Automatic Line Break on the Title Slide: a readability breaker

Do not let your presentation software break compound nouns across lines. Noun-preceded modifiers should be on the same line. In the following example, it makes little sense to let PowerPoint or Keynote automatically place p53 and GADD45 on two separate lines because it makes your title unclear : “A mammalian cell cycle checkpoint pathway utilizing p53 and GADD45 is defective in ataxia-telangiectasia“. At first reading, the reader thinks each line makes a separate point.

“A mammalian cell cycle checkpoint pathway utilizing p53 and GADD45 is defective in ataxia-telangiectasia” is unambiguous.

How is one to avoid such incongruous line breaks? You have the easy and the hard choices.

EASY:

1) Insert a carriage return at the appropriate place to avoid bad line breaks.  2) Reduce or increase the font size until the bad line break disappears. If it does not, try the first choice.
3) Increase or decrease the size of the text box by dragging its handles until the troublesome line break disappears.

HARD:

1) Insert a hard space between the words that should remain on the same line as “cell cycle checkpoint pathway” in the example title. On my Mac, the hard break character in Microsoft PowerPoint is Option+Shift+Space.  2) Those who can’t find the hard space (also known as the non-breaking space), can fill the rest of the line with as many characters as necessary until the line wraps and give these additional characters the color of the background to make them disappear.
3) Rewrite your title and avoid placing more than two modifiers in front of a noun by adding a preposition to break the long chain of words into shorter segments. If we tried to do this on the sample title

“a mammalian cell cycle checkpoint pathway”

we would run into trouble. Adjectives like mammalian are not usually a problem, they can be separated from the noun they qualify at little readability cost. However, there is no such thing as a mammalian cycle, or a mammalian checkpoint; Mammalian belongs to cell. Long nominal chains like “cell cycle checkpoint pathway” or “checkpoint pathway” cannot be separated. For the uninitiated, a long modified noun is not easy to decode. Does “checkpoint” belong to cell cycle or to pathway? An expert would know, but not every reader is as expert as the writer. A preposition would clarify: “Checkpoint pathway of the cell cycle”, or “Pathway of the cell cycle checkpoint”, whichever represents the correct meaning. And “of” may not even be the right preposition!

Presentation preliminaries: 7 professional moves

 

Telephone Switchboard

Source: Telefonzentralen Fotoarchiv A1 Telekom Austria

The recommendation to “connect to your audience” evokes the image of the telephone operator of old, plugging a jack into a panel to connect a caller.  “To connect” to your audience implies that the default status at the start of a presentation is that of disconnection. You are not plugged into the energy source that is latent in the audience. So how easy is it to “connect”?

That depends on the audience, doesn’t it? Sometimes the audience waiting for the stage appearance of their favorite star is so “pumped up” with expectations that the artist gets an energizing  jolt when appearing in front of the audience – a jolt that would fry most of our brain circuits for us normal human beings unused to the stage. Sometimes the audience is arctic – they haven’t asked to come, or they don’t know you, or they don’t like you – and your stage appearance has the same effect as a cold draft. To connect with that audience, you need a thawing device. But the device is not universal, it has to be adapted to the root cause of the prevalent audience attitude towards you.

For an oral presentation at a scientific conference, the audience is usually idling in neutral. They came because the topic is mildly relevant, but their default expectations regarding you are not great based on the paucity of interesting presenters among scientists. The first slides usually confirms these expectations: text heavy slides have the freezing  effect of  liquid nitrogen and the 7 bullets loading each magazine of your Power-pointed gun freezes it just as effectively.

Your job is to CONNECT in order to draw energy from the audience, but no or little energy comes from their interest in you. Your atrociously difficult-to-pronounce last name does not help and neither does the atrociously complicated syntax of the jargon heavy title. Great! What is the next move? Actually, by that time, the next move comes too late, so let’s talk about  your first moves instead.

MOVE # 1.   Start with the title of your talk. When you craft the title of your talk, make sure 1) it is reader-friendly (avoid cascading modifiers); 2) it somehow conveys the significance of your work; and/or 3) it makes people salivate or raises intense curiosity.

MOVE # 2.  Start connecting with the audience prior to your talk. Greet them at the door if at all possible. Have a friendly chat with a few people in the audience prior to your talk (in the foyer, or inside the room). You will no longer be the anonymous stranger. A few members of the audience will now know you.

MOVE # 3.   Use your microwaving smile and your high energy laser eye contact to unfreeze the audience even before you say a single word. I do not recommend the 1 second thawing cycle; spend 4 seconds or more. Hurriedness does not convey confidence.

MOVE # 4.  Thank the chair personally while facing him or her, not the audience. Possibly thank your mother to bring a smile on a few faces, and a tear on your mother’s face. (CAUTION: Don’t try that if you are not humorous by nature). Then leverage off your small initial success to pump yourself up with an extra dose of confidence .

MOVE # 5.  Be professional in your first moves: a) while smiling, put on the microphone after you have turned it off to avoid unwelcome noise, then turn it back on and test it discreetly and do not cough or rake your throat from that moment on; b) do not spend your first moments with the audience hiding behind the lectern or fidgeting with the computer, engage the audience in full view, away from the computer if your wireless mike allows it.

MOVE # 6.   Relax. This blog and the scoop pages feature techniques to achieve that physically, but nothing relaxes more that knowing you are fully prepared and well rehearsed.

MOVE # 7.  Look good. Make an effort. But don’t dress like it is oscar night.

