Blog Archives

Do boring speakers talk longer?

According to this Nature blog post (Do boring speakers really talk for longer?), yes! It seems that having rhythm, a clear structure and sticking to it as well as practice your talk should be obvious practice but not always applied by the research community.

Université Laval medical physics professors and students in action at AAPM2017

This week, our students and faculty are involved in 17 presentations at the AAPM meeting in Denver, Colorado. This include Best In Physics (Therapy) Marie-Ève Delage. Overall 2 general poster presentations, 5 poster discussions (ePoster), 3 SNAP Oral, 5 oral presentations and two symposium presentations.

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How much time does it really take?

To present a scientific subject in an attractive and stimulating manner is an artistic task, similar to that of a novelist or even a dramatic writer. The same holds for writing textbooks.
– Max Born

When a graduate student come to me with the big news that its abstract has been selected for an oral presentation, my first reaction is a big congratulations and the second is to already set a deadline for a first version of the talk. Because of the abstract, you already know the content, what needs to be presented. But crafting an effective 7, 8 or 10 minutes presentation is a complete new game.
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Big week at the 2013 AAPM meeting

Our group is well represented at this year AAPM meeting. 2 Faculty and 7 graduate students for a total of 11 oral presentations and 2 posters.

For a number of these students, it will be their first experience presenting at such a big event (over 3000 participants). Also for many of them, it will be their first scientific presentation in English. Hours of preparation and rehearsing for 5 minutes (snap oral) or 8 minutes (regular oral) presentations. While, I do tell them that the shorter the talk the more time (usually many hours!) is needed to select and organize the visual materials (aka slides), they do not realize it until we do the general repetition during our weekly group meeting.

For each talk, we can spend between 10 to 30 minutes going over the slides, suggesting modification, addition, removal, asking questions such as: what are you try to say? What is your main message? What do you want the audience to remember from this or that slide, …

Of course, senior grad students have it easier as they already know what to expect and prepare their presentations accordingly 😉

For my friends and colleagues in the medical field, see you in Indy.

The perks of the job!

I realized it has been sometime since the last post (over a month in fact). Well during that time, I traveled over 50 000 kilometers. That is right, it is more than the equivalent of a long trip across the globe at the level of the equator (25% more in fact!). Before getting into the details, let me step back and explain where this is coming from.

Research is viewed as a competitive venture. At each point you have to prove yourself, your ideas and projects. Most of the time, this is done via reviews by your peers and, sometimes, justification to your administrators!

  • Granting agencies run “competitive” funding programs in  which your project or program get to be peer-reviewed, scored and financed or rejected (with various levels of feedback).
  • Manuscripts are peer-reviewed, sometimes going through multiple rounds before they get published (or rejected).
  • Conference abstracts / papers are peer-reviewed before being accepted at the various scientific meetings, either as oral presentations (the minority) or posters.
  • Getting the best students is a competition between you and your colleagues in your department.
  • Getting promoted to associate and full professor is also in itself a competitive process involving a review process.

If you ask, most researchers will tell you that the grant part is the tough one, takes a lot of time and for most program is met with relatively low success rates (quite often below 20% or 1 grant written in 5 (or worst) being financed.

There are however perks in conducting a successful research project or program. The first one is the fun and excitement of being at the front-front of your field, driving it and as a side effect (for me and my students at least) getting to play with the latest technologies. The second one is certainly the trill of having young scientists progressing, graduating and applying their knowledge, know-how in industry, hospitals, teaching and so on. Conversely, having these persons to interact with, pushing you to discover new things (even when it is only tweeter or Facebook. Yeah sometimes it does feel like I am old!). The other category are being accepted for presentations at meetings and getting to go. This tends to be a big thing for students… but also for the supervisor.

Presenting at a scientific meeting is the reward for having spent extra hours in the lab or in front of a computer to validate this experiment or that specific result. It also provide a new level of stress, that of presenting your new result or idea in front of an audience of specialists and survive! The bonus here is that you get to refine you message afterward, do a few more measurements or simulations. The likelihood that someone in that room (if you are going to a key meeting) will be a reviewer on the ensuing manuscript is quite high in the end.

In the past months, I have had the chance to present our works in New Orleans (USA), Geneva (Europe), Melbourne (Australia) and finally, Philadelphia (USA).  Some of these were invited talks i.e. my peers across the globe finding works we have done interesting and cutting-edge enough to have me as invited speaker or plenary speaker at their meetings. I take this last form of scientific dissemination of works as a pat in the back, an open congratulation that we did something good, exciting and useful in our field.

