Presentations have hidden traps that even the accomplished presenter falls into, especially given the inherent difficulties of the scientific presentation. Every time I see someone fall into a pothole on the treacherous road followed by the scientist who presents, I put on my orange jacket and run to place a danger sign in front of the pothole. Each trap is followed by the first paragraph of the corresponding blog entry.
In your presentation, usually at the beginning in the motivation part, a slide appears, and on that slide your method is compared to previous state of the art methods, or methods widely accepted and recognised as adequate by practitioners in the field. Of course, the comparison makes your work seem vastly superior. You feel good – after all, you are good and you have listed the weak points of other methods, either because you found out or because their authors had the intellectual honesty to recognise them.
“Probe the audience”, “Interact with the audience”, the pundits say. And out on a limb they go, the misfortunate presenters for whom good advice but poor timing garner nothing but the deathly silence of an unsympathetic audience. I recall the young scientist whose work featured the discovery of a gene associated with some sort of cancer. After introducing himself at the beginning of his talk, he probed the audience with this memorable question: “Has anyone here had a family member die of cancer?”
“Start with a joke”, “deride the audience”, “make them like you by making them laugh”, the pundits say. And out they go, on a limb as always, the serious presenters whose sense of humour is such that they usually end up being the only ones who laugh at the end of their own jokes. They rush to the web for sourcing recycled jokes, or they try out the latest joke they heard in the bar or at the canteen where everyone burst in (often embarrassed) laughter the day prior to the event (it is easier to remember). That joke often has sexual, religious, or racial connotation, and upon hearing it, the audience instantly moves from a I-am-neutral-towards-you state to a I-intensely-dislike-you state. Some may even get up and leave.
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.
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.
Think about it. You have done your best to gather the interest of your audience around your topic for a full eleven minutes. The chairperson just looked at his watch, and corrected his sitting position to move closer to the microphone. Your talk officially ends in one minute. If you play the prolongations, it will be at the expense of your three minute Q&A time during which you intend to identify who else is interested in your research for later networking opportunities. You want to keep to time. So far, so good. You bring up your conclusion slide… and you are in danger of falling into one of three conclusion traps.
I have much respect for authors who go to great lengths to get an attractive title for their paper. “The Inflammatory Macrophage: A story of Jekyll and Hyde”* is a fantastic title… for westerners familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 book “The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Now imagine the biologist from a chinese university reading that title for the first time. What will he do? Search for these two scientists, Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Hyde, in the reference section for their journal publications? Will the search be fruitful? Beware of cultural icons, in your title or in your talk.
“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.
Try and find out what is wrong with the five situations described below.
1) Sylvia is in the University library facing the screen of her laptop. She came here to have a chance to be quiet and rehearse an important upcoming presentation. She methodically looks at each slide, and silently (she does not want to disturb her neighbors) rehearses what she will say.
Your phone rings. The receptionist tells you the Japanese visitors have arrived. You take the elevator down five floors to the ground floor where the two meeting rooms are. Many people use them, and the furniture frequently gets changed to fit the requirements. You asked for a simple U-Shape table arrangement to accommodate 8 Japanese visitors in the “Small 1″ meeting room. As you welcome the visitors, you are given a handwritten note from Suzan, the facilities manager, informing you that the room has been changed due to unforeseen circumstances and that you are now presenting in the “Big 1″ – the tables have been arranged in U-Shape as requested.
Extract from the musical “The Little Prince”, based on the book written by French writer Antoine de Saint Exupery.
“Good morning Mr Switchman. What do you do here?”, asks the little prince. “I sort out travelers in bundles of a thousand. I send out the trains that carry them, now to the right, and now to the left.” The little prince asks: “They are in a great hurry. What are they looking for?” The Switchman answers: “Not even a locomotive engineer knows that!”
You are certainly familiar with scientific presentation slides that have all the structural signs of the scientific paper they were extracted from: “Introduction”, “Results”, “Conclusion” headings usually grace the top of these slides. After the title slide, you will often found a slide titled: “introduction”, “outline”, “motivation” or ”aims”. Anything wrong?
We are trapped in our body. Funny thing is, we never knew, but come the day of the presentation and body parts buried in the background of our consciousness surge into the foreground to make themselves known. Arms appear out of nowhere, with hands attached, turning us into stage puppeteers having to consciously lift and direct our limbs out of limbo. Legs descend to the ground like measuring tapes bringing back to life embarrassing gaussian deviations in the tall woman and the short man. The embarrassment stops when we forget about our body, of course, and focus instead on the audience. After all, we are the hosts and they are our guests!
Chitchatting idly at the start of a talk while waiting for the later comers to arrive, or simply to break the ice using a topic unrelated to your presentation, will upset those pressed for time, or at least pressed for contents. They are result driven, and prone to impatience. The same applies to the end of your talk or Q&A. Do not hold on to the mike, relishing in the sound of your own booming voice, waiting for gushing praise or cameras flashes 🙂 The open door is for you to come in… and for you to leave!