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

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

I heard Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon speak at the end of last century (it’s not that long ago) at a conference in San Jose California on future trends. His insights on our information age will forever ring true.

“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Who bears the cost of information overload? Continue reading “What can the scientist who presents learn from Herbert Simon (Part 2)”

Presentation traps 8 – the knowledge trap

“And here, you see…” These are the famous words that ring hollow to the blind. But the lack of knowledge leaves us just as blind – a temporary type of blindness, assuredly, but blindness nevertheless. For knowledge only lights up the world of the expert rambling along, finger pointing to familiar shapes on the laptop screen, and occasionally on the projector screen (the one everybody sees) whilst most of us in the audience, eyes stretched in front of us, grope in the dark and clutch at shadows.

The trap is common: the presenter expects all of us in the audience to be experts. We feel like the little Marys and Johnnys in primary school reading the story of the house cat. “The cat ate a mouse”, the story goes. “The rodent was fat.” At this precise moment, we all got the idea that the cat was a rodent – after all, it just ate a mouse!  The world has not changed that much for the scientist since primary school; the story just got a little more complex. “The felis catus ate a murine commensal. The mus musculus’s BMI exceeded that of a standard murinae.” At least scientists won’t mistake the mus musculus for a felis catus… or will they?

My advice to you is to look at the contents of ALL your slides from the point of view of ALL the people the title of your talk attracted. Who are they? What do they want from you? The answer is not a simple “they want to know about my contribution.” To know what they want, look at your title. Each search keyword in your title acts as a magnet attracting the expert AND the non-expert. For each keyword, the audience expects you to give new information AND background information. Redo and simplify your slides to remove the knowledge gap between you and the non-experts. And move your tough expert slides after your conclusion slide, ready to answer the experts’ questions during your Q&A.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Image flickr; Author Dnudson

Rules of thumb for presentations – how good are they?

Photo Flickr – by Lintmachine

People like formulas. They are expedient rules of thumb that guard against dangerous extremes. “Plan for one minute  and a half per slide”, some say, “and never put more than 5 bullets point and more than 5 words per bullet point”. Under these rules lie hidden assumptions about people’s attention span, prior knowledge of the presented topic, text readability, number of clicks needed to go through the material on the slide, audience interactivity, and more!  Presenters could be fooled into thinking that as long as these rules of thumb are followed, their presentation will be fine.

Rule of thumb #1: “Plan for one and a half minute per slide” is about as silly as telling a writer “Plan for chapters with 20 pages”. What is the purpose of this rule? It prevents presenters from putting so much information on one slide that to cover it would take more than 90 seconds. It also prevents boredom: people don’t generally like to stare at the same information for a long time. They get bored because they can read faster than the presenter can speak. Spending three minutes explaining each bullet point is as effective as administering a sleeping pill. What is important here is visual interest, not screen-time. A 30 second slide that gathers interest is fine. A two minute slide that exploits a particularly fruitful visual is fine so long as interest is maintained (let the audience be the judge of that through their questions). A slide that dynamically reveals and removes information through the use of layers can last a very long time, and it’s perfectly fine.

Rule of thumb #2: “Use not more than 5 lines and 5 words per line” (some say six lines, some say four; some say six words per line…). This is silly too, particularly in scientific presentations where long compound nouns abound. So what is the purpose of this rule? 1) to decrease the amount of text on a slide, so that the slide remains readable; 2) to prevent long lists that remove the need to try and select what is important and leave out what is less important; 3) to force the presenter to be concise as opposed to verbose; and 4) to allow the slide to be presented in less than 90 seconds; and thus maintain visual interest by not keeping the same slide on the screen too long – a point already covered above. What is important here is, again, the “Less-is-more” principle: the need to be selective to be  legible, AND to be intelligible (clear), and finally, the need to keep visual interest with something other than words.

There is however one rule of thumb I like… but then again, because it works for me does not mean it works for you. This rule of thumb is based on your arm length and your palm size. It determines whether the text on your slide will be readable once projected on the large screen in front of your audience. Readability of text is not to be decided on the grounds that you can read everything on your PowerPoint slide, while sitting one foot away from your computer screen. High screen resolution and brightness will even allow font size 7 to be readable! So if your arm is long enough and your hand is not super tiny, and most of all, if you do not look like a chimp, this rule of thumb might work for you.

