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 Withdrawn, stern face turned away from the audience as they gather their makeshift notes, their body language clearly communicate they have no inclination to answer any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

Three things that negatively impact your delivery


The first thing to keep in mind is not to keep in mind concerns that have nothing to do with your presentation, the extraneous: how do I look, who is that guy looking at me intently, why is my boss here, why are they all sitting at the back, and the list goes on. You can now dedicate yourself fully to the task at hand.

The second thing not to keep in mind is the slide mechanics that force you to take manual control of your presentation and to turn to the screen to validate the accuracy of your memory recall. If you have rehearsed enough times, you are on automatic pilot. You do not have to look at your slides when you click the “next”button on your presentation remote. You know. You can now immerse yourself in your topic and your audience.

The third thing not to keep in mind at the beginning of your presentation is your body. Passengers feels the vibration of the cabin as the plane takes off the runway. Slight body tremors may cause concern as you launch into your presentation. Your limbs may feel as though they have lost their GPS coordinates. Brain turbulence create pressure zones around the throat and feet areas demanding immediate. The salivary gland may seem to have closed shop for the day, leaving you high and dry. The sooner you remove the drag created by your body, the sooner you can retract the gear and propel yourself to glide in the friendly sky.

PowerPoint drawbacks: up front and impersonal

New England Journal of Aesthetic Research
New England Journal of Aesthetic Research

You are supposed to be up close and personal. You are also supposed to be upfront… but up front, facing the audience, things are not so close and personal. It’s them versus you: them sitting and listening, and you standing and talking next to your faithful computer FIDO and its wireless leash. But the one on the leash is you. If you strand too far away, FIDO will radio you back to base, or bite you with its one and only bluetooth. That impalpable wall between you and the audience is a barrier. Granted, it is more of a psychological than a solid one, but it is a barrier nonetheless.

Imagine what might have happened had you untangled yourself from FIDO’s leash. Actually, you don’t have to. Andrew Askew, Assistant professor of Physics, Florida State University has done it and this is what he says.

“The use of the PowerPoint slides was acting as a straitjacket to discussion. […] We removed the PowerPoint slide, and like a big glass barrier was removed between the speaker and the audience. […] The communication became a lot more two-way instead of just the speaker speaking at length for 15, 20 minutes. The audience really started to come alive, to look up from their laptop computers and actually start participating in the discussion, which is what we were really trying to foster.”

(  from an interview by Alan Yu on all tech considered NPR radio )

The scientific presentation is a way for the scientist to get feedback on his or her work, to start a discussion. When will PowerPoint become fully interactive? When will audience input easily appear on the presenter slide (through their phone or tablet PowerPoint app)? When will presenters start interacting with the data on their PowerPoint slides with the existing but rarely used electric pen? When that day comes, when PowerPoint comes of age, maybe Jeff Bezos and Jeff Weiner will celebrate its return in their company meetings. For now, for them, PowerPoint, the fabled passivating presentation tool, is persona non grata.

Fear is not your enemy, it is your judge!

Anxiety is the sum of all fears. Here are four more fears to add to the six introduced in a prior blog entry (

Is your fear, the fear of unknown faces? Did you attempt to network with one or two people from the audience prior to your talk to make the unfamiliar somewhat more familiar and get one or two spontaneous smiles from your new acquaintances?

Is your fear, the fear of forgetting? Did you rehearse your talk to the point you could focus more on the audience than on your content? If you did, and the fear is still there, is it because your presentation is not built like a story with a plot easy to remember? Does the story plot keep you and your audience close to Main street (the title of your talk), or does it  instead go down dark alleys where every one trips over the overflowing garbage cans of Must-Not-Forget-to-Say details?

Is your fear, fear of not finishing on time? Who are you trying to impress? Content does not dictate pace, understanding does. As far as understanding is concerned, less is more. Are you under the false impression that the audience must thoroughly understand your work when in fact, it should understand enough to see how valuable it is?

Is your fear, fear of not getting any questions? Does a ghostly silence usually follow your talks when you ask for questions? People who do not understand your topic well enough do not ask questions. Do you think people come to you for expertise or do they come to you, the expert, to be interested by someone who masters his or her subject so well that jargon is never used, or so well explained, it is never a problem?

