(TDD) Test-Driven Development – its use in scientific presentations

How does one know that everything is going to be fine “on the night”, or at least on the big day of our presentation? Of course, one could cross fingers – but should the index finger be over the middle finger or the opposite  🙂 One could rehearse, and rehearse, and rehearse as proposed here – this works but can one rehearse the unexpected? The rehearsal trap is so pernicious!

Do you know the meaning of the TDD acronym? If you do, you are a leading edge programmer.

“In Test-Driven Development, each new feature begins with writing a test. […] it makes the developer focus on the requirements before writing the code.” (Wikipedia)

 How does that wonderful concept applies to scientific presentations?

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What can the scientist who presents learn from Benjamin Franklin (part 2)

Photo  Flikr; Author Corey Holms

You have to admire the scientific mind of Benjamin Franklin and his determination to check all facts for himself in this admirable passage from his autobiography where he tests the range of an orator’s voice.

The last time I saw Mr. Whitefield was in London, when he consulted me about his Orphan House concern, and his purpose of appropriating it to the establishment of a college.

He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observ’d the most exact silence. He preach’d one evening from the top of the Court-house steps, which are in the middle of Market-street, and on the west side of Second-street, which crosses it at right angles.

Both streets were fill’d with his hearers to a considerable distance. Being among the hindmost in Market-street, I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the street towards the river; and I found his voice distinct till I came near Front-street, when some noise in that street obscur’d it. Imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill’d with auditors, to each of whom I allow’d two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconcil’d me to the newspaper accounts of his having preach’d to twenty-five thousand people in the fields, and to the ancient histories of generals haranguing whole armies, of which I had sometimes doubted.

By hearing him often, I came to distinguish easily between sermons newly compos’d, and those which he had often preach’d in the course of his travels. His delivery of the latter was so improv’d by frequent repetitions that every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turn’d and well plac’d, that, without being interested in the subject, one could not help being pleas’d with the discourse; a pleasure of much the same kind with that receiv’d from an excellent piece of musick. This is an advantage itinerant preachers have over those who are stationary, as the latter can not well improve their delivery of a sermon by so many rehearsals.

The more you present on the same topic, the better you are as a presenter. Even if your audience is not” interested in the subject”, it will be “pleased with your discourse”.

You will find Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography here – or you can listen to it on your iPod by downloading it from here.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Presentation Traps 10 – The room trap

By Jean-luc Lebrun


Your phone rings. The receptionist tells you the Japanese visitors have arrived. You take the elevator down five floors to the ground floor where the two meeting rooms are. Many people use them, and the furniture frequently gets changed to fit the requirements. You asked for a simple U-Shape table arrangement to accommodate 8 Japanese visitors in the “Small 1” meeting room. As you welcome the visitors, you are given a handwritten note from Suzan, the facilities manager, informing you that the room has been changed due to unforeseen circumstances and that you are now presenting in the “Big 1” – the tables have been arranged in U-Shape as requested.

The only problem is that the “Big 1” is a room for fifty people. The visitors come in and fill in half of the left side of the U-Shape – the side exactly facing the lectern… but perpendicularly. All heads turn right to face you, twisting necks; People bend their torso or move chairs back and forth to get a better view of you. Furthermore, last night you downloaded your presentation in the computer of the “Small 1” meeting room -and your USB drive containing your presentation is five floors up.

The “Small 1” room has a simple audio out cable that fits into the presentation computer and is always on. The “Big 1” has an audio mixer with multiple BNCs,mini stereo Din, XLRs and Mike jacks. The mixer is turned off, you need computer audio out, and the labels on the mixer are totally cryptic. On top of the lectern hiding the presentation computer, is a brief note that suddenly explains why the “Small 1” is taken and why the mixer is turned off: the room’s computer has been removed for repair.You then realize that you had assumed that each room would have a working computer and therefore failed to tell Suzan that you needed one.

As you are wondering what to do, the maintenance man appears with a tall ladder with the intent to change a broken light bulb. He had been told the day before that the room was not occupied since the computer was down. All the Japanese heads turn towards him, then back to you… You’ve reached bottom, or so you think.

