What can the scientist who presents learn from Antoine de St Exupery

“It seems that perfection is reached, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

(Terre Des Hommes, Chapter 4)

This is so applicable to scientific presentations. The starting point of a presentation is usually the scientific paper. Selection of the contents of the presentation is, for most, a subtractive process, the result of chiseling out and polishing of material until it looks deceptively natural, having “the elemental purity of the contours of a shoulder or a breast”, writes St Exupery.

The presenter knows that naturalness has come to a slide when side details that clothe the basic idea have been removed; when diagrams, transmuted from high density lead to light density aluminum, still conduct information to our resistive brains; when the eye and the ear, in total harmony, never divorce or separate because the visual life of any projected object, as it makes its way to our brain, never extends beyond its spoken life. Once the visual’s verbal amplification comes to an end, the clarity of the visual content is such that lingering on the visual is not required unless the presenter encourages further contemplation to give nascent ideas time to germinate.

What gives an outline that natural shape? It is the title of your talk. Let its invisible hand guide your chisel.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Source Flickr. Author bmhkim

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

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)

Robert Geroch suggestions applied to the subtitle of your talk

You will find Dr Geroch’s “suggestions for giving talks”, online. The paper is stored on arXiv.org, the open access site managed by Cornell University. I have read this excellent paper many times and recommend you do likewise. My intent is not to ask you to change the title of your  talk. As soon as your conference abstract or paper has been accepted, this title is pretty much carved in stone. It will bring the audience to you – and, justifiably, the audience expects the title of your talk to be the same as that featured in the conference program. A dull demagnetized title or a title replete with repealing highly technical keywords cannot be repaired post publication. Expect experts or sleepers to your talk. If, on the other hand, your title has centripetal appeal, if it is a centre of interest to experts and non experts alike, you can enhance its understanding and appeal, right there and then, on the title slide, by adding a subtitle that really makes your focus clear. A good subtitle is easily understood by ALL.

Dr Geroch writes

“Thus, for an audience of relativists, “Linearized Fields in a Kerr Background Metric” sounds technical, “Perturbations of the Kerr Solution” sounds dull, and “Black Holes are Stable” sounds good.”

Questions are often frowned upon by editors when used as titles, but they are always acceptable as subtitles on a title slide. “Can a mesocellular siliceous foam firmly entrap a catalytic enzyme?”, “what if we could actually firmly entrap a catalytic enzyme in a mesocellular siliceous foam?”  Notice that the expectations set by these two questions are different. The first question focuses the audience on the couple of words “firmly entrap” – a method -, while the second question prepares the audience to a presentation of the outcomes of firm catalytic enzyme entrapment.

Use the subtitle to guide audience expectations, but do not let that be an excuse to skip the presentation of the keywords that brought the audience to your talk in the first place.

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.”

Learning from Peter Feibelman

In his marvellous little book, “A Ph.D. Is Not Enough”, solid state physicist Professor Feibelman uses a metaphor near and dear to my heart, that of the fugue.

“But in giving your talk, you should just tell a story. Its structure should be organic, invisible. Your listeners should be propelled from idea to idea with the same sense of inevitability they feel on hearing a Bach fugue.”

Professor Feibelman likes fugues of the musical kind, and to help you understand his point, I ought to explain what he means by “the sense of inevitability”, but without a fugue to listen to, it is an impossible task!

So, given the tremendous restrictions one faces when playing back (and Bach) music on the web, I decided to download the music score of Bizet’s Symphony in C, now in the public domain, and spend the rest of the day to enter the music score inside Logic Pro 8, hire a few Garageband instruments to play the cello, violins, viola, and basson, and give you (a royalty free) 52 seconds of the fugue contained in the second movement of the symphony (adagio). I added the sound of the bell right before the theme of the fugue is played. Listen to the mp3 file, and come back to this text, otherwise, you will not appreciate Professor Feibelman’s “sense of inevitability” comment.


I know, the music sounds robotic without quantization and cheesy without the high end Native-Instruments samples, but the purpose of this piece is not to stop you from attending an orchestral performance of Bizet’s symphony in C, or from buying Charles Munch‘s great rendition of it. The purpose of this piece is to describe the “sense of inevitability”.
The same theme is presented five times in the space of 50 seconds or so. You cannot ignore it, and you cannot forget it. Between each presentation of the theme, the composer uses musical glue to enhance the theme and bring cohesion to the piece. As more and more instruments are added, the music rises to a crescendo.  How aptly the metaphor applies to presentations! The theme of your presentation is your title. Each one of your slides refreshes that theme. Your title “organically” moulds  the structure of your presentation. From time to time, you may have a transition slide, or you may transition between two slides while the screen behind you is blanked. These transitions are the equivalent to the musical glue the composer adds between the end of the theme’s presentation and its inevitable resurgence in a richer environment.

The fugue inevitably rises to a crescendo as more and more instruments are added. In the fugue metaphor, each slide is an instrument. Your past slides have to be so clear that their theme continues to ring, reverberate in the recesses of your mind, blending harmoniously with your future slides. A fugue becomes more and more complex as the various parts contribute their melody, but not one of these parts disregards the theme of the fugue. They all support and enhance it. The end result is a harmoniously complex musical delight whose greatest strength is the focus of your attention on ONE THEME. May this be true also of all your scientific presentations, and let that theme be your title.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Presentation traps 5 – the title trap

Image source: Flickr, Author: Docman

Time after time, presenters repeat the same mistake: the title slide is on the screen behind them, they turn towards the screen, read the title, and possibly also read their name (why stop now), then immediately move on to the next slide.

Dear presenter (you don’t mind if I call you dear, do you, for I really care for you), WHY DO YOU DO THAT?

The audience can read; the chairperson can read and has probably already read aloud your name and title anyway; and I have no doubt the audience already know you can read 🙂

The title is there, on the screen, simply because it is also on the conference program, and the participants eager to attend your talk want to make sure they are in the right room when they come in. The title is not meant to be read: it is meant to be explained, to be paraphrased, to be demystified. To prepare for that, simply picture yourself having to explain your title to someone who is not quite an expert. Listen to him or her ask: “So what does it mean?”. That is what you tell the audience while your title slide is displayed. There is no need to even look once at the screen. You want total eye contact with your audience during the whole time your title slide is on the screen.

No reader ever spends much time on the title page of a book, so why should the presenter spend more time on the title slide than it takes to read it? You do not need to spend more than 30 – 45 seconds on the slide, but you definitely cannot spend less than 5 seconds. People in the audience need to reset their attention on you and on your topic as they move from one presenter to another, and that takes time. They need time to look at you, absorb you, move from a neutral to a positive attitude and like you (don’t push it though, they don’t need to love you 🙂 ) and know a little more about your title than its dry condensed word-encoded meaning. Some, usually half of your audience, the non experts, need a little help from you to increase or validate their understanding of your title. They need time to see who else is working on your research or who else is sponsoring you to trust you as an authority on your topic.

In summary,

Your  Title Slide – don’t face it, don’t read it, and don’t rush it.

And you’ll be –          more affable, more audible, more credible, and more understandable.

By Jean-luc Lebrun