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

016Questions from experts and head hunters

Our new guest, Dr Leong Mun Kew, reveals what brings senior researchers to your talk. He even mentions the type of questions he would ask when head hunting for his lab. This insider view into presentation outcomes comes from the man who is now CTO and acting CIO of the Singapore National Library Board.

015 personal credibility

Not every piece of research represents a paradigm shift. How is one to present research which is lower on the innovative scale? In this podcast we also discovers that a polished abstract is not enough to bring an audience to your talk. Listen in as Professor Motiwalla shares his experience.

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

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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

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

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

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

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

Presenters with Foreign Names

Lebrun is my last name. Actually, I have no prior name, so my last name is theoretically my first name, but in fact my first name is jean-Luc. Confused? Alright, let’s start again. Lebrun is my family name and Jean-Luc is my given name. The family name is not given, it is inherited:)

My name is easy to pronounce, at least I think so, my parents think so, and so do the 200 million French-speaking people, but you might find it difficult to pronounce. Our name is a people interface. It is like a door handle. It gives access to us. It is the opening move in the networking game. Cryptic, indecipherable names are intimidating, possibly repulsive. Some will avoid talking to you for fear of mispronouncing your name – a serious offence in their culture. How would you pronounce the Vietnamese last name “Phuc”? Look here.

So when your name appears on your title slide, make sure you also provide the easy-to-pronounce short form of your name in the language spoken during the conference. “Hi, my name is  Jean-Luc Lebrun, but you can call me John”.  “Watakushino namaiwa jean-luc Lebrun desu, jonto yondekudasai”. “Ni Hao, wode mingzi shi jean-luc Lebrun, danshi ni keyi jiao wo “Yue Han”. In Singapore, people from Chinese descent often adopt an English given name to make it easier for their non-Chinese speaking friends to address them, particularly when your first name is easily mispronounced.

Telling people how they can address you, will encourage them to ask questions during the Q&A since they know how to address you in a manner acceptable to you. Put the burden of making your name easy to pronounce ON YOU, not on the audience. It will reveal your social skills and your wish to be accessible to all. Here is a movie I produced on the topic of pronouncing names.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

12 pearls of presenter wisdom

This podcast will not explain why the word “pearl” has been associated with the word wisdom, but it will give you tips you probably can’t live without.

For those of you who are interested,  the expression “pearls of Wisdom” might have biblical origins.  (a person without discernment (who is not wise) is someone who casts pearls before swine – pearls here would refer to valuable words revealing the good news – Matthew 7:6)

PowerPoint effects without effects

Effects without effects video

When navigating back to an interesting slide during the Q&A session, things do not always happen as the scientist who presents would like them to! Instead of going straight to the place of interest, the desired slide releases its contents, a click, and an effect at a time, as it did during the formal presentation, until it finally reveals the complete visual. There is a better way… as this video reveals.

Buy your way out of troublesome questions

Preempt. Nice verb, but little used. It is composed of two parts: “pre” which means “before”, and “empt” which comes from the latin “emere” –  “to buy”. In essence, to prempt is to buy your way out of a potentially difficult situation before it has a chance to happen.

What is there to preempt when you present?

1) The embarrassment to have to admit that you are not the expert the audience thought you were

If you have been asked to present on behalf of the first author, chances are, that during the Q&A, you will get expert questions only the first author (not you) could answer. Naturally, you should have turned down the invitation to be a substitute, but you may not have had the choice, or you may have found the invitation to attend that conference in sunny Hawaii, just too tempting! It is best to preempt such expert questions by warning the audience prior to the q&a session that you are not the first author, and that there could be questions you might not be able to answer immediately. Of course, as its name indicates, such a preemptive move has a cost: you will not be considered an expert, and networking with experts will be limited. But it is far better to honestly set the expectations than to have to face experts noisily expressing their disappointment towards your lack of in-depth knowledge, live, in front of your audience.

2) The embarrassment to have to admit that your contribution cannot immediately solve people’s real problems

Often times, you are presenting mouth-watering research, at least in terms of potential, but it is based on modelling, or it is still at the proof of concept stage. During the Q&A, questions abound on the significance of your work, or on its manufacturing or marketability. All your answers end up sounding like “we haven’t done that yet”, “we’re looking into it”, or “this is yet to be determined.” The audience is disappointed. Your title seemed to indicate the contribution was real and had already gone beyond the experimental stage, but it was a pipe dream. Therefore, preempt such misconceptions. Set up the scope, the exact nature of your accomplishments up-front in your talk. That way, the audience will not have the wrong expectations. During your conclusion, honestly announce what are the next steps necessary to take your contribution closer to a real tangible product or application. As in the previous case, this preemptive move has a cost. It might deflate the enthusiasm of a few people in the audience, but preemting is better than to have to minimise the impact of your work during the q&a.

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.

bizet-fugue

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

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