By Jean-luc lebrun

Presenters with Foreign Names

Lebrun is my last name. Actually, I have no prior name, so my last name is theoretically my first name, but in fact my first name is jean-Luc. Confused? Alright, let’s start again. Lebrun is my family name and Jean-Luc is my given name. The family name is not given, it is inherited:)

My name is easy to pronounce, at least I think so, my parents think so, and so do the 200 million French-speaking people, but you might find it difficult to pronounce. Our name is a people interface. It is like a door handle. It gives access to us. It is the opening move in the networking game. Cryptic, indecipherable names are intimidating, possibly repulsive. Some will avoid talking to you for fear of mispronouncing your name – a serious offence in their culture. How would you pronounce the Vietnamese last name “Phuc”? Look here.

So when your name appears on your title slide, make sure you also provide the easy-to-pronounce short form of your name in the language spoken during the conference. “Hi, my name is  Jean-Luc Lebrun, but you can call me John”.  “Watakushino namaiwa jean-luc Lebrun desu, jonto yondekudasai”. “Ni Hao, wode mingzi shi jean-luc Lebrun, danshi ni keyi jiao wo “Yue Han”. In Singapore, people from Chinese descent often adopt an English given name to make it easier for their non-Chinese speaking friends to address them, particularly when your first name is easily mispronounced.

Telling people how they can address you, will encourage them to ask questions during the Q&A since they know how to address you in a manner acceptable to you. Put the burden of making your name easy to pronounce ON YOU, not on the audience. It will reveal your social skills and your wish to be accessible to all. Here is a movie I produced on the topic of pronouncing names.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Learning from Peter Feibelman

In his marvellous little book, “A Ph.D. Is Not Enough”, solid state physicist Professor Feibelman uses a metaphor near and dear to my heart, that of the fugue.

“But in giving your talk, you should just tell a story. Its structure should be organic, invisible. Your listeners should be propelled from idea to idea with the same sense of inevitability they feel on hearing a Bach fugue.”

Professor Feibelman likes fugues of the musical kind, and to help you understand his point, I ought to explain what he means by “the sense of inevitability”, but without a fugue to listen to, it is an impossible task!

So, given the tremendous restrictions one faces when playing back (and Bach) music on the web, I decided to download the music score of Bizet’s Symphony in C, now in the public domain, and spend the rest of the day to enter the music score inside Logic Pro 8, hire a few Garageband instruments to play the cello, violins, viola, and basson, and give you (a royalty free) 52 seconds of the fugue contained in the second movement of the symphony (adagio). I added the sound of the bell right before the theme of the fugue is played. Listen to the mp3 file, and come back to this text, otherwise, you will not appreciate Professor Feibelman’s “sense of inevitability” comment.

bizet-fugue

I know, the music sounds robotic without quantization and cheesy without the high end Native-Instruments samples, but the purpose of this piece is not to stop you from attending an orchestral performance of Bizet’s symphony in C, or from buying Charles Munch‘s great rendition of it. The purpose of this piece is to describe the “sense of inevitability”.
The same theme is presented five times in the space of 50 seconds or so. You cannot ignore it, and you cannot forget it. Between each presentation of the theme, the composer uses musical glue to enhance the theme and bring cohesion to the piece. As more and more instruments are added, the music rises to a crescendo.  How aptly the metaphor applies to presentations! The theme of your presentation is your title. Each one of your slides refreshes that theme. Your title “organically” moulds  the structure of your presentation. From time to time, you may have a transition slide, or you may transition between two slides while the screen behind you is blanked. These transitions are the equivalent to the musical glue the composer adds between the end of the theme’s presentation and its inevitable resurgence in a richer environment.

The fugue inevitably rises to a crescendo as more and more instruments are added. In the fugue metaphor, each slide is an instrument. Your past slides have to be so clear that their theme continues to ring, reverberate in the recesses of your mind, blending harmoniously with your future slides. A fugue becomes more and more complex as the various parts contribute their melody, but not one of these parts disregards the theme of the fugue. They all support and enhance it. The end result is a harmoniously complex musical delight whose greatest strength is the focus of your attention on ONE THEME. May this be true also of all your scientific presentations, and let that theme be your title.

By Jean-luc Lebrun

Presentation traps 5 – the title trap

Image source: Flickr, Author: Docman

Time after time, presenters repeat the same mistake: the title slide is on the screen behind them, they turn towards the screen, read the title, and possibly also read their name (why stop now), then immediately move on to the next slide.

Dear presenter (you don’t mind if I call you dear, do you, for I really care for you), WHY DO YOU DO THAT?

The audience can read; the chairperson can read and has probably already read aloud your name and title anyway; and I have no doubt the audience already know you can read 🙂

The title is there, on the screen, simply because it is also on the conference program, and the participants eager to attend your talk want to make sure they are in the right room when they come in. The title is not meant to be read: it is meant to be explained, to be paraphrased, to be demystified. To prepare for that, simply picture yourself having to explain your title to someone who is not quite an expert. Listen to him or her ask: “So what does it mean?”. That is what you tell the audience while your title slide is displayed. There is no need to even look once at the screen. You want total eye contact with your audience during the whole time your title slide is on the screen.

No reader ever spends much time on the title page of a book, so why should the presenter spend more time on the title slide than it takes to read it? You do not need to spend more than 30 – 45 seconds on the slide, but you definitely cannot spend less than 5 seconds. People in the audience need to reset their attention on you and on your topic as they move from one presenter to another, and that takes time. They need time to look at you, absorb you, move from a neutral to a positive attitude and like you (don’t push it though, they don’t need to love you 🙂 ) and know a little more about your title than its dry condensed word-encoded meaning. Some, usually half of your audience, the non experts, need a little help from you to increase or validate their understanding of your title. They need time to see who else is working on your research or who else is sponsoring you to trust you as an authority on your topic.

In summary,

Your  Title Slide – don’t face it, don’t read it, and don’t rush it.

And you’ll be –          more affable, more audible, more credible, and more understandable.

By Jean-luc Lebrun