Presentation traps 11 – the Q and A trap

Have you noticed that when you are under the gun, when a question is directly pointing at your chest, you feel you have to answer something – or lose face! Better give a wrong or an imprecise answer than no answer at all, some think. This is a trap.

To the question, “What is the number of genes in the human genome?”, are many answers.

The man who knows latin abbreviations writes ” ca. 23,000 genes” (ca stands for circa, a latin word meaning about).

The man who reads newspapers and loves maths writes: 20,000+ genes.

The scientist who wrote the Wikipedia entry on the human genome writes: “There is an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 human protein-coding genes. This estimation has been revised down as genome sequence quality and gene finding methods improved.”

The International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, reporting its findings in October 2004, writes: “Consortium researchers have confirmed the existence of 19,599 protein coding genes in the human genome and identified another 2,188 DNA segments that are predicted to be protein-coding genes.”

My grandmother thinks there are many. When pushed to say how many, she says: a few hundreds, I think… less when you get older.”

“IThink” , Therefore I am…. not an Expert!

When asked a question during the Q&A, if the first words that come to your lips are “I think…” STOP RIGHT THERE. You are about to answer an irrelevant question. Experts don’t think they know. Experts know. If you do not recall the exact number, or if the number keeps changing, give a range and explain why the exact number is not available. People will know you are still the expert.

What is the danger of giving the wrong answer? The expert in the audience (there is always one) knows the answer and either publicly shames you by telling the audience what the right answer is, or the expert keeps quiet and writes you off from his or her list of interesting people.

The expert answer contains precise words. Experts do not answer “the number of genes is…”, they say “The number of protein-coding genes is…”.

Experts are up-to-date with their knowledge. They can say “as of today, 19,599 protein-encoding genes have been confirmed.”

The moral of this story is not about my darling grandmother who tries to keep up with the times but has problem remembering what she hears on television. The moral of this story is about the presenter scientist taking Q&A after his oral presentation. The most important thing the presenter has to do after being asked a question that is clearly understood by all (scientist and audience), is to identify whether that question is relevant in the context of the talk. If it is not relevant, the presenter has the right to remain silent. It is a fifth amendment issue. Do not answer questions that might incriminate yourself and make the audience believe you are not an expert when , in fact, you are… but in your field!

Naturally, the “I do not know” answer is always available; It is not my favourite answer, however. The tactic I recommend is to acknowledge the question as an interesting one you wish you had the expertise to answer. But instead of ending there, I would relate that question to something inside your domain of expertise, and answer that other question. For example. If the question asks you to compare the efficiency between solar cells and hydrogen fuels cells, but you are an expert in hydrogen fuel cells only, indicate that you are not a solar cell expert, and offer to BRIEFLY give the increase in efficiency that hydrogen fuel cells have experienced over the last five years.

A last word of advice: there may be a gap between what you consider relevant and what the audience, for lack of knowledge about your field, considers relevant. Some of the questions may indeed become relevant in the next five year – for example questions on industrial availability of the product or technique presented in your proof-of-concept study. To answer such questions, simply encourage the questioner by stating that you are also eager to see your research benefit industry, but mention that the question arrives a little early because this and that (fill in the details) need to be done before.

I end with this quote attributed to Thomas Pynchon:

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers”

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Photo Flickr; Author: Andreas-photography.

026 Handling unfriendly questions and comments

In this podcast (part two of the interview) Dr Rao Machiraju, CEO of REQALL and past colleague from the Apple days when we both worked in Apple’s Advanced Technology Group (ATG), shares with us his wisdom on how to deal with troublesome situations in Q&As, such as comments that could be perceived as aggressive, or downright hostile at times. This is a must listen-to for those who have not been there… yet!

Image Source Flickr; Author Zcopley

025 Alternative Q & A techniques

I are delighted to feature a new guest on our podcast: Dr Rao Machiraju. Rao and I belonged to Apple’s Advanced Technology Lab in Cupertino California. He now heads his own company, REQALL, working on a fascinating product: memory recall enhancement tools. Rao is a master in the art of presenting. Today, he reveals his favorite ways to handle questions during the Q&A that follows a talk.  They depart from the conventional ways, as you will soon hear.

Photo Flickr. Author Scion Cho.

Presentation traps 9 – the rehearsal traps

Try and find out what is wrong with the five situations described below.

1) Sylvia is in the University library facing the screen of her laptop. She came here to have a chance to be quiet and rehearse an important upcoming presentation. She methodically looks at each slide, and silently (she does not want to disturb her neighbors) rehearses what she will say.

