Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ideas Worth Spreading

This is the last post in the series on giving presentations.  I could provide more suggestions about how to deliver an outstanding talk, but the best way to learn is to watch outstanding speakers and study what they do.  If you've never heard of the TED talks, I encourage you to take a look at them (www.ted.com).  TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design and is a small non-profit devoted to "ideas worth spreading".  They host an annual conference at which scientists, designers, artists, entertainers, and others deliver fascinating presentations.  Some speakers, such as Al Gore, Jane Goodall, and James Cameron, are well-known, whereas others are less known.

Below is an example of a talk called "Radical Women, Embracing Tradition" by Kavita Ramdas.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

How to Deal with Aggressive Questions During Presentations

The final topic in this series on presentations is dealing with questions.  This is the part of the presentation experience that people fear the most--or feel they handle poorly.  Part of the reason is that while we are delivering our talk, we have control over things.  We know what is coming next in each slide, and we've planned carefully what to say.  However, when the audience is invited to participate, then we are no longer in complete control.  We don't know what to expect precisely.  Sometimes, we can anticipate questions, but often get questions that are rambling, incoherent, aggressive, or difficult to answer. We are basically put on the spot, but are expected to respond calmly and authoritatively.  Dealing with different types of questions may require a slightly different approach, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

First off, listen carefully to the question and make sure you understand what is being asked before answering.  If you are having trouble hearing or understanding the person, move closer to them if possible and ask them to repeat the question. You might also want to repeat the question if the audience was unable to hear it.

Second, you want to remain poised and respectful of your questioner and avoid any judgmental, annoyed, or defensive body language.

The latter point is especially important if you get an aggressive question--one that is clearly challenging your work or even a personal attack.  How do you handle a challenging or aggressive question?  Basically, your goal is to defuse the situation.  Do not act aggressively or defensively or try to invalidate your questioner.  This is difficult, I know, but if you can remain respectful, it will make your questioner look even worse than if you attack them.  What you then want to do is turn their negative question or statement around and restate it in a more positive or neutral way.  Focus in on the key words or phrases that they use.

Here is an example of an aggressive question (the negative words are highlighted in red, key words to reuse are in bold):

"That was an interesting presentation, but you failed to discuss how your experimental treatments might affect this plant community in the long-run or explain the exact mechanism that led to the changes you observed. I'm wondering why you've ignored such important issues."

Here is a possible response that rephrases the question in a neutral way:

"My presentation today focused on community shifts in response to key factors important in this system.  I am continuing this research in another study that is looking at these and other factors in an effort to track long-term responses and to identify key mechanisms, but that work is not complete. I hope to report on those findings in the near future."

Note that the response contains no defensive or aggressive language.  It is neutral and simply restates what the speaker presented and what the speaker is currently working on (and is not yet ready to discuss).  The negative, challenging words (failed, ignored) are addressed indirectly by saying that the important issues raised by the questioner have not been ignored because they are being investigated in an on-going study.  The response also re-uses two key words from the question (long-run, mechanism), which further adds to the impression that you've previously considered these important points and are addressing them with follow-up study.  Finally, by pointing out that your work is incomplete and that you hope to reveal those findings in the future tells the questioner and the audience that you are on top of the issue, but are not prepared to reveal your results just yet.

Almost as difficult to handle is the rambling question or statement, especially one that clearly is off-track and made by someone unfamiliar with the topic of your talk.  You should be humble enough to recognize that if someone is confused about something in your talk, it's probably because you failed to explain it adequately.  In your response, you can say that perhaps you did not make that clear in your description or that you did not include that information because it is a well-known procedure.  Then proceed to give a brief explanation. If the questioner persists in asking about a well-known technique or concept, then suggest that you talk with them at the break. The audience will recognize that you are trying to spare the questioner any embarrassment and will appreciate your actions.

As in most of the previous posts on this topic, your goal as the speaker is to put your audience at ease and to leave them with a good impression of you and your skills as a speaker and scientist.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Speakers who are nervous engage in distracting behavior.  Most of us know not to jingle the change in our pockets, rock back and forth, or do other things that distract the audience from what we are saying.

So it's no surprise that people misuse laser pointers, which seem to have taken the place of jingling change. If your hand shakes so much that you cannot hold the beam steadily on a point, then you should not use one. If the beam is jumping all around the screen, the audience is definitely not paying attention to you and is instead wondering if you are nervous or perhaps have some dreaded neurological disorder.

I've seen some people try to compensate by using the other hand to steady the hand holding the laser pointer, but this just calls attention to the fact that the speaker is nervous and trying to hide it.

Another misuse of laser pointers is when the speaker constantly circles various points on the screen...endlessly circling... and even pointing to things that don't need highlighting.  It's just nervous activity, but is distracting to the audience.

