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

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


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.