Blessed are the nitpickers

By Jean-luc Lebrun

If in every scientist lurks a nitpicker – a person who fusses over details – it is simply because scientific experiments require great attention to details. Nitpicking talents vary from one person to another. But, in any group of twelve people, I always have the good fortune to find one perfect representative of the nitpicking species. Nitpickers are part of any audience. They are easily distracted and annoyed by inconsistencies in your slides- and there always are inconsistencies such as misalignment, inconsistencies in font choice, size, colour, and style, inconsistencies in layout, spacing, spelling (spelling mistakes are very irritating), use of capital letters in titles, or inconsistent bullets. The nitpicker will even look at your clothes and nitpick on the way you dress, your choice of colours, etc… The nitpicker is by definition a neat and orderly person, with a particularly developed critical sense. Even if you are not, by any stretch of the imagination, a messy person, the nitpicker may find you “sloppy”, “careless”, or unskilled in design. If the nitpicker is your boss (or your spouse), you know what I mean.

Why are the nitpickers blessed? Because their talent is also a burden, to them and to others. Their highly developed critical eye is a curse. They have to repress their feelings because all that negativity in comments is not good for making friends. They need your gracious spirit. Given a chance to provide honest feedback, they will love you for letting them inspect your slides, particularly if you thank them profusely after their expert nitpicking feedback and take them out to dinner to show your appreciation. It does not matter how good you are, you will never beat the nitpicker at his/her game. And this is not a gender specific skill. Men and women are equally gifted.

The nitpickers are blessed because, without their honest feedback, your slides could be considered sloppy by some in your audience… including people who could influence your career. To them, sloppy slides points to the sloppy or junior researcher. Even if that deduction is far from the truth, you cannot afford to have people associate the two.

Therefore, when your presentation is prepared, and prior to delivering it in front of your audience, identify a nitpicker and ask for help in debugging your presentation to remove all pesky misalignments and inconsistencies. Your audience will be impressed by your care and attention to detail. But give credit where credit is due: always look to heaven to thank the blessed nitpicker 🙂

(Photo by VMOS, Flickr).

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