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 Withdrawn, stern face turned away from the audience as they gather their makeshift notes, their body language clearly communicate they have no inclination to answer any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

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

Presentation traps 11 – the Q and A trap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I end with this quote attributed to Thomas Pynchon:

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Photo Flickr; Author: Andreas-photography.

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

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

 

Presentation traps 2 – Forced Audience Interaction at the start of the talk

Source: Flickr; Photo by Jesarqit.

“Probe the audience”, “Interact with the audience”, the pundits say. And out on a limb they go, the misfortunate presenters for whom good advice but poor timing garner nothing but the deathly silence of  an unsympathetic audience. I recall the young scientist whose work featured the discovery of a gene associated with some sort of cancer. After introducing himself at the beginning of his talk, he probed the audience with this memorable question: “Has anyone here had a family member die of cancer?”

Naturally, the long silence that followed was not an indication that the audience was made of healthy individuals whose parents were healthy and grand parents were still in their prime. It meant that the presenter had frozen the whole audience. As he waited for his answer, looking straight at the audience, no-one spoke or raised a hand. He must have felt like the scientist listening to the SETI space probe waiting for a signal betraying intelligent life in the universe 🙂  for there seemed to be no life at all in this audience. What had he done wrong?

1) The question was too  personal and far too risky: What if one participant had replied: “Yes. My mother died of cancer last week.” What would the presenter have responded?

2) The timing was wrong. At the beginning of a talk, the audience is still in neutral gear, adopting a wait-and-see attitude, and certainly not yet ready for interaction.

At the beginning of a talk, the presenter has to move the audience out from a “Tri-State” or “high impedance” mode (infinite resistance) into a positive state (hopefully not a negative state).  The presenter has to make the current pass between him and the audience. To do that, two things are necessary. First, the presenter must open an invisible low resistance channel between his or her positively charged personality and the down-to-earth audience. And I know no better way to do that than by smiling and welcoming the audience. Secondly, the presenter must establish a difference in potential between him and the audience – for example, by creating a knowledge gap that the audience is eager to let him fill. The question is a good way to bring to life that knowledge gap, particularly an intriguing, provocative question or statement like Friedman’s assertion that “the world is flat”. But that question expects no answer from the audience. It is a rhetorical question. The presenter is expected to bridge the gap he created.

Do not rush the audience into action. An audience that has had time to be interested in both the presenter and his topic is easier to engage. By the time the talk ends, the audience is ready to interact through the Q&A: the time is right, and the audience is ready.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

 

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

 

016Questions from experts and head hunters

Our new guest, Dr Leong Mun Kew, reveals what brings senior researchers to your talk. He even mentions the type of questions he would ask when head hunting for his lab. This insider view into presentation outcomes comes from the man who is now CTO and acting CIO of the Singapore National Library Board.

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.”


014 Core Competitive Advantage

Can we predict the type of questions a scientist gets from VCs (venture capitalists)? And how would the BCG Matrix be of any use to the presenter scientist who is required to present the competitive advantage of his or her discoveries? Our guest, Dr. Motiwalla enlightens us. He is professor in entrepreneurship at the National University of Singapore, and sits on the board of a number of Hi-Tech companies in the US.

Buy your way out of troublesome questions

Preempt. Nice verb, but little used. It is composed of two parts: “pre” which means “before”, and “empt” which comes from the latin “emere” –  “to buy”. In essence, to prempt is to buy your way out of a potentially difficult situation before it has a chance to happen.

What is there to preempt when you present?

1) The embarrassment to have to admit that you are not the expert the audience thought you were

If you have been asked to present on behalf of the first author, chances are, that during the Q&A, you will get expert questions only the first author (not you) could answer. Naturally, you should have turned down the invitation to be a substitute, but you may not have had the choice, or you may have found the invitation to attend that conference in sunny Hawaii, just too tempting! It is best to preempt such expert questions by warning the audience prior to the q&a session that you are not the first author, and that there could be questions you might not be able to answer immediately. Of course, as its name indicates, such a preemptive move has a cost: you will not be considered an expert, and networking with experts will be limited. But it is far better to honestly set the expectations than to have to face experts noisily expressing their disappointment towards your lack of in-depth knowledge, live, in front of your audience.

2) The embarrassment to have to admit that your contribution cannot immediately solve people’s real problems

Often times, you are presenting mouth-watering research, at least in terms of potential, but it is based on modelling, or it is still at the proof of concept stage. During the Q&A, questions abound on the significance of your work, or on its manufacturing or marketability. All your answers end up sounding like “we haven’t done that yet”, “we’re looking into it”, or “this is yet to be determined.” The audience is disappointed. Your title seemed to indicate the contribution was real and had already gone beyond the experimental stage, but it was a pipe dream. Therefore, preempt such misconceptions. Set up the scope, the exact nature of your accomplishments up-front in your talk. That way, the audience will not have the wrong expectations. During your conclusion, honestly announce what are the next steps necessary to take your contribution closer to a real tangible product or application. As in the previous case, this preemptive move has a cost. It might deflate the enthusiasm of a few people in the audience, but preemting is better than to have to minimise the impact of your work during the q&a.