Find out the root cause of your fear, and change your ways. Alternatively, you could let fear be your judge 🙂

judge advocate general department of the  navy


Avoid the presentation kill zones


Wikimedia – public domain 

During a  Fresh Air National Public Radio program, astronaut Christ Hadfield said that during their flight rehearsals at NASA, Astronauts go sequentially over the various problems that may result in rapid (and usually final) death if they do not deal with them right away (tip: search for the word “kill” in the interview transcripts). The lesson learned is that you also, have to prepare for these killing situations as a presenter. Let’s review some:

1) You require audio out because your presentation contains a video or an audio byte and the sound coming out of your computer speakers is not loud enough to he heard by everyone in the room.


a) The VGA cable that connects the computer to the projector does not have an audio cable – or the projector does not have embedded speakers.
b) The audio cable from the room audio system is not plugged into the audio out of the computer.
c) The audio cable is connected to the audio out of the computer but the volume is set to zero or the fader on the mixer in the equipment room is pulled all the way down.

2) You require video out because you have prepared a short video clip of your experiment. You have recorded the video in a specific file type (WMV, MOV, MP4,MPEG 2) and your video is linked to your presentation, not embedded.


a) The computer does not have the right CODEC to read the video format.
b) The video file is not found and the slide displays the poster frame of the video, but not the video.
c) the video plays but no audio comes out (see point 1).

3) You have a wireless microphone with a battery pack or a presentation remote with two AA or AAA batteries and you are presenting at the end of the day after twelve other presenters. The presenter before you just handed you the mike.


d) The 9V microphone battery dies during your talk.
e) The Laser dot from your presentation remote is pink instead of red and people cannot see it.
f) The presenter before you turned on the well-hidden mute button on the mike and your mike does not work.

4) You rehearsed with slide timing before the presentation.


g) Your slides have a life of their own and change to the next slide without you clicking any button on the remote.

5) You prepared your presentation on your PC and the computer used for conference presentations is a Mac – or vice versa – and you thought they would have allowed you to use your own computer – but they did not.


h) Most of your text is misaligned. Your slides look awful.
i) The computer only has Keynote (a Mac-Only App) installed, not PowerPoint.
j) The computer has PowerPoint installed, not Keynote.
k) The video adapter is specific to Mac (not the usual VGA female to VGA male adaptor PCs have), or to PC (not the usual Thunderbolt to VGA Macs have).

6)  You used the latest version of PowerPoint and the presentation computer runs XP and PowerPoint 2007.


l) Some of the features you enjoy in the latest version of your software are not available in earlier versions. Your great work now looks mediocre.
m) Your file cannot be read. You are a lateX geek, a die hard open office advocate, a Prezi guru, a Macros-rule-the-world Visual Basic aficionado.

These are just a small sample of what could potentially incapacitate you. Are you ready? Here are the precautions to take to avoid such situations.

1) Find the cable, find the person who knows where the cable is, find the person who knows the person who knows where the cable is and where it should be connected. Find the person who has access to the control room where the video/audio switcher is located, or  find the fader corresponding to the audio out of your computer on that audio mixer, or find the remote that controls the fader, or find the piece of paper that shows you how to control the equipment. Connect the cable. Move the fader to the zero db mark. Check that your audio out is set at full volume on your computer… But best of all, figure out what the problem is before you start your presentation by rehearsing in situ in vivo (not in vitro).

2) Compress your video using different codecs and come with at least a .mov, a .mp4, and a .wmv file. Have a converter program on your computer. Embed the video into your presentation. If you use a linked file, create  a folder that contains your presentation as well as all media used in your presentation. Link your files to your presentation from that folder. Transfer the folder to the presentation computer, not just the main presentation file.

3) Locate where the spare batteries are hidden (usually in the control room where all AV equipment is located). Ask the technician for a spare set of batteries (9V or AA, or AAA batteries) for mike and remote.  Figure out how to replace the batteries in the wireless mike battery pack or the presentation remote before your talk. Also find out how to locate the various activation buttons on the wireless battery pack, and find the LCD that shows the battery level (1 to 4 bars). Check that before you start using the mike. If the mike seems non-operational, find the mute switch and see it is turned on. If the mike dies while you are talking, don’t wait till the audience tells you. Move to another mike (the podium mike for example). Try the laser beam on the remote on a white background to see whether the dot is bright. But best of all, do not rely on the laser beam for pointing; highlight on the slide itself (circle things, point to them with arrows, layer the information, etc). Have a set of spare batteries ready … just in case. And familiarize yourself with the equipment (mike and remote) BEFORE your presentation during stage rehearsal.

4) find the button “use timings” in the slide show controls, and disable it  BEFORE your presentation starts.

5) Use fonts which are the same for Mac and PC such as Arial, Verdana. Prepare a pdf version of your slides, just in case. All computers have a Adobe acrobat player. Carry with you the video cable adaptor that comes with your computer. The newer computers have USB C or HDMI. Have a cable to connect them to the traditional VGA connector.

6) Avoid using the latest and greatest versions of software. Be conservative, forget about your pet visualization software, save your presentation in the three main formats (PowerPoint, Keynote, and PDF).