Start your slideshow. Stretch out your arm and turn your hand horizontally, fingers pointing to your left if you are right handed, and vice versa. Move away from your computer screen until your stretched hand hides the screen. Remove your hand (but do keep it at the end of your forearm) away from the screen. If you can read everything on the screen from that distance, chances are your audience will be able to read it too, once that slide is projected. Oh, by the way, if you really want to be sure, turn down the brightness of your screen to 50% and move back one half meter more 🙂

By Jean-luc Lebrun


Is “Less is more” a presentation law as universal as the law of gravity?

Image Flickr. Cesar Rincon. “There is no spoon”

Most people who browse websites covering presentation skills stumble on the maxim “Less is more“. Usually, this principle applies to the content of PowerPoint slides. Less slide (text) content to be read by the audience is seen as more beneficial to the speaker. As scientists, we should question everything, right?

Those of you who are LinkedIn members will find an excellent discussion on this principle in the “Presentation Gurus!” discussion started by Matt Gambino entitled “Ways to convince co-workers that “less is more” in PowerPoint”.

Generally, I agree with the “less is more” principle and promote it in my courses. Why? The more there is on a slide, the more that slide has separate areas of focus. The problem then becomes one of synchronicity between the oral comment of the speaker and the visual focus of the audience on the part of the slide that visually matches the oral comment. Perfect synchronicity is impossible in practice. Either we linger on points for which we have insufficient prior knowledge while the expert speaker moves on to other points. Or we disagree with the point made and stop following the other points, constantly returning our eyes to the point of contention. Or the speaker fails to verbally or visually identify on the slide the target where our attention should be focused, imagining that we are able to use our knowledge or his speech to figure it out by ourselves. Most of us, non-experts, can’t.  To reduce such synchronicity problems, presenters use layers, laser pointers, they introduce one bullet at a time, or they make each bullet become one slide. The problems are reduced, but not to the point they disappear!

So… Let’s start questioning the assertion “Less is more”, as scientists.

1) Is there a lower boundary to less under which less is less?

Clearly, one cannot push the limit past a certain lower boundary beyond which, slide support is no longer effective. The sketchy or vague information on each slide may become so cryptic that the oral comment is bound to go beyond the slide content, thus creating an attention divide between slide content and oral content.  Research shows that, in such situations, memory is less effective and brain activity is lesser than under full undivided attention (encoding slows down in the”hypoccampus, temporal and prefrontal cortex of the left hemisphere*”).

The lower boundary is also defined by the interdependencies within the points made on a slide. When a slide makes multiple inter-related pojnts, these points must remain on the same slide for the audience to see the interdependencies. In this case, less, would force the presenter to divide the slide into multiple slides, and that in turn would force the audience to remember the contents of the previous slides to be able to see the interdependencies. In reality, we don’t remember. Working on making slides independent of each other is a move in the right direction.

The lower boundary is also influenced by the gap between the prior knowledge level of the audience and the knowledge level expected by the speaker. If that gap is large, less “just in time” background information, results in less understanding.

2) Are there situations where, clearly, less is not more, but more is more?

I can think of at least four situations where this would apply:

If providing less contents does not fulfil the expectations your slide title raised in the audience (even the title of your talk), more is more as the speaker needs to meet the expectations that any slide title raises.

For the second situation, imagine a scientist with an accent so thick that the audience understands less than a quarter of the words pronounced. In this situation, the scientist could say less, and possibly read more or display more while giving ample time to the audience to read along and to figure out what the graphics contain since graphics are usually understood regardless of language for the most part.  They are vital when it comes to understanding and essential when it comes to convincing. In this case, the audio track is not essential as long as the video track is self-explanatory. More (legible) text on a slide would bring better understanding. Since the memory required to associate the sounds heard from the speaker with the written words on the slide is far too large, the audience rapidly gives up and reads.

A third situation arises when we consider that, since the lack of synchronicity is one of the causes for the “less is more” principle, the speaker can increase synchronicity by slowing down the pace, but also by adding arrows, circles, and other attention-calling methods such as callout boxes, colour /size change, animation, etc. In this case, more is more.

Lastly, my fourth example is inspired by an earlier comment of Ed Skarbek: more is more if you have access to more than one screen to visualize your information, and facilitate comparisons – assumed here is that the extra screens carry visuals, not just text.

