What can the scientist who presents learn from Benjamin Franklin

Here is a passage of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, where he gives advice on how to handle people who contradict you. This is particularly applicable to situations you may encounter during your Q&A, or even in scientific discussions with other scientists. Brilliant advice, as you will discover! You may be unfamiliar with the word “Junto“: It represents a political group or faction. Notice how closely Franklin’s argument mirrors Pascal’s argument. It may well be that Benjamin Franklin was familiar with Pascal’s writings. He was living in Paris while writing this part of his autobiography. Pascal does not say what he observed as the consequence of following his own recommendations; fortunately for us, Benjamin Franklin does!

I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some difference, etc. I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right.

Image Flickr; Author Wallyq

What can the scientist who presents learn from Pascal (Part 3)

Modesty, respect for others, are often found in famous scientists. Sir Isaac Newton (a contemporary of Pascal) did not say “If I have seen further, it is because they were all as blind as a bat”. He wrote “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. These qualities are also found in Pascal:

(Thought 43) “Certain authors, speaking of their works, say: “My book,” “My commentary,” “My story,” etc. They are just like middle-class people who have a house of their own on main street and never miss an opportunity to mention it. It would be better for these authors to say: “Our book,” “Our commentary,” “Our story,” etc., given that frequently in these, more belong to other people’s than to them.”

How are these qualities found in your presentation?

1) By acknowledging those who, directly or indirectly, contributed to your work.

2) By never failing to mention the source of the visuals you borrowed from other people.

3) By never comparing your work to other people’s work through the use of adjectives only, usually with the intent to demonstrate that you and your work are the greatest. The very people you slighted may be attending your talk, and sharpening their knives. Compare based on undisputed facts that you are ready to defend.

An audience senses arrogance as quickly as it senses fairness.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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

Pascal is a seventeenth century scientist who –like Watt, Volt, Ampere, Joule, Newton– has his name forever associated with Science via a Standard International unit of pressure, the Pascal (Pa). But Pascal is also a great philosopher, and his famous “Thoughts” (Pensées), contain valuable insights for presenters.

(Thought 47) There are some who don’t write well, but speak well. The place or the audience warms them, so much so that they are able to draw from their mind more than they could without that warmth.”

Some of us are like that. Our spoken English is better than our written English, even though it may still be broken English. During our face-to-face with the audience, most of us would feel much more at ease, if only we could find that warmth Pascal mentions… You will not find it if you do not look for it. Find a friendly face in the audience, and let its warmth release your thoughts. Return your smile, not just to that face, but to all, to thaw the audience. You may not have much control over the place, but your smile certainly has the power to defrost any audience. Then let the defrosted audience contribute to the total release of your brilliant mind 🙂

(Thought 369) “Memory is necessary for all the operations of reason.”

Your reasoning may be faultless, yet not be followed by your audience. All too often, the presenter ignores this fundamental need of the reasoning brain: memory. Naturally, in the presenter’s brain, knowledge is already memorised – not so for the audience. Here are six foolproof ways to care for the memory needs of an audience of scientists:

1) As with computer RAM, you need to refresh the memory. Do not say “as we’ve seen on a previous slide,” but say again what you demonstrated on that previous slide. Repeat. As you describe and explain the contents of one slide, make sure to give the audience everything it needs to understand it, right there and then.  Slide and narration together make one self-contained unit. But your slide illustrates your speech, not your speech illustrates your slide.

2) Avoid acronyms, pronouns, and uncommon abbreviations (in speech and on slides). Pronouns and acronyms are shortcuts which rely on memory for understanding. They stress the memory. Catch yourself saying “This shows,” and replace this with what it refers to as in “This increase in temperature shows.”

3) Announce what is coming on later slides. It prepares the memory, as the cup of water primes the old cast iron hand water pump before water gushes out its spout. But also announce what is coming on the next slide. The upward movement of the pump handle creates an air vacuum that lifts the next  load of water. The equivalent of this upward movement in a slide presentation is the oral transition. It creates a vacuum for your upcoming explanations and slide. The transition draws the audience into your next point.

4) As you describe and explain the contents of one slide, give the audience time to understand. Slow down the pace. To continue our hand-pump metaphor, fill the jar of water, one stroke of the handle at a time. Do not use the tap metaphor and drown the poor audience. The brain needs time to process and store the information it wishes to remember. Information flowing at too rapid a pace is bound to cause memory overflow and errors in reason.

5) The more points you make per slide, the more complex it becomes, and the more you stretch the memory. Therefore, make one single point per slide. One cannot memorise what one does not understand. And one fails to understand when the overloaded memory is unable to support the operations of reason.

6) Avoid lists, instead make your point visually. People do not remember lists, but they remember visuals. Be low on text content, but Be high on simplified visuals for which the density of information has been reduced to memory-acceptable levels.

By Jean-luc Lebrun