Notice, I used the “we” in the previous paragraph and not “I.” This is because in these presentations I never forget that getting from an initial idea to the final result involve numerous iterations and works of many, especially students,  postdoc and colleagues depending of the type of projects.

So this is what happen since my last post. I also had the chance to visit CERN while in Geneva. So look-out for the dedicated blog post on “big science.” I am leaving you with a few travel pictures. One does not do some many kilometers without taking one or two days off to look around – another perk of the job 😉



Left to right (click on each to get the full resolution): Geneva, ATLAS detector at CERN and a view from Gruyère medieval castle.




Left to right: Melbourne river-view, Graffiti alley, the 12 Apostles on the Great Ocean Road by mid-afternoon.

“Planning Analog” – Presentation Zen

One must give credit when due. Organizing Creativity’s Daniel Wessel pointed out to me on the previous blog post  “Time to go analog” that this concept of starting your presentation as an analog process gets a full chapter (Chapter 3) in a book entitled Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds.

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Time to go analog!

In the previous post, I touched on key questions to ask yourself before preparing a talk. This sets the general parameters (audience, length, …). At this point it would be easy to just fire up Powerpoint or Keynote, shuffle through your previous talks, pick, mix and make modifications.

Instead, I suggest you go analog.

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For whom are you presenting?

This is scientific meetings season, at least for me. This means a bunch of PPT presentations to prepare. It would be so much easier to just reuse an older presentation or merge past presentations. In fact, sometimes I feel that this is what is happening more and more often in these meetings. While I do use previously prepared materials, I always start by asking myself a few question key questions before even opening PowerPoint (or Keynote):

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Online Collaborative Writing using LaTeX

LaTex / TeX has been a favourite of scientists for a long time. For many, TeX typesetting is considered to be producing the most beautiful and elegant documents, in particular when equations are involved. On OSX, I used over the years tetex and TeXLive in the past. Nowadays, MacTeX appears to be a popular package.

Beside the beautiful and elegant documents it produces, LaTeX uses only ACSII characters. It is thus highly portable and fully compatible across platforms. Therefore, documents can be written in any text editor (from the lowest common denominator such as vi to more elaborate one such as Emacs. On OSX, you will find the beautiful Aquamacs version of Emacs.

However, collaborative writing in LaTeX might not be the most intuitive function of LaTeX/TeX packages. And while I do hate WORD, its visual change tracking system makes document sharing and collaborative writing quite easy (compared to performing a “diff” command on two files and so on…If you do not know what is the “diff” command, it further proves the point).

Welcome to the free WriteLaTeX online collaborative environment. This new service was pointed out to me recently by a colleague at my institution. It is a web-based service and thus cross-platform and fully compatible with tablets (either iOS, Android or Blackberry) and no need to install a standalone distribution. Your working space is 100 Mb with the possibility to increase to 1 Gb (in steps of 50 Mb per referral…). Figures in JPG, PNG and PDF are supported as well as bibTeX bibliography style. Furthermore, writeLaTeX let you do Beamer presentations as well!


This image was taken from the writeLaTeX website and shown as a example of the feature sets available.

If LaTex is still in your arsenal of writing tools, have a look at writeLaTeX.

DOs and DON’Ts of scientific presentations

Every meeting brings about  few presentations for which the same mistakes seems to happen again and again. Just coming back from a major conference  in my field, I can confirm it… again. Here is a few tips that can help make your presentation better with minimal work:


Don’t use the whole real estate space just because you can. A presentation is similar to a well done document in the sense that you do want margin all around and avoid putting critical information in those margin. Times and times again you see presentations for which information are missing, such as axis label for a figure to close to the border or even the complete bottom part of the slide which can only be seen from the first few front rows.

Don’t ever fill-up the slide just because you can copy and paste from a WORD document. Even worst, fill-up the slide and read every single words on it…

Do take your time and put a single “big” idea per slide. If a figure or table convey more than one idea, copy the slide or use an animation (first approach preferred) to introduce that new idea.

Do take your time to make sure that every slide contribute to your overall presentation “story.”  If it doesn’t simplify by removing it. You want to be convincing and in that bring to audience to follow you in what should be an obvious conclusion.

From the previous two DOs, always DO start building a presentation by establishing first what will be your overall main message.

Do use precise words and short sentence(s). It is OK with having an empty slide or a slide with just an image or just a word or just a sentence. It is however not OK to have more than 45-50 words unless you are quoting some or something for a very specific purpose.