Presentation qualities: time control

Hourglass, Time, Verinnen, Clock, Sand, Egg Timer

At times, it may seem that time waits for a woman to get dressed, but when it comes to conference talks, the chair will give you a dressing-down if you exceed your time.

The chair of your session HAS to keep to time. Tea breaks don’t wait; the start of a session in another conference room does not wait; the line of speakers for the morning or afternoon session cannot be compressed to compensate for the talkative few who did not keep to their time allotment.

Running late in a talk usually starts a cascade of events resulting in the destruction of hours of carefully planned preparation. When the presenter discovers that half the slides still need to be presented minutes before the end, panic sets in with the following disastrous effects:

1) No more smooth transition between slides. The narration at the beginning of each slide is cut short to a skimpy “and next”, “and here”.

2) The graphics that featured your results get the rushed treatment. The X and Y axis are not even mentioned, you frantically wave the red dot of the laser pointer on one or two peaks or valleys on your bar diagram and skip many of the details that were essential to understand the diagram.

3) By now, no more eye contact with the audience. Your eyes are on the screen full time.

4) Layers of information flash in front of the dazed audience as you click through them at a speed that prevents understanding. The audience can no longer keep in sync with what they see and what they hear.

5) Your conclusion slide is read. The nice closing statement you had planned for your big confident finish eye to eye with the audience never even made it past your lips.

The overall result:

• No time for questions

• No questions from the shell-shocked audience bombarded with words.

• Nobody interested to network with you, not after the way you treated your audience.


So how do you control time?

Rehearse so that you end 30 seconds before the time you were given for your presentation.
Over-rehearse what you say at the beginning and at the end to avoid time-wasting rambling and project a dynamic image of yourself.
Decide how much time each slide deserves and adjust the content of any slide that requires more time than you can afford.
Stage the slide content in layers to explain better AND faster AND in a more structured way.
Use timers for rehearsal or during the presentation. Some presentation remotes have built-in timers that vibrate when you are close to finish. While I present, I place my large screen iPad Pro on a seat in the front row to display the remaining time thanks to a nifty timer app named pClock.

I am also working on a new timer app which will be given to the people who attend my presentation skills class.

Anxiety: the sum of all your fears

Flickr. Neil.Moralee


Fearful speaking in front of others?

First find out the reason why you are nervous. Then get rid of that reason.

Here is a catalog of the possible reasons, and remember, more than one reason may apply: anxiety is the sum of all your fears.

  • Fear of not being prepared. you had too little time to get ready, you rushed through the preparation, you had no time to rehearse. you finished your slides the morning of the event and you don’t remember how many layers are on some slides so you have to look at them to know when the slide changes, etc…  There is no substitute for preparation.  It encompasses so much more than rehearsing (Presentation traps 9 – the rehearsal traps). You can’t wing it, Mr Icarus, because the heat of the moment will burn the wax that loosely ties your wings to your body. Sorry.
  • Fear of being the center of attention. Of course you are. They came to you because you have something they need. That’s why they are looking at you. So please, turn your marine binoculars around a second, what do you see? People have  shrunk to a size where you can see them all. They are all in the same boat. You’re the captain of the boat and they are your passengers. They have boarded your ship, and they will disembark after your talk. They are your temporary guests and you want to make sure they enjoy the journey. Show you are worth your stripes, and beam that captain smile of yours to inspire confidence in you. You know how to behave like a host, don’t you? Surely you have hosted friends and colleagues at home. Behave like a host, whose relaxed attitude comes from expertise and preparedness.
  • Fear of being evaluated by boss, peers, or subordinates. So your boss and employees are in the room attending your talk. Is that why you have to behave like Wonder Woman or Superman? The way you see it, any fragility will be a subject of later mockery. Any error will topple the statuesque figure you have worked so much to hoist onto the pedestal. But the Superman costume only fits Christopher Reeve. And the Wonder Woman suit was tailored for Linda Carter, so leave it on the rack. You are frail, you are human, you may make mistakes, but the stress caused by the acute awareness of potential mistakes brings on fear more surely than losing the jackpot. Get your boss and your employees out of your system. For example, rehearse in front of them prior to your talk. Involve them in the process. They will learn that you have gone through great pains to make your presentation a success, and they probably will give you useful feedback in the process. Otherwise, any mistake in your talk will make you crash and burn, never to regain your composure. And by the way, these mistakes you think all have surely noticed, they have probably gone unnoticed.  So there is no need to point them out during your talk!
  • Fear of loosing too much if you fail. Money, career, prestige, you name your poison. For it is your poison if it is so addictive that you turn to excipients to boost your confidence, or you let your fear pay allegiance to these monsters. Remember the book of Ecclesiastes: it is all vanity, and vanity is for the bonfire.
  • Fear of looking awful. Yes you do look awful… if you say so, since, as Pascal pointed out, “The perceptions of our senses are always right”. So what? Has your science anything to do with the length of your nose? The buckling of your legs? The gap in your teeth? The color of your shoes? The size of your belt? Is the audience attending your talk with the specific intent to be repulsed because your reputation as a frankenstein exceeds that of Boris Karloff? So stop that nonsense and focus on your objective of helping others with their scientific problems. Do not focus on self-perceived crimes against the self-perceived canons of prettiness or handsomeness, because, besides grooming, there is nothing you can do to improve your native look, but there is much you can do to make yourself attractive to others by your scientific talent and expertise.
  • Fear of questions. I see. You fear not having a ready answer, or a convincing answer. Yet you did the research, the audience did not. You conducted the experiments, chose the most adequate methods, carefully selected the data. From the data, you analytically excised the supportive evidence that warrants your conclusions, and you tentatively proposed your inner convictions in gut-spilling tables and figures. The audience did not. And if some questions seek yes or no statements, it is not to trick you; it often is to assess the usefulness of your findings and how well they would apply to people’s problems. In a way, their questions invite you to their research turf. If you work on the same turf, your fears are groundless. You are the expert. If their turf is different, you simply do not know. And it is fine to say so without feeling embarrassed. Scientific embarrassment is being caught cheating, or not being able to justify choices (data, method, or conclusions). Only then, is there reason to be afraid of questions. But since you are fully accountable, it is not the case for you. So any fear is misguided, particularly the unreasonable fear of having to say “I don’t know”. Next time you have to say “I don’t know”, finish that sentence with what you do know that is related to the question with something like “This we don’t know; However, we do know that…“. You will be seen as helpful instead of ignorant.

