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 Withdrawn, stern face turned away from the audience as they gather their makeshift notes, their body language clearly communicate they have no inclination to answer any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

What can the scientist who presents learn from Pascal (Part 5)

Of somebody eloquent, people will say “He as a gift with words”. Eloquent is a term associated with  statesmen like US President Obama in our time, or with  preachers like Bossuet in Pascal’s time. But could a scientist be eloquent? Blaise Pascal, the well-known scientist of old, defines eloquence in terms that make it relevant to scientists.

 

“Eloquence is the art of saying things in such as way that 1) those to whom we speak listen without pain and with pleasure;  2) their own interest encourages them to reflect upon what they hear.

It establishes a link between the heart and mind of the listener on the one hand, and between our thoughts and how we express them on the other hand; This assumes that one has studied the heart of man and knows its power so as to control how much and what to say. One must become one with the listener and test our heart on the very words we will use to see whether they fit and rally the listener to our views. We must, as much as possible, keep ourselves to what is simple and natural, refrain from making much out of nothing or nothing out of much. Being a thing of beauty matters little if it does not serve the listener; In beauty is nothing to trim or add.”

Pascal Thought 16.

 

What I observe in Pascal is his conviction that eloquence is not a gift, but a science and the fruit of labour to reach conciseness. It is based on our thorough observation and study of others enabling us to reconstruct them in ourselves in order to test the convincing power of our own words.The power of words, however, cannot be built on exaggeration. Self-control is necessary to avoid the distorted and the complex at the expense of the natural and the simple. Words gain power when their number is restricted.

Pascal describes eloquence as a tool that leads to reflection. Unless your audience reflects and thinks about what you have just said, you will not convince. A man of many words leaving no room for silence is not eloquent. Silence punctuates speech. The audience uses silence as a time to think. Silence keeps your sentences simple and natural. Paradoxically, with silence, your speech is more concise. Framed by two moments of silence, in your sentence “is nothing to trim or add” (see also Saint Exupery ).

There is no threat, no perceived accusation in eloquent speech. There is pleasure. Words that judge like limitation, failure, disadvantage are replaced with words that encourage like enhancement, extension, consolidation, strengthening, building blocks. Eloquence belongs in a scientific presentation. It befalls the scientist to reveal how beautiful a contribution he or she has to offer without putting others down.

Although Pascal referred to the eloquence of words, Saint Exupery broadens the landscape to include figures–the scientist’s best tool to convince. Figures are our most eloquent allies. How eloquent are your visuals? Is there nothing in them to trim or add? Have you looked at them with the eyes of your audience? Have you designed them to support a point that requires convincing? Are your visuals “things of beauty” or is complexity, judgment, or glut disfiguring them? Do your figures make people think?

By Jean-luc lebrun

 

Source: Flickr; Author Mkandlez

 

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)”

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

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)

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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

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

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

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

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

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.”


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 Churchill (Part 1)

In her book We Shall Not Fail the granddaughter of Churchill comments on her grandpa’s speaking skills. Here are sentences that are of immediate value to the scientist who presents.

“[…]strike when the voice or pen is hot.”

If you have just published a paper, or  better, before you submit it for publication, find any opportunity to present its contents… to your peers, to your group. Don’t wait for the invitation, arrange the talk. Your pen is still hot, may be your paper has reached the final draft stage, and you want feedback. Everything is still fresh in your mind. It is by presenting that one becomes a better presenter.

“The best speakers share a common trait. […]. They never end a speech without asking their audience to rise to an occasion or to meet a challenge.”

Read President Obama’s last sentences of the inaugural address, you’ll find a call to action. But what is the call to action for a scientist? What occasion? What challenge? The occasion of partnering with you. The occasion of commenting on your work. The occasion of financing your work or extending the research scope. The challenge of removing the limitations you faced. The challenge to prove you wrong 🙂 or confirm your findings.

“Becoming a strong speaker, however, is not something to be learned from a book. Leaders need role models.”

Who is your role model? Who presents really well? Find out why. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Ghandi said that. Let their style inspire you. It does not need to be a nobel prize winner. Churchill was inspired by Bourke Cochran, a charismatic Irish American democrat, whose Google hits score less than 600 compared to Churchill’s 24.6 million!

“[Churchill’s] central tenet was simple and applies to nearly all forms of business as well as political communications: find the strongest reason in an argument and marshal all the available facts behind it.”

This also applies to scientific communications. The effect of a drug overdose is similar to that of an overdose of facts and slides during a scientific talk. The audience is in stupor. Focus on only making one point per slide. Do not present all the possible graphs that help you make that point. Use the most convincing one, and be ready to defend it and explain it in the most minute detail – if need be.

By Jean-luc Lebrun