One does not rehearse silently. You need to activate the pathway between your brain and your speaking apparatus, open wide a channel between your inaudible thoughts and your audible voice. For that, you need to rehearse at full volume, using the full range of expressive capabilities offered by your vocal chords. A library is not the best place to do that. Finally sitting is not the ideal position for rehearsing. Standing is.

2) Prasad is using the notes section of his PowerPoint presentation and writes down the talk he intends to give. To make sure he will not spend too much time speaking, he sets himself a target of a maximum note length for each slide. Then, sitting in front of his computer, he rehearses by reading the notes aloud, memorizing as much as he can in the process.

Only radio and TV professionals know how to write for the ear. Unless you are trained in the arts of oral communications, memorizing such written notes will make your speech sound unnatural. The audience knows that people don’t speak like that. Your words will be too complex, your sentences too long, etc. Finally, what dictates the time one spends on a slide is not defined by the size of the note section, but by the amount of information displayed on the slide. And remember point 1: stand up to rehearse.

3) Xiao Hong is standing a few meters away from her computer screen looking straight at it. She has entered the slide show mode and starting with the title slide, rehearses aloud keeping eye contact with the screen, moving from one slide to the next using her favorite presentation remote.

This looks like the perfect picture. What could possibly wrong with it? You should not rehearse while looking at the screen but looking away from the screen as if facing the audience. Rehearsing this way forces you to remember what is on the projection screen without having to depend on it. Each time you click, you must know WITHOUT LOOKING what will be on the screen at that time. If you constantly look at the screen, you will become dependent on it , and your transitions from one slide to another will be the unpolished “And here”,  “Next”, “On this slide”, “so, moving on…”, “And now”.

4) Tomi has rehearsed his presentation six times, from start to finish. He wishes he could rehearse a few more times but he has no more time. He is now convinced that whatever happens, he could not possibly do a better job. He hopes the Q&A won’t be too tough because that’s one thing, unfortunately, one cannot rehearse!

Similarly, you may think this is also ideal.  But actually, you can deliver an even better presentation by rehearsing some parts of your presentation more than others, like singers do. It is not necessary to rehearse the middle of your presentation as often as a) its beginning, b) its end, and c) the places when you transition from one slide to the next. Furthermore, a Q&A requires rehearsal, just as much as the presentation requires it. For that you need a mock audience to come up with unpredictable questions. As to the predictable questions, you need only look at each slide and ask yourself, what could they possibly ask me based on what they see here. Check everything: the sources of the data or of the visual (if it is not yours), the graphs, their axis, the boundary values, etc.

5) Kim is as ready as can be: many rehearsals, aloud, standing up and facing a mirror, perfect mastery of the presentation remote, perfect knowledge of which slide comes next even before it appears on the screen, perfect transitions. And all this without having to bother anyone!

You should bother more than one person and conduct at least one or two mock rehearsals in front of a small audience of people who are not familiar with the topic of your talk. That way, you can practice your warming smile without having to fake one. But more importantly, you can receive the feedback regarding the parts that people did not understand, and the parts that felt too long – AND modify your speech or/and your slides based on the feedback. Remember to also include a Q&A as part of the rehearsal.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

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

 

Presentation traps 2 – Forced Audience Interaction

Source: Flickr; Photo by Jesarqit.

“Probe the audience”, “Interact with the audience”, the pundits say. And out on a limb they go, the misfortunate presenters for whom good advice but poor timing garner nothing but the deathly silence of  an unsympathetic audience. I recall the young scientist whose work featured the discovery of a gene associated with some sort of cancer. After introducing himself at the beginning of his talk, he probed the audience with this memorable question: “Has anyone here had a family member die of cancer?”

Naturally, the long silence that followed was not an indication that the audience was made of healthy individuals whose parents were healthy and grand parents were still in their prime. It meant that the presenter had frozen the whole audience. As he waited for his answer, looking straight at the audience, no-one spoke or raised a hand. He must have felt like the scientist listening to the SETI space probe waiting for a signal betraying intelligent life in the universe 🙂  for there seemed to be no life at all in this audience. What had he done wrong?

1) The question was too  personal and far too risky: What if one participant had replied: “Yes. My mother died of cancer last week.” What would the presenter have responded?

2) The timing was wrong. At the beginning of a talk, the audience is still in neutral gear, adopting a wait-and-see attitude, and certainly not yet ready for interaction.