In conclusion, analyze your fear. You will learn much about yourself and, with that, you will find the way to master your nerves.

Presentation preliminaries: 7 professional moves


Telephone Switchboard

Source: Telefonzentralen Fotoarchiv A1 Telekom Austria

The recommendation to “connect to your audience” evokes the image of the telephone operator of old, plugging a jack into a panel to connect a caller.  “To connect” to your audience implies that the default status at the start of a presentation is that of disconnection. You are not plugged into the energy source that is latent in the audience. So how easy is it to “connect”?

That depends on the audience, doesn’t it? Sometimes the audience waiting for the stage appearance of their favorite star is so “pumped up” with expectations that the artist gets an energizing  jolt when appearing in front of the audience – a jolt that would fry most of our brain circuits for us normal human beings unused to the stage. Sometimes the audience is arctic – they haven’t asked to come, or they don’t know you, or they don’t like you – and your stage appearance has the same effect as a cold draft. To connect with that audience, you need a thawing device. But the device is not universal, it has to be adapted to the root cause of the prevalent audience attitude towards you.

For an oral presentation at a scientific conference, the audience is usually idling in neutral. They came because the topic is mildly relevant, but their default expectations regarding you are not great based on the paucity of interesting presenters among scientists. The first slides usually confirms these expectations: text heavy slides have the freezing  effect of  liquid nitrogen and the 7 bullets loading each magazine of your Power-pointed gun freezes it just as effectively.

Your job is to CONNECT in order to draw energy from the audience, but no or little energy comes from their interest in you. Your atrociously difficult-to-pronounce last name does not help and neither does the atrociously complicated syntax of the jargon heavy title. Great! What is the next move? Actually, by that time, the next move comes too late, so let’s talk about  your first moves instead.

MOVE # 1.   Start with the title of your talk. When you craft the title of your talk, make sure 1) it is reader-friendly (avoid cascading modifiers); 2) it somehow conveys the significance of your work; and/or 3) it makes people salivate or raises intense curiosity.

MOVE # 2.  Start connecting with the audience prior to your talk. Greet them at the door if at all possible. Have a friendly chat with a few people in the audience prior to your talk (in the foyer, or inside the room). You will no longer be the anonymous stranger. A few members of the audience will now know you.

MOVE # 3.   Use your microwaving smile and your high energy laser eye contact to unfreeze the audience even before you say a single word. I do not recommend the 1 second thawing cycle; spend 4 seconds or more. Hurriedness does not convey confidence.

MOVE # 4.  Thank the chair personally while facing him or her, not the audience. Possibly thank your mother to bring a smile on a few faces, and a tear on your mother’s face. (CAUTION: Don’t try that if you are not humorous by nature). Then leverage off your small initial success to pump yourself up with an extra dose of confidence .

