Sometimes, the question is wrong. I recall the young scientist whose work featured the discovery of a gene associated with breast cancer. After introducing himself at the beginning of his talk, he probed the audience with this memorable question: “Has anyone had a family member die of breast cancer?”
Naturally, the long silence that followed was not an indication that the audience was made of healthy individuals whose parents were healthy and grand parents were still in their prime. The presenter must have felt like someone listening to the SETI space probe waiting for a signal betraying intelligent life in the universe, for there seemed to be no life at all in this audience. The question was too personal and too risky: imagine someone had replied: “Yes. My mother died of breast cancer last week.” What would the presenter have responded?
But most of all, the timing is wrong. At the beginning of a talk, the audience does not readily open up to someone they do not know. It adopts a wait-and-see attitude. The positively-charged presenter must create a low resistance channel to reach the neutral down-to-earth audience. And I know no better way to do that than by smiling and welcoming the audience. The presenter must also establish a potential difference (voltage) between him/her and the audience – for example, by creating a curiosity gap that the audience eagerly wants filled. The question is a good way to build that curiosity gap, particularly an intriguing, provocative question or statement like Friedman’s assertion that “the world is flat”. But that question must be rhetorical.
There is no need to force the audience into action at the beginning of your scientific talk. An audience that has had time to be interested in both the presenter and his/her topic is easier to engage.
By Jean-luc Lebrun