At the beginning of a talk, the presenter has to move the audience out from a “Tri-State” or “high impedance” mode (infinite resistance) into a positive state (hopefully not a negative state).  The presenter has to make the current pass between him and the audience. To do that, two things are necessary. First, the presenter must open an invisible low resistance channel between his or her positively charged personality and the down-to-earth audience. And I know no better way to do that than by smiling and welcoming the audience. Secondly, the presenter must establish a difference in potential between him and the audience – for example, by creating a knowledge gap that the audience is eager to let him fill. The question is a good way to bring to life that knowledge gap, particularly an intriguing, provocative question or statement like Friedman’s assertion that “the world is flat”. But that question expects no answer from the audience. It is a rhetorical question. The presenter is expected to bridge the gap he created.

Do not rush the audience into action. An audience that has had time to be interested in both the presenter and his topic is easier to engage. By the time the talk ends, the audience is ready to interact through the Q&A: the time is right, and the audience is ready.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

 

Presentation traps 1 – Hazardous comparisons

With this, the first of several blog entries on presentation traps, we are entering the quagmires and the quicksands where many presenters get trapped. These traps are mostly concealed and presenters realise they are trapped far too late to fix the problem. These traps are avoidable because the ones who lay them are none others than…the presenters themselves.

(Photo source: Flickr – author: TheBusyBrain)

So let’s look at trap #1: the hazardous comparisons.

In your presentation, usually at the beginning in the motivation part, a  slide appears, and on that slide your method is compared to previous state of the art methods, or methods widely accepted and recognised as adequate by practitioners in the field. Of course, the comparison makes your work seem vastly superior. You feel good – after all, you are good and you have listed the weak points of other methods, either because you found out or because their authors had the intellectual honesty to recognise them.

Here is where things go wrong:

1) Because PowerPoint does not give you much space to illustrate each limitation, you simply list them all (it looks so good, doesn’t it :), in bullet point form, relying mostly on the use of adverbs, adjectives, and judgmental verbs to describe them: slow, computationally  intensive, unfeasible, limited, complex, expensive, fails to, suffers from…

2) In the room, attracted by your title, chances are you will find the very people whose methods you disparage: the experts, the “related work” folks. They came to learn from you, not to have their contribution to the field questioned or featured in a poor light.

3) Your summary judgmental evaluation on their methods is probably based on old reading, and the state of the art may have progressed much since you last looked at the related work papers, thus rendering our evaluation inaccurate at best.

As a result, your comparison strikes a match that will light the short fuse of the bomb bound to explode during your Q&A. These scientists you indirectly attacked will dispute or question your claims – because any adjective or adverb is a claim and a claim deserves fair justification before it can be accepted. Because the reputation of their work is at stake, they will bring you onto their turf – a place you know little about – and take great pleasure to demonstrate your ignorance through incisive questions!

So here are your solutions:

If you have to expose limitations:

Firstly, choose the main limitation, illustrate it visually and scientifically so that it cannot be contested, and make sure you clearly define the scope under which that limitation applies.

Secondly,  find a way to praise the method whose limitation you are presenting.

Of course, you do not have to expose limitations. Avoid comparisons altogether. If the experts are in the room, they will ask questions to assess how well your method is likely to work in their field (and this is good!). If you do not know, you will be able to deflect such questions on the grounds that you have not tried it there. At the same time, you will welcome their interest to see it applied in new fields and express your wish to collaborate to extend your method’s application scope – or discover its boundaries (don’t say limitations!). Again, if you don’t know, you could also delay your answer on the grounds that your data and their data may differ and that it would be better to compare apples with apples, and oranges with oranges before drawing conclusions.

Be conservative. Do not say “This method should also work in your field, or on your problem”, just in case they ask you the question “On which basis do you form this opinion?” if you answer is based on factual evidence, however early it may be, you will be seen as an expert. But if they detect a lie in your answer (it is often so because, from your angle, your perspective is distorted), you will be seen as a scientist of much enthusiasm but somewhat junior in experience. Look at the photo above, how much bigger the orange seems depends a lot on the perspective, doesn’t it. An architect who has studied perspective would have a more accurate answer than a researcher in life science. But someone who has handled both fruit would have the best answer.

Next trap: Forcing the audience to interact.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

 

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 because 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

003 The chairperson and the presenter

What is the relationship between a chairperson and a presenter? What can the presenter expect from a chairperson?

Find out from a chairperson, Dr Mark Sinclair.