I hope this provides a more balanced perspective to the “Less is More” maxim.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

“The Effect of Divided Attention on Encoding and Retrieval in Episodic Memory Revealed by Positron Emission Tomography”. Tetsuya Lidaka & Al,*Journal of cognitive neuroscience archive. vol.12. issue 2. March 2000,p267-280

Presentation traps 7 – the cultural trap

Image from Flickr; “The return of Edward Hyde” by Luis Carlos Arauio.

I have much respect for authors who go to great lengths to get an attractive title for their  paper. “The Inflammatory Macrophage: A story of Jekyll and Hyde”* is a fantastic title… for westerners familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 book “The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Now imagine the biologist from a chinese university reading that title for the first time. What will he do? Search for these two scientists, Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Hyde, in the reference section for their journal publications? Will the search be fruitful? Beware of cultural icons, in your title or in your talk.

For the sake of clarity, do not use metaphors or expressions that are meaningless to a foreign audience. Take baseball language, for example. It is understood by a few nations only – The scientist who claims his lab is batting a thousand in proteomics research, and has all its bases covered is certain to lose Dr. Pierre Lebrun, and Dr Xiao Hong. I remember buying the book “Playing for Pizza” written by my favourite author John Grisham. I could not understand a thing. The baseball language effectively excluded me from most of the story.

For the sake of clarity, do not display your extensive culture by using a sophisticated word where a simpler one exists. Doing so creates a distance between you and your audience in terms of understanding (common word) or comprehension (sophisticated word). Think audience. The scientists attending your talk may have good knowledge of the keywords used in your domain, but they may not have your culture. French presenters, beware. To the native English speaker, you seem to use a very sophisticated English during your talk, when in fact, you use words that are in your everyday French language, pronounced “à la sauce anglaise“. And now you have another example of such mis-behaviour: using foreign words to display your extensive culture. If you want to know why the French seem to speak such polished English, look here (hint: it started in year 1066 Anno Domino) – Beautiful latin, isn’t it? Sorry, I’m manifestly getting off base on this one. ARGH! I think it’s time for a tin of spinach – Hey, Popeye!

By Jean-luc Lebrun

*JS Duffield, the inflammatory macrophage : a story of Jekyll and Hyde, clinical science (London). 2003 Jan ;104(1) :27-38

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


020 Telecom metaphor for effective scientific communications

Our new guest, Dr Francis Yeoh, CEO of the National Research Foundation, is drawing a useful analogy from the field of telecommunications to clarify the duties of the scientist who presents, and clearly define the conditions under which communication to an audience is effective. Transmitter, Receiver, Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR)… This fruitful metaphor will open your eyes so long as you open your ears… to this podcast!

(Flickr image by Woodleywonderworks)

017Presenting patents and formulas

Strangely enough, knowing what is important in a patent presentation enables us

1) to bring light on an age-old question: Should one display formulas in a scientific talk?

2) to learn how to position our scientific contribution in the best possible light

Our guest, Dr Leong Munkew, was until recently CTO and deputy CIO of  the Singapore National Library Board.

What can the scientist who presents learn from Herbert Simon (Part 1)

Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon, in a 1969 article entitled “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World”, points out the problems created by the wealth of information.

A rabbit-rich world is a lettuce-poor world. […] Now, when we speak of an information-rich world, we may expect, analogically, that the wealth of information means a dearth of something else – a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

Let’s step back from this world view, down to the ballroom where the scientist presents. The problems are similar. During a presentation both presenter and slides are competing for the attention of the audience. Attention, Herbert Simon points out, is not easy to divide.

Human beings are essentially serial, 0ne-thing-at-a-time devices. If they attend to one thing, they cannot simultaneously, attend to another.

Expecting the audience to discover alone how to connect what is heard with what is seen on an information-rich slide, is expecting far too much! Discovering which area on the slide is alluded to by the speech, requires much attention. Because attention, like the time it requires, is scarce, little attention is left for the later (and much more important)  stage of knowledge extraction from the message content. By the time the audience is ready to process the information, the presenter will often have shifted to a new area of interest. And the twain do not meet!