I suggest using animation to highlight important points on your slide.  Animation frees you from fumbling around with a laser pointer and is more effective, in my opinion, to emphasize a point.

Another distraction, also due to nervousness, is hesitant speech.  Some people tend to say uh and um a lot when under stress.  I've talked about this habit in a previous post and some ways to minimize or overcome this tendency.  This impediment can be annoying to an audience when it happens frequently enough to be noticeable.  Also, excessive pauses and uhs can signal to the audience that you are not knowledgeable about your subject.  So it would be worthwhile to break the habit.

Another behavior that is distracting is rocking or pacing.  These are soothing behaviors that nervous speakers use to calm themselves.  Both behaviors divert attention away from your slides or what you are saying.  Becoming aware that you engage in this type of behavior will help you stop it.

As I've stated in previous posts on the topic of giving presentations, your goal is to make your audience comfortable.  Eliminating or minimizing nervous or distracting behavior will help your audience to feel at ease with you.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Good Speakers Connect with Their Audience

To be an effective speaker, you must connect with your audience.  The photo to the right shows a woman giving a talk.  It's obvious that she is fully engaged with her audience, and it's easy to imagine that her audience is listening intently to her.  This photo illustrates a number of points to keep in mind when delivering your presentation:

1. Notice that she is facing her audience and the screen is behind her. If you spend most of your time looking at your slides, you will not be making eye contact with your audience, and at times may have your back to your audience.  Not only will you fail to connect, but people may sneak out when your back is turned!  The same goes for reading your paper--your eyes are not on your audience, but turned down. 

2. The audience needs to see you and your body language, especially your face.  You don't want to be a shadowy figure standing in front of a bright screen. I realize that you don't always have control over lighting and related conditions at a conference, but often you can modify the conditions so that both you and your slides are visible.

3. Notice also, that the woman in the photo is gesturing to make a point. Gestures help tell the audience that she is engaged with them and also make her look more confident and authoritative because she is comfortable and claiming her space.  Men typically have little difficulty with this. They wave their arms, pace around the stage--essentially staking out their territory.  Some women who are not confident tend to remain motionless and even scrunch themselves up behind the podium.  This behavior is immediately interpreted by the audience: she has little authority and her information is consequently irrelevant.

Here is a tip for women (and men) who are uncomfortable speaking in front of groups: watch confident speakers and try to emulate some of their body language (don't overdo it, though).  Pick out some movements that are consistent with your demeanor and force yourself to use them (sparingly). You may find that the mere act of gesturing broadly to indicate a point, looking deliberately into the eyes of specific audience members, or leaning casually on the podium will eventually feel natural and that your "adopted" body language will actually make you feel more confident.

4. Your voice is important also.  High, squeaky voices sound weak, whereas deeper voices sound more authoritative.  Women are at a disadvantage here, but we can strive to use the lower end of our natural range when delivering our talks. 

The whole point here is to make your audience comfortable with you.  This idea may be a surprise to some, especially novice speakers, who are so focused on their own feelings and needs.  People who are nervous speakers do things that make them feel more comfortable (hiding behind the podium; not looking at the audience; speaking softly; restricting movements; reducing visibility by having the lights too low; engaging in distracting behavior such as rocking, wringing hands, jingling change).  These behaviors make your audience uncomfortable.  They don't want to be anxious about you, but instead want to be reassured that they are in good hands.

It's within your control to make your audience comfortable or restless.  If you antagonize them, they are likely to react aggressively during the question and answer period.  So, reconsider whether those behaviors that make you feel more comfortable temporarily are really helping you in the long-run.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Delivering Your Presentation

All of your careful preparation and attention to design will be for naught if you cannot deliver the information within your time limit and in a compelling manner.  This takes practice, a lot of practice. And not just repetition. As this quote my high school band director used to repeat, "Practice doesn't make perfect...perfect practice makes perfect."  What this quote really refers to is something called deliberate practice, which is a process whereby you concentrate on those aspects that need work, not on mindless repetition of what you can already do well.

You may think that people who are excellent speakers are just naturals at it and don't practice...that they just get up and wing it.  That is rarely true.  Musicians don't perform without intensive practice beforehand, and neither should you. As you become more comfortable before an audience, the time you spend practicing may diminish somewhat, but you always need to ensure that you can deliver your information in a smooth, confident manner.  Give yourself plenty of time to practice so that if you need to alter your presentation--cut out some slides, or modify some slides for better comprehension--you will be able to make changes and still have time to practice.

If possible, practice in front of other people and get feedback.  If you've never spoken to an audience, it helps greatly to deliver your presentation to even a few other people.  If possible, videotape yourself and then analyze your performance to see what needs to be improved.  You will be surprised at some of the things you do that you may be totally unaware of, but which detract from the message you are trying to deliver. Practicing beforehand also gives you confidence that you can deliver the information effectively--and this will reduce nervousness.