MOVE # 5.  Be professional in your first moves: a) while smiling, put on the microphone after you have turned it off to avoid unwelcome noise, then turn it back on and test it discreetly and do not cough or rake your throat from that moment on; b) do not spend your first moments with the audience hiding behind the lectern or fidgeting with the computer, engage the audience in full view, away from the computer if your wireless mike allows it.

MOVE # 6.   Relax. This blog and the scoop pages feature techniques to achieve that physically, but nothing relaxes more that knowing you are fully prepared and well rehearsed.

MOVE # 7.  Look good. Make an effort. But don’t dress like it is oscar night.

By Jean-luc lebrun

Scientific Presentations and Chinese Proverbs – part 2

Source: Flick; Author: Rob Well.

“A road is traced by the people who walk on it.”

Acknowledge others, the people who inspired you, gave you ideas. There is always a way to acknowledge someone in a presentation. Your road may still be a path, but someone before you cleared some of the branches blocking your path!

“what touches cinnabar turns to red, what touches ink, turns to black.”

Each slide in your presentation is connected to the title slide. It gives the main color to your talk. It is your black or your cinnabar. All slides outside the title slide should support it. Since the title slide sets the expectations of your audience, any slide that would be unexpected would distract from the main color, dilute it. As a result, the main point may be lost.

“An ax cannot hew it’s own handle.”

Your main concern is to have others use what you have discovered. You provide the steel, they provide the handle. Your presentation should conclude with a clear statement of the significance of your work for others – their handle.

“One lie only, and one hundred deeds are now in doubt.”

In presentations, whatever you declare upfront to describe the significance of the problem and the need for a solution, cannot be doubted. It has to be credible. Any exaggeration (lie by amplification), or omission (lie by selection), will trigger skepticism and unbelief.  Your whole project could be in jeopardy.

“No sooner has someone come that satisfaction is due.”

The audience had a choice not to attend your talk. People have come for a reason. Understand why they came, what they need, and satisfy them. You are now in their debt.

“Better act with your hands once than to look with your eyes a thousand times.”

How does an audience act with hands during your talk? People raise arms  to ask questions. Each question is an opportunity for the deeper understanding that precedes adoption and action. Always leave ample time for questions. An audience who only looks at slides without moving to the next stage – is worthless to you. And by the way, use your hands, stretch them in an open gesture to ask for questions, don’t just look at the audience, arms along your side, waiting for people’s questions!

By Jean-luc lebrun

Scientific Presentations and Chinese Proverbs – part 1

Source: Flickr; Author: Steve Webel.

“By tongue work, eloquence is gained; By hand work, clumsiness is lost.”

People who silently rehearse their presentation looking at the computer screen never become eloquent.

People who sit while rehearsing lack naturalness when standing.

“Without ugliness, beauty does not stand out; Without salt, sugar would be less sweet.”

Without error bars, your contribution cannot stand out.

“A move is worth less than a rest”. 

Reduce your pace with periodic pauses. The audience requires rests to think, to consolidate, to catch up, to ask questions, or simply to recover for the effort of following your train of thoughts.

“Behind every gain is a loss.”

Find out what disadvantage hides underneath your so-called advantageous contribution. Look for your blind spot before the audience shows it to you.

“Warm the feet of a frozen man; Warm the muzzle of a frozen dog.”

Similar problems may require different solutions – it all depends on who is experiencing the problem. Whose problem are you solving?

“A fixed method is not a method.”

If each problem requires a different solution, it follows that the method to solve that problem will vary with the problem. Does your method include novel aspects?

By Jean-luc lebrun

the fallacy of the 10-minute attention span

I hate rules based on one-off samples. They are very seductive because they are so simple and memorable, but they are very misleading because they lack context and support. Case in point: John Medina has written a very interesting book which he promotes very well on his website Brain Rules. His marketing has convinced thousands of presenters that audience attention will wane every ten minutes and that they have to do something to recapture the attention – like one adds a coin in the mechanical kiddie ride horse to keep it going.

Continue reading “the fallacy of the 10-minute attention span”

Pinterest ,, LinkedIn… to keep up-to-date

Anyone worth his or her presenting salt keeps skills up-to-date. How? Evolution has a ready answer: “try new things, and if they work, 1) keep them and make them yours (don’t just copy/paste), and 2) retire the things which have come to the end of their road.”

Source Flickr; author Heritagefutures

But where do these new things come from? From other people of course: the expert practitioners on LinkedIn, and the hunters and gatherers who have a topic on Pinterest or Scoop. I spend a part of each day hunting and gathering as curator of the Scientific presentation skills topic on; I do it for myself, but also for others . When someone has a question I can answer in one of my LinkedIn groups, I offer a suggestion – The latest one to date was how to put an Apple-Keynote presentation on a webpage (presentation gurus LinkedIn group). I also keep a dropbox for people who follow my scientific presentation skills class and regularly add to it  material I create (for example the latest entries into my page in journal form).