Don’t ever use fonts smaller than 24 pts. You want your slide to be easy to absorb even in that last row of the ballroom. As a bonus, this simple rule along with the use of margins will help you keep the number of words on your slide to a reasonable level 😉

Figures and Tables

That previous rule DO apply to figures and tables! Numbers and characters for axis and labels should never be smaller than 24 pts. Nothing worst than having that killer graph that 75-80% of the audience cannot even figure out because it cannot be read.

If your figure have many different data sets on it, DO alternate between open and filled symbols such as open square, black dots, open triangle, back stars, … Having x and + signs next to each other does not work.

Similarly, don’t ever use pale color for your plot lines or symbols: yellow, pale green, pink (yeah I have seen – or not – this), … This simply does not work. Black, blue, green (dark), red and combination of full, dashed, dot-dashed and dotted lines are plenty. By the way, since a good fraction of the population are color blind avoid contrasting two important data sets with red and green!

Do always present your figures, including X and Y axis before discussing the results. The time it take you to do this is also the time your audience need to figure out what is shown (if your figure is well-design based on the above rules); they are now ready to listen to what you have to say.

Don’t, never show a table that take a whole slide and have dozens of numbers. First it will be impossible to meet the 24 pts rule and second, most of the audience brains will simply shut off. My experience is that:

  1. People want to show a trend, which is better served by a well-design figure,
  2. Want to give the impression that they worked hard. Fine just say you have taken a zillion measurements but only present the relevant ones.
  3. Only a few are really relevant to the message and many times peoples will have a small animation putting a circle around those values or turning the fonts into another color or boldfaced or … These are the one you should show is a well-design table for!

Other considerations

Don’t, never use pale font colors on a pale backgrounds: yellow on white is probably the worst of them.

Do use either dark font colors on a pale background ( black on white, dark blue on white, …) or pale font colors on a dark background (white fonts on a black background or white fonts on a dark red background and so on). You get the idea.

Do use and customize you master slide. This will ensure that you have always the same size and color title fonts, place always at the same spot on the slide, …

Don’t put your logos, e-mail, URL on every slides. This “over branding” behavior does not help you as it provides sources distraction while you are trying to engage peoples.

Do use your logos on the first slide with your name, title, …

Do also use your affiliation logos, financing partner logos, URL, e-mail on the very last slide (that will stay up waiting for question). Better yet, provide the audience with a QR code which can be your VCARD, an URL to your website and so on. This is clean, non-distracting and very useful.

One last thing

Do, always take the time to make sure that your presentation will come out correctly on the conference system. Going from Mac to PC or even on PC from one system configuration to another can give you a few surprises, especially regarding animations and movies.


The above covers the very basics stuff. We go over this “design” process with the students during group meetings and in preparation to oral presentations at major conferences. More in-depth tips can be found on this post and this one.

I would really like to hear out your useful tricks and tips.

If an image is worth a thousand words, imagine a thousand images…

It happens every so often that you might need to explain a complex concept or present a vast amount of data in a short amount of time. Why not, if applicable (and possible), present it as an animation or a movie!

In a previous post I have made a link to a spectacular presentation of Prof Rosling showing the worldwide evolution of household income as function of time. Loads of data, presented in a dynamic (animated) fashion. It works!

It is also quite possible that the data for any reason are too abstract or makes it difficult to grasp the significance until you “see” them. A good example of this has recently appeared on YouTube showing the break-up of the Greenland glacier over time. Again highly effective.

Over the past two years, a few of my students have used movies or movie-like animations to explain in less than 20-30 seconds very abstract and complex concepts at various conferences. While at first I saw this has a curiosity, it became clear very quickly that for their particular purposes, the use of such techniques have simplified greatly their scientific or technical presentations (usually 8 to 10 minutes time slots), decrease significantly the time needed for a detailed explanation and increased audience comprehension.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, do not underestimate the power of thousands of images… used correctly 😉

Emotion and story telling in a scientific talk?

During a recent group meeting, one of the student was making a comment regarding the document really bad powerpoint by Seth Godin. Her point was how can one impart emotion to a scientific talk. Clearly, when you have 7 or 8 minutes to get to the point it could indeed be difficult to make time for humor…

Yet emotion can still be generated in term of response of the audience to your data, figure or conclusion: raising eyebrows, smiles, figures looking at you making yes (or no) motions. Of course in longer presentation, these could be much more involving.

Here is an example of a great presentation of data by Hans Rosling. He used this technique numerous times but you will get the idea: Hans Rosling’s new insights on poverty | Video on

Now, story telling is of course at the heart of what you should be doing. It is sometimes easier said than done (sometimes it works and others it don’t, unfortunately). Again, here is a great link to a talk on story telling and getting the message across on TED: Nancy Duarte: The secret structure of great talks | Video on

Hope these inspire you.

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