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)”

Look at things as if for the first time

Image Flickr. Author Jeep Novak!

While reading the great little book “Advice for a young investigator” by Santiago Ramon y Cajol, Nobel laureate 1906, I stumbled upon a quote the author attributed to another Spaniard, Perez de Ayala: “Look at things as if for the first time”. Somehow, this quote sent me back in thought inside the conference room where the scientist presents. There sits an audience looking at a slide for the first time. The presenter, however, may have been looking at it more than ten times, during its creation, revision, rehearsal, and presentation. Nothing is new. It is simply a slide to explain – in its broad lines.

The audience is puzzled. Why does figure A not quite overlap figure B? The title claims both findings agree… Is the presenter making things look better than they are to force conviction? Naturally, the presenter knows that the reason for the slight discrepancy is noise in the data; therefore, the conclusions stated in the slide title stand firm. But the audience is not told. Had the presenter looked at things as if for the first time while rehearsing, had the presenter probed every inch of the slide for all the possible questions the visuals could raise among the non-experts in the audience, such discrepancies would have been highlighted and explained during the talk. Naturally, that requires time, and less can be presented. But less is more. What the presenter buys in exchange for the loss of slides is credibility and authority.

My advice to the scientist who presents is to look at each slide as if for the first time while rehearsing, and let that rehearsal time be the presentation time. I would trade off time for clarity and authority, any time, at all times 🙂

By Jean-Luc Lebrun

 

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

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.”


Visible map and invisible shortcuts – navigation tools

The Map Slide (video)

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

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

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

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

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

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

hyperlinks gone wild

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

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

Dangling Hyperlink gets attached to wrong slide in PowerPoint 2008

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

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

Animate using motion path or action builds

 

Motion Path animation (PowerPoint)

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

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

Use animations in the following circumstances:

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

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

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

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

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

Do not use animations in the following circumstances:

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

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

004 Keeping to time

Saved by the bell? Not the presenter.  You may be cut off mid-sentence by the chairperson if you exceed the given presentation time . Your punch line  may never be heard. Where in your presentation are you most likely to drift? And how do you prevent drifting? Find out from our podcast experts, Dr Sinclair and Dr Curry.