By Jean-luc lebrun

Dear reader,

This blog helps the scientist who presents learn new skills. It complements the book “When the scientist presents”.

Comments and questions are welcome, just email me: whenthescientistpresents @ gmail dot com.

I also keep the following pages: 1) the SCOOP.IT page on Presentation Skills I curate; 2) podcasts featuring interviews with top presenters ; 3) The free tool to assess the quality of your scientific pape ; (More details on SWAN? See rest of post)
Continue reading “Dear reader,”

The Presenter-Lecturer: evaluating learning at end of a presentation

If you are a lecturer, you probably monitor how well your students follow your lecture. You check from time to time by asking questions or you rely on the barometer of puzzled looks and distracted students to determine whether your teaching is cloudy or the fog of incomprehension has lifted. Questions are great. They interrupt your flow of words, giving time for people to think. And thinking is how one converts words into knowledge.

iBook Author MCQ

I  recently started using iBooks Author, the free Apple software to create books or, in my case, multiple choice questions that I project from my iPad. Adding question slides that respond live to a click in a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation is near impossible. In ibook Author, it’s a cinch. You use questions as needed during the course (or at at the end of the course in a competition pitting one half of the class against the other to make things more fun). It takes time away from your  teaching but giving that thinking time to the audience multiplies the productivity of your teaching, whether they answer correctly or not!

By Jean-luc lebrun

cartoon on scientific presentation

By Jean-luc lebrun

You’ve got to love Jorge‘s cartoon on scientific presentations (the cartoon opens in a separate window). The scientist plans his talk as if it is a condensed version of a scientific paper, and naturally expects it to go smoothly and be followed by loud crowd appreciation, and an “engaging” Q&A. Just in case the crowd forgot,  an ominous 2 meter high green “Q&A” over a black background is there for all to see.

You got to love the shepherd stick handled expertly by the chairperson to bring back the lost sheep to the fold! Had the scientist been in kindergarten, he probably would have been sent to the corner 🙂


Flickr, JorgeMiente.esCastigada sin postre

(TDD) Test-Driven Development – its use in scientific presentations

How does one know that everything is going to be fine “on the night”, or at least on the big day of our presentation? Of course, one could cross fingers – but should the index finger be over the middle finger or the opposite  🙂 One could rehearse, and rehearse, and rehearse as proposed here – this works but can one rehearse the unexpected? The rehearsal trap is so pernicious!

Do you know the meaning of the TDD acronym? If you do, you are a leading edge programmer.

“In Test-Driven Development, each new feature begins with writing a test. […] it makes the developer focus on the requirements before writing the code.” (Wikipedia)

 How does that wonderful concept applies to scientific presentations?

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Learning from Henri Poincaré (part 2)

By Jean-luc lebrun

I am satisfied with taking note of the difficulty, without pretending to solve it, thus ending on a big question mark. Still, it is interesting to state problems even though their solution appears remote.

And with that sentence, Henri Poincaré ends his chapter on the Milky Way. How do you end your presentation? A bored (therefore boring) plain restatement of your accomplishments, or do you show your willingness to share the open scientific questions your work has identified? In your opinion, which option highlights the scientist in you more?

Do you find yourself intimidated by the sheer brain power of some of the scientists attending your talk? Does knowing they are in front of you have a debilitating effect on your performance? Take heart. See how Henri Poincaré pragmatically considers his own mental abilities.

“No doubt a vaster and a keener mind than ours would judge otherwise. But that matters little; it is not this superior mind that we have to use, but our own.” (Science and method, Henri Poincaré, Dover Publications, 2003, translated by Francis Maitland)

Source Flickr, Author Dullhunk


The best ice breaker that I know of is not “a” smile, but “THE” smile.

Not the cheshire cat grin, but the HAPPY smile born out of the sincere happiness of being able to communicate something of value to your audience

Not the smile constantly deformed by words attempting to make their way through horizontally stretched lips, but the SILENT smile unencumbered by words

Not the smile that doesn’t even bring a sparkle in your eyes, but the GLOWING smile that radiates from your lips and touches your eyes

Not the stressed smile you put on by necessity, but the RELAXED smile from a relaxed face.

Such a smile touches your audience; it moves people’s attitude towards you from neutral to positive.