Matching what the eyes see with what the ears hear is not simple. It is not just a matter of helping the eye focus on the area being described (although it helps). The audience has to be familiar with the vocabulary and symbols used, and has to have prior domain knowledge before being able to match oral information with visual information. For example, display multiple colorful shapes on a screen, say a blue dodecagon, a red circle, and a green cone,  and ask the audience: focus on the polygonal shape with an infinite number of sides, and whose shape reflects light in the 620-670 nanometer range. The audience is presumed to have sufficient prior knowledge to identify the shape. But how learned is the audience? How much of the vocabulary used by the presenter is understood by the audience? And what is wrong with “look at the red circle”.

What can we learn from the time-bound antagonistic relationship between attention and information-rich slides?

1) Help the audience visually identify the object requiring people’s attention using the simplest possible vocabulary before you talk about this object, in order to minimize the demands on what will always be a limited attention pool.

2) Decrease the amount of information on a slide (by layering, pruning, or condensing) to a level that allows the audience to have more time to pay attention to what you say because it has less to look at, in a given amount of time.

3) Confine your oral comments to what is visually singled out –  To be matched, oral and visual information require co-location of attention. Synchronize the two. Do not digress.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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.

009 not so expert audience with distracting laptops

Most conference proceedings now come in CD or DVD format instead of paper. How does that change the behaviour of the audience?

Presenters often assume that the audience they are facing is made up of experts in their field. Is that assumption valid? What can we assume our audience really knows? Should what earlier presenters say during their talk influence what we should cover during our talk?

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.

What can the scientist who presents learn from Pascal (Part 1)

Pascal is a seventeenth century scientist who –like Watt, Volt, Ampere, Joule, Newton– has his name forever associated with Science via a Standard International unit of pressure, the Pascal (Pa). But Pascal is also a great philosopher, and his famous “Thoughts” (Pensées), contain valuable insights for presenters.

(Thought 47) There are some who don’t write well, but speak well. The place or the audience warms them, so much so that they are able to draw from their mind more than they could without that warmth.”

Some of us are like that. Our spoken English is better than our written English, even though it may still be broken English. During our face-to-face with the audience, most of us would feel much more at ease, if only we could find that warmth Pascal mentions… You will not find it if you do not look for it. Find a friendly face in the audience, and let its warmth release your thoughts. Return your smile, not just to that face, but to all, to thaw the audience. You may not have much control over the place, but your smile certainly has the power to defrost any audience. Then let the defrosted audience contribute to the total release of your brilliant mind 🙂

(Thought 369) “Memory is necessary for all the operations of reason.”

Your reasoning may be faultless, yet not be followed by your audience. All too often, the presenter ignores this fundamental need of the reasoning brain: memory. Naturally, in the presenter’s brain, knowledge is already memorised – not so for the audience. Here are six foolproof ways to care for the memory needs of an audience of scientists:

1) As with computer RAM, you need to refresh the memory. Do not say “as we’ve seen on a previous slide,” but say again what you demonstrated on that previous slide. Repeat. As you describe and explain the contents of one slide, make sure to give the audience everything it needs to understand it, right there and then.  Slide and narration together make one self-contained unit. But your slide illustrates your speech, not your speech illustrates your slide.

2) Avoid acronyms, pronouns, and uncommon abbreviations (in speech and on slides). Pronouns and acronyms are shortcuts which rely on memory for understanding. They stress the memory. Catch yourself saying “This shows,” and replace this with what it refers to as in “This increase in temperature shows.”

3) Announce what is coming on later slides. It prepares the memory, as the cup of water primes the old cast iron hand water pump before water gushes out its spout. But also announce what is coming on the next slide. The upward movement of the pump handle creates an air vacuum that lifts the next  load of water. The equivalent of this upward movement in a slide presentation is the oral transition. It creates a vacuum for your upcoming explanations and slide. The transition draws the audience into your next point.

4) As you describe and explain the contents of one slide, give the audience time to understand. Slow down the pace. To continue our hand-pump metaphor, fill the jar of water, one stroke of the handle at a time. Do not use the tap metaphor and drown the poor audience. The brain needs time to process and store the information it wishes to remember. Information flowing at too rapid a pace is bound to cause memory overflow and errors in reason.

5) The more points you make per slide, the more complex it becomes, and the more you stretch the memory. Therefore, make one single point per slide. One cannot memorise what one does not understand. And one fails to understand when the overloaded memory is unable to support the operations of reason.

6) Avoid lists, instead make your point visually. People do not remember lists, but they remember visuals. Be low on text content, but Be high on simplified visuals for which the density of information has been reduced to memory-acceptable levels.

By Jean-luc Lebrun