable (the smaller the audience, the smaller that time), the audience draws negative vibes from the continued silence which it turns into a sanction and a blame. By then, even the ones who were going to ask a question given a little more time, give up and leave since other people have already started to leave the room. Talk to the chair of your session before your talk. He or she may be encouraged to ask the first question.

PRESENTER-RELATED

The Unquestionable.  Things you said may be so obvious and clear that nothing you said raised question. Your presentation may not have been bad, but it probably was not useful. The facts you presented were unquestionable. because they were too well-known. They lacked novel significance or implication statements. They were presented from a classic, unoriginal point of view.

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 the audience 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 Jargonaute. The jargonaute’s talk is for people from planet science. Unfathomable, undecipherable, impenetrable, it is not of our world. As minutes pass by, the audience discovers that an abyss of ignorance separates it from the jargonaute. People want pebbles of knowledge, not kryptonite. No question the jargonaute is an expert. No question!

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

025 Alternative Q & A techniques

I are delighted to feature a new guest on our podcast: Dr Rao Machiraju. Rao and I belonged to Apple’s Advanced Technology Lab in Cupertino California. He now heads his own company, REQALL, working on a fascinating product: memory recall enhancement tools. Rao is a master in the art of presenting. Today, he reveals his favorite ways to handle questions during the Q&A that follows a talk.  They depart from the conventional ways, as you will soon hear.

Photo Flickr. Author Scion Cho.

When The Scientist Presents Book Launch in Singapore today

When the scientist presents - book cover

Amazon page for the book and publisher page

Praise for When The Scientist Presents:

Roald Hoffmann
Nobel laureate in Chemistry and writer

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


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

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


Lisa B. Marshall

Communication Expert & Blogger at “TheArtofSpeakingScience.com”

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


Presenters with Foreign Names

Lebrun is my last name. Actually, I have no prior name, so my last name is theoretically my first name, but in fact my first name is jean-Luc. Confused? Alright, let’s start again. Lebrun is my family name and Jean-Luc is my given name. The family name is not given, it is inherited:)

My name is easy to pronounce, at least I think so, my parents think so, and so do the 200 million French-speaking people, but you might find it difficult to pronounce. Our name is a people interface. It is like a door handle. It gives access to us. It is the opening move in the networking game. Cryptic, indecipherable names are intimidating, possibly repulsive. Some will avoid talking to you for fear of mispronouncing your name – a serious offence in their culture. How would you pronounce the Vietnamese last name “Phuc”? Look here.

So when your name appears on your title slide, make sure you also provide the easy-to-pronounce short form of your name in the language spoken during the conference. “Hi, my name is  Jean-Luc Lebrun, but you can call me John”.  “Watakushino namaiwa jean-luc Lebrun desu, jonto yondekudasai”. “Ni Hao, wode mingzi shi jean-luc Lebrun, danshi ni keyi jiao wo “Yue Han”. In Singapore, people from Chinese descent often adopt an English given name to make it easier for their non-Chinese speaking friends to address them, particularly when your first name is easily mispronounced.

Telling people how they can address you, will encourage them to ask questions during the Q&A since they know how to address you in a manner acceptable to you. Put the burden of making your name easy to pronounce ON YOU, not on the audience. It will reveal your social skills and your wish to be accessible to all. Here is a movie I produced on the topic of pronouncing names.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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