If you find it hard to smile, if audience pressure depresses your levator and zygomaticus muscles, take heart. Look at that smiling face in the audience and let it warm you and vaporise your anxiety. The great scientist and philosopher Pascal found that out. And never mind the number of muscles required to smile (13**), because what matters is the source of the signal used to trigger your smile: Your heart, a heart who cares about the people in the audience, a heart filled with gladness because the people in the room have accepted your invitation to come and listen to you. They are your guests, you are their host. SMILE :)

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Imager Flickr; Author Didier-lq

What can the scientist who presents learn from Benjamin Franklin

Here is a passage of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, where he gives advice on how to handle people who contradict you. This is particularly applicable to situations you may encounter during your Q&A, or even in scientific discussions with other scientists. Brilliant advice, as you will discover! You may be unfamiliar with the word “Junto“: It represents a political group or faction. Notice how closely Franklin’s argument mirrors Pascal’s argument. It may well be that Benjamin Franklin was familiar with Pascal’s writings. He was living in Paris while writing this part of his autobiography. Pascal does not say what he observed as the consequence of following his own recommendations; fortunately for us, Benjamin Franklin does!

I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

Image Flickr; Author Wallyq

Nothing reveals personal expertise better than questions; therefore,…

Image source: Flickr; Author :Tintin44

They were certain that their expertise would be seen through the high density of information on their slides. They were certain that removing an ounce of proof would be like losing a pound of flesh – a tragedy of Shakespearian dimension. They were certain that confidence displayed would translate into expertise perceived. But their certainties were rational myths.

Slides never proved expertise. 1) Slides prepared by an expert may be presented by a non-expert. 2) Junior scientists not yet familiar with a field of research tend to densely pack facts and points on slides so as not to forget (mentioning) them. The more a presentation looks like a condensed version of a paper (for example by keeping the reference to figures used, or by packing on one slide all the visuals illustrating a point), the more the presenter may reveal lack of expertise. Why? An expert’s understanding of a problem is such that, what is principal claim, what is central proof, and what is key impact, are easily identified. An expert can easily unpack a slide; A non-expert can’t.

Confidence never proved expertise. 1) Multiple rehearsals give most presenters a higher level of confidence which leads to a smoother delivery – regardless on their level of expertise in the presented topic. 2) Over-confidence often marks ignorance. You only know that you don’t know when you know enough. Superficial knowledge may give you undue confidence. 3) Lack of scientific expertise cannot be inferred from the nervousness of a presenter.

Correct answers to unprepared questions prove personal expertise. It is through the Q&A following a slide presentation that the  presenter reveals the extent of his or her expertise. The unpredictability of questions and the presence of other experts in attendance guarantee it – for indeed, it takes an expert to identify an expert.

In conclusion, do not try to establish your expertise through packed slides. Let it shine during the Q&A session. But for that, you need to make sure that you have time left to answer questions! Indeed, finish slightly early so that you have more Q&A time. And when one asks a question, do not answer at length, thus wasting the opportunity to be asked more expertise-revealing questions, and to identify other scientists interested in your work.

Oh, and one last thing… An expert never answers a question with “I think”. An experts knows.

I Think, Therefore I Am…. Not an Expert (non-existentialist ending to the famous René Descartes quote)

By Jean-luc Lebrun


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


020 The TED presenter

The Apple flag gives you a hint. Our next guest is from Apple, in Cupertino California. His name is Ken Eddings – and he is the man behind Apple’s DNS. But it is not the IT guru I are interviewing, it is the Ken Eddings who frequently attends TED conferences worldwide… reason is, he provides technical support for its organizers. To those of you not familiar with TED, I recommend you go to their website:; TED advertizes itself with the slogan: “Riveting Talks by Remarkable People”.  So it was interesting to get Ken’s perspective on what is a good TED presenter, and on the type of technical issues he had to face while supporting TED talks.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

presentation traps 4 – the mouth trap

image source: Flickr. Fresh tomato sauce by Urbanfoodie33

It is the 10:15 am coffee break. Outside the meeting room is a long table covered in cream-coloured linen. On it the conference attendees find the traditional offerings: coffee, cream, Ceylon tea, brown and white sugar, and finger food to relieve the hunger pangs and make the long wait for lunch more tolerable. You did not join the people who left the room because it is your turn to present right after the coffee break. You are standing next to the computer. Your slides are ready. And you are waiting for people to come back into the room. Your friend walks in, slowly, holding a saucepan on which you see a cup filled nearly to the brim with piping hot coffee. she even thought of taking two sticks of your favourite raw sugar, and three small sealed cups of half and half cream. “Here, John. Take This. It will perk you up.” You smile, express your gratitude, move your hand towards the cup, and… STOP REWIND.

