No question during your Q&A?

Have you ever wondered why people who are neither dumb nor blind become mute when the time comes for them to ask questions at the end of your presentation? The reasons are audience or presenter-related.

elephant in the room
Elephant in the room Ann Large Valentine Flickr.


The Elephant in the Room. In some countries (Japan comes to mind), the attendees may consider impolite to talk before a more senior person in the room does ( a dean, an official,…). That person may just be there for moral support, politeness, or prestige, but not interest. Often unfamiliar with your topic, that person does not want to appear ignorant in front of the rest of the audience by asking an unprepared question. However, fear not, the questions will come as soon as that person fires the first question or leaves the room. Stick around outside the presentation room for a real Q&A.

The Shy Audience. Some people are as petrified to ask questions as the presenter is to present. They want to know more, but to leave their permafrost state, only the presenter’s warming smile, genuine openness and generous eye contact may take them out of that state. The audience needs body language to be encouraged to ask questions. Move towards the audience. And wait. Let the unbearable pressure of silence work its tongue loosening magic. But let that not be your tongue! It is the audience’s turn to speak.

The Proud or Discrete Audience. Some questions would reveal things about the questioner that the questioner does not wish the rest of the audience to know. They may reveal their lack of knowledge, ethics, of social skills, a speech impediment, a strong accent, or unsightly corporal features.  A one-to-one question after the talk is less intimidating. So make yourself available right after your talk.

The Inordinate Time to the First Question. The audience expects someone somewhere will ask a question. It usually comes from center front, rarely from the sides. If the first question does not come within a time collectively felt as being reasonable (the smaller the audience, the smaller that time), the audience draws negative vibes from the continued silence which it turns into a sanction and a blame. By then, even the ones who were going to ask a question given a little more time, give up and leave since other people have already started to leave the room. Talk to the chair of your session before your talk. He or she may be encouraged to ask the first question.


The Unquestionable.  Things you said may be so obvious and clear that nothing you said raised question. Your presentation may not have been bad, but it probably was not useful. The facts you presented were unquestionable. because they were too well-known. They lacked novel significance or implication statements. They were presented from a classic, unoriginal point of view.

The Unknowledgeable. Some things you said during your presentation are blatantly wrong, and the audience is knowledgeable enough to know it. They could attack you, but in the process, would embarrass you. So they simply stay quiet, and leave. They were there to learn for an expert. You were not that person.

The Arrogant. Alas, some presenters have a knack to make the audience feel out of place. They mention their elitist friends during the talk, say several times that only a minority of people are smart enough to understand the problem. And by the time the talk ends, you know you are part of the majority. They cocooned themselves away from any potential question. Withdrawn, stern face turned away from the audience as they gather their makeshift notes, their body language clearly communicate they have no inclination to answer any question.

The Vanishing. WAIT! Do not do your disappearing act, immediately closing any opportunity for questions with a lame statement like “I must have been very clear since you have no question”, and rushing off stage.

The Jargonaute. The jargonaute’s talk is for people from planet science. Unfathomable, undecipherable, impenetrable, it is not of our world. As minutes pass by, the audience discovers that an abyss of ignorance separates it from the jargonaute. People want pebbles of knowledge, not kryptonite. No question the jargonaute is an expert. No question!

What can the scientist who presents learn from Pascal (Part 5)

Of somebody eloquent, people will say “He as a gift with words”. Eloquent is a term associated with  statesmen like US President Obama in our time, or with  preachers like Bossuet in Pascal’s time. But could a scientist be eloquent? Blaise Pascal, the well-known scientist of old, defines eloquence in terms that make it relevant to scientists.


“Eloquence is the art of saying things in such as way that 1) those to whom we speak listen without pain and with pleasure;  2) their own interest encourages them to reflect upon what they hear.

It establishes a link between the heart and mind of the listener on the one hand, and between our thoughts and how we express them on the other hand; This assumes that one has studied the heart of man and knows its power so as to control how much and what to say. One must become one with the listener and test our heart on the very words we will use to see whether they fit and rally the listener to our views. We must, as much as possible, keep ourselves to what is simple and natural, refrain from making much out of nothing or nothing out of much. Being a thing of beauty matters little if it does not serve the listener; In beauty is nothing to trim or add.”

Pascal Thought 16.


What I observe in Pascal is his conviction that eloquence is not a gift, but a science and the fruit of labour to reach conciseness. It is based on our thorough observation and study of others enabling us to reconstruct them in ourselves in order to test the convincing power of our own words.The power of words, however, cannot be built on exaggeration. Self-control is necessary to avoid the distorted and the complex at the expense of the natural and the simple. Words gain power when their number is restricted.

Pascal describes eloquence as a tool that leads to reflection. Unless your audience reflects and thinks about what you have just said, you will not convince. A man of many words leaving no room for silence is not eloquent. Silence punctuates speech. The audience uses silence as a time to think. Silence keeps your sentences simple and natural. Paradoxically, with silence, your speech is more concise. Framed by two moments of silence, in your sentence “is nothing to trim or add” (see also Saint Exupery ).

There is no threat, no perceived accusation in eloquent speech. There is pleasure. Words that judge like limitation, failure, disadvantage are replaced with words that encourage like enhancement, extension, consolidation, strengthening, building blocks. Eloquence belongs in a scientific presentation. It befalls the scientist to reveal how beautiful a contribution he or she has to offer without putting others down.

Although Pascal referred to the eloquence of words, Saint Exupery broadens the landscape to include figures–the scientist’s best tool to convince. Figures are our most eloquent allies. How eloquent are your visuals? Is there nothing in them to trim or add? Have you looked at them with the eyes of your audience? Have you designed them to support a point that requires convincing? Are your visuals “things of beauty” or is complexity, judgment, or glut disfiguring them? Do your figures make people think?

By Jean-luc lebrun


Source: Flickr; Author Mkandlez