A word of caution, however.  Don't memorize your talk.  That is asking for disaster.  You may memorize the main points, but not exactly how to say them.  You can also memorize your opening and closing statements, but again, be prepared to have trouble remembering exactly what you wanted to say.  When you are under stress, standing in front of the audience, your brain will desert you just when you need it the most.  So have some alternative, generic statements ready just in case.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Wisdom of Yoda?

You might think that the quotation given in the slide to the right was made by Yoda, but it was actually a statement by an author of a book called Presentation Zen--Garth Reynolds.  This book is a resource I highly recommend.  It goes into much greater detail about many of the concepts I've been talking about in this blog series on designing presentations.

Anyway, the point being made in this quote is that people tend to be afraid of blank space on a slide and need to fill it up with something.  Or, as scientists with only fifteen minutes to convey our research to an audience, we are tempted to cram as much information as possible onto a single slide.  This approach leads to a lot of clutter, which reduces audience comprehension and retention of the information.

Blank space, however, can be used very effectively to focus attention on a key point.  Below is an example.

In this example, the focus is on a single number: 65% reduction in fish size in commercial landings.  I've made up a striking visual image that drives home the message.  The blank space on the slide helps to dramatize the single number.  And of course, the image is aesthetically pleasing because I used the Rule of Thirds to compose it.

You can probably imagine the typical way such information would be presented--in a dense table or figure--and that the audience would have to struggle to sort out the key piece of information.  By focusing in on that single important datapoint and extracting it from the background data noise helps the audience and at the same time makes the point in a much more memorable way.

Another skill to develop is how to create good illustrations. There will be many instances in which a photograph just doesn't work, and you need a diagrammatic rendering of something. You don't need a fancy graphics program, however.  I made the drawing of a cell shown at right entirely in Powerpoint using just two of the drawing functions.  Once you learn the basics, you can create some very sophisticated illustrations that are not only useful in presentations, but are also sufficiently good for publications.  You can find a number of tutorials on the Web that show how to create similar illustrations in Powerpoint.  It's worth the time and effort to learn them--and it's not as hard as you might think.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Use Images Effectively to Support Your Data

Another design concept to consider when composing your slides for a presentation is the "signal to noise ratio".

Sometimes, we try to make our slides more interesting by having lots of colors in the graph bars or use a photograph as a backdrop, but this increases the noise signal and hides the main point (our data). The example to right is an exaggeration, of course, but it makes the point that you should include only those elements that help with understanding the slide. 

Here is the same information from the slide above presented in a cleaner, simpler style.  I've even removed the axes, which are not really needed.  You can include a photo to emphasize a particular data point.  The whole point is to minimize the clutter and to include only those elements necessary to get the audience to focus on the key result.

There are also different ways to combine text and images. The example to the right illustrates one way, which is OK, but not that memorable.  There is a quotation, which is the focus of the slide. The photo does a good job of illustrating the quotation--a woman sitting by the water passively waiting.  The meaning of the saying is that you should not sit around waiting for things to come to you; you should get out there and make things happen. But we can do better with the composition.

Another way to combine text with an image is to place the text within a larger version of the image.  When this is done, as in the example to left, the emphasis is on the quotation, and the photo supports the point being made in the quote.  This photo works because there is plenty of space to accommodate the text box.  I've also made the background of the text box slightly transparent, so that the water behind can be seen.

There are other ways to combine text/data with images that are effective--so be creative!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Images: Composition

This post is a continuation of a series on designing and delivering presentations.

Since images are so important to illustrating our work, then it's worth the time to compose them properly. You don't have to be a professional photographer or graphic artist to create striking images that convey exactly the information you want. 

There are lots of techniques dealing with composition, but one of the most effective and simplest to apply is the "rule of thirds".  Those of you who are amateur photographers have probably heard of this technique. It's derived from the Fibonnaci series or the "golden ratio", which many patterns in nature follow and that humans usually find aesthetically pleasing.

For our purposes, however, the rule of thirds provides a simple guideline for composing photographs in a pleasing fashion.  The way it works is illustrated with the photograph at left.  The grid divides the slide into thirds, and where the lines cross are called power points.  The woman's face is primarily occupying the right third of the image, and her eye is in one of the power positions. The photo is much more effective composed like this.

The next time you look at a magazine or watch a TV interview, notice how the camera does not center the subject, but instead follows the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds can be applied to virtually any image--either when you take the photo or when you crop it later. See more examples below.

In the example to the right--a landscape image--I composed it so that the major elements of sky/clouds, land, water, and mudflat were positioned in thirds.

In the photo to the left, I zoomed in and cropped the original photo so that I am in the left third of the image and my chin is at one of the power positions.