That  stainless steel pitcher of icy water glistening on the small table close to the lectern looks so refreshing. Condensation sends rivulets of crystalline water down its slippery sides. You are about to present. The glass in front of you is empty. You are a bit nervous and you think that drinking might water down that anxiety of yours. Your hand moves towards the pitcher, and… STOP REWIND.

The next day. You are also to present on behalf of your manager who missed his flight. His talk is right after lunch. The morning drags on but lunch finally arrives, and you are famished. You look at the buffet set out for the conference participants, and you see an irresistible spaghetti Bolognese dish between the roasted spuds with braised pork and the broccoli/cauliflower/mushroom/sweet peas mix. Your take the spaghetti serving spoon and lift it as carefully as a crane would lift its cargo prior to depositing it on your plate. Back at your table, you sit down, trap a wad of spaghettis between your fork and your spoon, and… STOP REWIND.

Can you say what might happen next in each scenario that may make your talk less effective?

Iced Water: Bad for your vocal chords. You need to warm them prior to a talk by speaking, not by drinking icy water. Drinking warm water is better for you, but hot coffee?

Coffee or tea: Prior to a presentation, your body produces the adrenaline hormone as a result of your anxiety. Coffee and tea contain caffeine, which helps the body keep that adrenaline of yours in your blood stream longer than it should. This is not wise. But milk?

Milk: The milk protein thickens natural mucus, such as saliva. Your anxiety may overproduce saliva which, combined with milk, thickens. As a result, your vocal chords feel as though something is getting in their way. They trigger a throat clearing reflex …while you are presenting, of course. And the sound-trapping lapel microphone you are wearing takes great pleasure in amplifying that unromantic sound to nauseating levels over the room speakers.

Spaghetti: The reason why the best restaurants offer a special towel for people who eat spaghetti is because the probability of decorating their guests’ white Armani blouse or shirt with red tomato sauce is fairly high. If the red sauce hits the target, be aware that trying to wash the stain away only contributes to spread it or, given enough water, to give you that wet t-shirt look … all this, right before your presentation, of course, with no time to return to your hotel room to change clothes. To prevent the audience from seeing the red stain, you will try to hide it in a number of different and creative ways while speaking; for example : facing the wall standing sideways,or turning your back to the audience, or holding some document in front of your chest during the whole talk… thus causing the audience to wonder what’s wrong with you !

So presenters, beware of the mouth trap. Drink warm water, avoid milk and coffee, and take a change of clothes if you intend to eat spaghetti!

By Jean-luc Lebrun

image source: Flickr. Fresh tomato sauce by Urbanfoodie33

021 Presenting to a lay audience

Today our podcast features Dr Cleo Choong. She had to give a presentation to members of parliament at the British House of Commons as part of a competition for the engineer of the year award. What is it like to present to such a prestigious gathering of elected congressmen? Did she win the competition? Find out how she handled this most difficult presentation.

source: Flickr, by vqm8383

continuity bugs in linear slide presentations

Whenever you take a non linear media and flatten it (make it linear), you introduce problems of two kinds:

1) Discontinuities in logic. The audience needs to remember what was connected to what, earlier in your presentation, to see the connection logic.

2) Discontinuity in time. As time passes, the audience remembers less and less of what they heard and saw. As a result, the memory fails to reconnect the time-broken strands of a disrupted argument.

Here is an illustration. Each square represents a slide. The slides are numbered from 1 to 5. The eroding effect of time on memory is here symbolized by the greying of colours, from dark (last slide best remembered) to grey (started to fade in memory) to dotted line (first slide, may have been presented 8 to 10 minutes before slide 5, vague or no longer remembered).

flattening problems

I assume here that all slides are equal in duration. Things worsen when slides are text heavy. We have all encountered slides that are so dense in information and take so long to explain that the audience has forgotten what was said at the beginning of the slide by the time the end of the slide is reached!

So here is my tip:

Visualize the logical connections between your slides, either as a domino or a graph. This will help you identify the potential memory-related problems your audience may face. And apply one of the following solutions to remove these problems.


The Announce technique consists in telling the audience what will be covered in the next (two) slides. The audience, once alerted, finds it much easier to keep the information of slide 1 in memory and relate it to slide 2 and 3.

The Repeat technique simply re-presents past information so as to be able to refresh fading memory (like the refresh cycle that keeps RAM memory alive!)

The Merge technique consists in keeping on the same slide all related elements, presenting them one by one (one at a time) to avoid overwhelming the audience with too much information at once, but allowing people to see past information on the same slide. Naturally, this is only possible if the slide can contain these related elements without losing readability.

The Restructure technique, as its name indicates, looks at alternative structures that would enable the contents to be presented without discontinuities.


By Jean-luc Lebrun