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

Presentation traps 6 – the conclusion traps

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.

1. Your conclusion slide is a summary of your results.

2. You know you are close to the end of your talk, everything has been said, and you rush through that slide, simply reading its bullets.

3. You do a great job with your conclusion slide, and after clicking one last time the next slide button on your presentation remote, you land into one of the following slides: a) the black screen indicating the end of your presentation (a PowerPoint feature); b) the traditional Acknowledgment slide; or c) a black slide on which the words “Thank You” are written in Font size 88 – for good luck 🙂

Everything you have read so far does not explain why the image used in this post (Source Flickr, author Shenghun Lin) is that of someone running a relay race. You are about to discover why.

Conclusion trap 1 – the blind hand-over of the relay baton

The conclusion is the place in your talk where you will hand out the relay baton to those in the audience who could benefit from your scientific contribution. You want these people to read your paper, or to ask you questions, or to network with you at the end of your presentation. And you certainly want them to know how what you have discovered can be of value to them. Therefore, the conclusion slide is not about your results, your research outputs; It is about the audience “Take-Away”, your research outcomes. That is why I used the metaphor of a relay race. With your conclusion, you will hand out the part of your research that is directly applicable to the people in the audience. You might argue that “anyone is able to judge the impact of my work. I do not need to state it.” What you say is true for the experts in the room. The non-experts, however, are often unable , for lack of knowledge, to determine what these outcomes are, and how they are of value to them. You must see the hand of the next runner. You must have identified and thought about the people who were the most likely to benefit from your work. Do not hand over the baton with your eyes closed!

Conclusion trap 2 – the dropped relay baton

Singers know that the two places in a song that matter the most, and which they rehearse the most, are the beginning and the end. Often, because presenters do not control their time well, they rush through the conclusion slide  (and read it). Or, because presenters are exhausted by the time they reach the end of their talk and want to end it quickly, they do not even bother to comment on that slide and let the audience read while they just thank the audience for their attention. There is no call for action, no USE MY RESEARCH FOR THIS OR FOR THAT. As a result, the relay baton is not properly handed over, it is dropped on the ground before the audience has had a chance to grab it. They may still do, but the momentum gathered through your words will be lost. What a crying shame 🙁 This time with the audience is face to face. It is a time to plea, to sell, to tease, to encourage, not a time to turn your back on the audience and read in a flat low tone. Surely, having rehearsed your conclusion slide so many times, you know by heart what appears on the screen after each mouse click, and never need to turn to it.

Conclusion trap 3 – the fumbled hand-over of the relay baton

The last slide of a presentation is the conclusion slide. Don’t fumble this. It remains on the screen until one of the questions demands that you bring another slide to the screen. The reason why it is not a thank you slide is because having the computer say thank you on your behalf is demeaning. You are the host; the computer is only there for support. The reason why your conclusion slide should not be a black screen is because you must help the audience remember the main perceived advantages of your research by maintaining the conclusion slide on the screen, at least until you move to another slide in answer to a question. And finally, the reason why the last slide is not the acknowledgment slide is because acknowledgments are best given on the title slide (see trap 5 – the title trap); furthermore, time may have run out and you may have to skip that slide anyway – thus risking disappointing the sponsors attending your talk.

in conclusion – make your conclusion slide:  the last slide, the most audience-centered slide, the most rehearsed slide.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

What can the scientist who presents learn from Churchill (Part 1)

In her book We Shall Not Fail the granddaughter of Churchill comments on her grandpa’s speaking skills. Here are sentences that are of immediate value to the scientist who presents.

“[…]strike when the voice or pen is hot.”

If you have just published a paper, or  better, before you submit it for publication, find any opportunity to present its contents… to your peers, to your group. Don’t wait for the invitation, arrange the talk. Your pen is still hot, may be your paper has reached the final draft stage, and you want feedback. Everything is still fresh in your mind. It is by presenting that one becomes a better presenter.

“The best speakers share a common trait. […]. They never end a speech without asking their audience to rise to an occasion or to meet a challenge.”

Read President Obama’s last sentences of the inaugural address, you’ll find a call to action. But what is the call to action for a scientist? What occasion? What challenge? The occasion of partnering with you. The occasion of commenting on your work. The occasion of financing your work or extending the research scope. The challenge of removing the limitations you faced. The challenge to prove you wrong 🙂 or confirm your findings.

“Becoming a strong speaker, however, is not something to be learned from a book. Leaders need role models.”

Who is your role model? Who presents really well? Find out why. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Ghandi said that. Let their style inspire you. It does not need to be a nobel prize winner. Churchill was inspired by Bourke Cochran, a charismatic Irish American democrat, whose Google hits score less than 600 compared to Churchill’s 24.6 million!

“[Churchill’s] central tenet was simple and applies to nearly all forms of business as well as political communications: find the strongest reason in an argument and marshal all the available facts behind it.”

This also applies to scientific communications. The effect of a drug overdose is similar to that of an overdose of facts and slides during a scientific talk. The audience is in stupor. Focus on only making one point per slide. Do not present all the possible graphs that help you make that point. Use the most convincing one, and be ready to defend it and explain it in the most minute detail – if need be.

By Jean-luc Lebrun