007 Dealing with Accent

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

What can the scientist who presents learn from Pascal (Part 4)

Blaise Pascal, the scientist philosopher, has good advice immediately applicable during a Q&A when faced with a questioner who disagrees with the presenter.

(Thought 9) When one wishes to correct to one’s advantage, and reveal how mistaken someone is, one must observe from which angle that person is looking at things, because, usually, from that angle, things look right, and openly admit this truth, but present the other angle from which the same things now look wrong. The one who is corrected is satisfied for no mistake was made, it was simply a matter of now being aware of other perspectives; One is not angry for not being able to see all angles, but one does not want to be wrong.

During the Q&A, when people claim that your results cannot be observed in their experiments, you, the presenter, should not argue. If they say so, they do not intend to lie, and therefore, it must be true. The difference can often be explained by differences in experimental conditions, equipment, products, formulas; Naturally, there is no time during a short Q&A to review the differences, you make that clear, and you also make clear that your results are repeatable in your lab (they are, aren’t they…); However, offer your help to understand the differences by meeting with the questioner after the talk with a sentence like “I’d be happy to sit with you after the talk and try and  see why you cannot get our results”. You may actually learn something interesting! What is important here is the way the audience perceives you: courteous, firm, confident, helpful. Anything else in your response could make you look arrogant, aggressive, discourteous, or not confident in your own results! Let the forceful questioner look arrogant, aggressive, or discourteous; remain the perfect respectful host.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

006 Presenting Limitations of Research at conference Talk

Should one present research limitations during the ten minutes of a scientific talk at a conference? Would one be breaching academic honesty and integrity if one did not present them? What has this topic got to do with how well the Q&A goes after the talk?

Find out from our cast of profs, Dr. Sinclair and Dr. Curry, in the profcast segment of this podcast.

005 Attitude of audience towards presenter

What is the chemistry between the scientist who presents and the audience? When the presenter who precedes you gives a bad presentation, does that affect you? When you work in a field where people are divided into camps of divergent scientific opinions, does that affect you?

Our experts share with you their experience about the people who come to a talk with a bad attitude, or with their own specific agenda.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

“Society still cherishes its gifted speakers”

Here is a link to the… “Public Speaking Today” manual written by Dr. Frank Lockwood (U. Arizona), and Clarence Thorpe (U. Oregon).  Time stood still on the subject of public speaking. “Today” in 1922 is today in 2009. Judge for yourself.

 " Society still cherishes its gifted speakers;
and every national crisis gives added proof of their value.
[...]In times of great national danger and excitement it is almost
necessary to reach the people thus, by direct appeal through the
eloquent voices of trusted leaders. Great reforms are seldom
carried through without the aid of impassioned orators.[...]
There is no surer or simpler way to effect this change from cold
knowledge to urgent conviction and flaming action than
through the living personality of the orator. But the speech
can be no greater than the speaker; eloquence is chiefly char-
acter put into words and deeds."

Getting your project proposal accepted and funded is as much a matter of scientific excellence as one of character and of attitude towards your audience. Later on in the manual Dr. Lockwood defines that attitude.

The men who have most constantly won their way into the
hearts of audiences have been the men who have shown genuine
interest in the people. They have desired to be on good terms
with their listeners, and they have made this plain in the
frankest and most unmistakable ways.

So smiling at the beginning of your presentation is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Showing a genuine interest in your audience cannot be done unless you have prepared your talk with your audience in mind. What interests the people attending your talk? Are you tailoring your talk to deliver what they need or do you hope one size (your size) fits all? When difficult questions come during the Q&A, do you answer in a way that demonstrates you wish to remain in good terms with the questioner? The audience hears the depth of your science in your assured voice, but does it also hear the whisper of your heart? 🙂

By Jean-luc Lebrun

001What does the audience remember

What do people in the audience remember once your presentation is over? The answer may surprise you! Our two guests, Dr. Mark Sinclair and Dr. Alastair Curry share their experience. Dr. Sinclair suggests that the presenter, not just the audience, may also be given something to remember. Early in his career, one insightful question from a friendly questioner led to a breakthrough in his research. Now is your chance to be my next guest on this podcast by adding your comments. Here are my questions to you.

What do you usually remember two days after a scientific talk?

Which talks where particularly memorable to you? Why?

Do you agree with Dr Sinclair’s statement that the presentations “that don’t take you to the [presenter’s] paper, they fade away; they’re gone […] in just a day or two”?

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