What can the scientist who presents learn from Pascal (Part 2)

Should one apologise in front of the audience? After all, the presenter is hosting scientists to the talk, and a host shows great respect towards his or her guests. Pascal, the great philosopher and scientist, has a few insights worth sharing.

(Thought 58) “It is not appropriate to say ‘I am sorry; pardon me.’ Had you not attracted my attention with such words, I would never have realised you had done something wrong. You say ‘With all due respect…’; Your contrite pretence is bad.”

I have encountered a number of situations where the presenter apologised to the audience for no good reason.

Declarations at the start of your talk such as “I apologise for my strong accent”, “I am sorry; I am a little nervous”, “I’m sorry; I hope you all can see me becauseĀ I am so short;” all focus the attention of the audience on what you perceive as your own weakness. People may have noticed but not really paid attention, had you not made such declarations.

Declarations during your talk such as “I’m sorry I don’t have time to explain this slide in detail”, “I’m sorry, I have been a little long on this slide”, are just as inexcusable. The audience would be right to be upset; you should have controlled your time better; it is expected of all good presenters.

Declarations after your talk, during the Q&A, such as answers starting with the words

1) “I’m sorry, I haven’t been clear,” thus attributing to yourself the blame of the questioner’s confusion or inability to understand. Do not blame yourself. The questioner may have been temporarily distracted during your talk, or may have arrived late and missed the slide where you presented the information requested. If you apologise, you admit responsibility.

2) “With all due respect”, thus announcing that you are going to be disrespectful and formally disagree using combative words. The host shows respect to the guests by accepting their statements as true from their point of view (doing otherwise is publicly calling the questioner a liar). The host then proceeds to demonstrate that there is a different point of view sustained by much hard scientific evidence gathered over months or years of quality research.

By Jean-luc Lebrun