A drop of water falls on your head. You look up. All Japanese heads look up,  and everybody discovers at the same time the fresh water stain probably caused by a leak in the lavatories upstairs. You return your eyes down to your guests, you raise your hand to apologize, and in the process knock down an empty stainless steel jug from which a large cockroach escapes, flying out and landing on the chair occupied by the head of the Japanese delegation. You swear. They hear you. Now, you have really reached rock bottom.

OK, so maybe I overdid it, but a presentation room is a dangerous place, full of potential unsuspected problems. Can the presenter prevent them all? No, but the presenter can be prepared for them all. What went wrong?

1) Never assume anything when it comes to the presentation room.

2) Always have a copy of your presentation with you, on you.

3) Rehearse in the presentation room the day of the event.

3) Be ready to do an impromptu presentation that does not rely on the computer (a flip chart will do).

4) Never put the blame on anyone because something goes wrong. You will be regarded as an incompetent person trying to discharge his/her responsibilities on others.

5) Keep control of your mouth and avoid foul language – whatever the circumstances.

This said, you don’t need to walk around with a large can of insecticide deforming your bulging trouser pocket… just in case. And when the man with the ladder comes, don’t ignore him. Recognize his presence, and ask him if he would not mind getting an umbrella, and holding it upside down above the leak while on the ladder, to avoid you being wet during your talk. By that I mean, think on your feet, and weave the circumstances in the tapestry of your talk.

Photo source: Flickr, Author Mek22.

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

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

004 Keeping to time

Saved by the bell? Not the presenter.  You may be cut off mid-sentence by the chairperson if you exceed the given presentation time . Your punch line  may never be heard. Where in your presentation are you most likely to drift? And how do you prevent drifting? Find out from our podcast experts, Dr Sinclair and Dr Curry.

What can the scientist who presents learn from Churchill (Part 2)

Are you frightened to speak because you have an accent or a speech impediment? Consider Churchill’s problem, as described by his granddaughter Celia Sandys in the book “We shall not fail”.

“Churchill had to overcome a speech impediment that might have silenced many prospective public speakers.[…] Churchill spent countless hours trying to get his tongue around sentences featuring the dreaded letter s. […] Fortunately, he did not entirely succeed and the defect became his oral signature”

What struck me in that last sentence was the word fortunately. We think that our accent should be completely eradicated, but it the end, it reflects who we are, and testifies to our origins. I have a French accent and will always have it. It is not so strong that people can’t understand me. Sometimes, I even “turn it on” and slightly increase it because people find it charming.  Accent is good. It provides identity, and even charm. But if your accent is heavy, if it gets in the way of people understanding you, like Churchill, you have no choice but to practice and practice some more to lessen your accent. I often observe that researchers with a strong accent tend to speak their native language in their research lab, as well as watch TV programs and read newspapers in their native language. This prevents them from making rapid progress in their spoken English. Practice reshapes your mouth, lips, and jaws to make your foreign sounding English words sound English. Correcting an accent is done through speaking, and comparing your sounds with those of a native English speaker. Do not be fooled by the fact that your lab colleagues understand you. They have had months or years to get used to your accent. The audience you will face during your presentation will have had no time to get used to your accent.

“He began pacing about. Inspiration came and he began dictating, voice rising and falling, hands gesturing as if making the actual speech.”

Rehearsing your talk is never done silently in front of a computer screen. I witnessed ex-Apple Chairman, John Sculley, rehearse a talk in his Cupertino office. He was speaking aloud, gesturing, walking back in forth, stopping now and then only to press the spacebar of his Mac keyboard to go to the next slide. Words come to you in action. Speaking aloud with intonation and gestures helps you anchor your words to your body movements and convey your conviction and your passion. Rehearsing aloud, you create a path for the words to travel from your mind to your lips. Later, once the path is set, the same words will easily return and travel on the same path back to your lips.

By Jean-luc Lebrun