Technical presentations

In addition to technical writing, engineers need to be able to make good technical presentations. We’ve all experienced the proverbial death by PowerPoint, so we know what makes a bad presentation. But how do you do it well? Planning is vital: think first, then do.

Speaking is like writing…

Panel of speakers in front of large audience
Speaking before a large audience takes skill and practice. Shutterstock image.

As in technical writing, consider who your audience is and why you’re speaking to them. What kind of education do they have? What do they already know about your field, and about your specific topic? Factors such as age, sex, and ethnicity may affect the sort of illustrations and cultural references that work best. Are they all native speakers of English? Are you?

Consider both your purpose in giving the talk and their purpose in listening to you. Do you want merely to inform them, or do you also seek to persuade them? Do you want them to take some action as a result of your talk? Are they likely to be hostile, enthusiastic, bored, or neutral toward you or your message? Do they have to be there, or do they choose to be there? Why should they be interested in your talk?

All of these considerations should inform your choice of what you say, how you organize your material, and the words and graphics you use.

…except when it isn’t

There are several differences between technical writing and technical presentations. The first is that in speaking, you have one shot. If you lose the audience’s attention or they don’t understand something, you’ve lost them. They can’t go back and reread it. That is, you have to get their attention and hold it throughout the presentation. If they’re skeptical or hostile, you’ll also have to get them on your side—at least enough to listen to you.

The second is that the physical setting affects how well people can see and hear, and how hard it will be to keep their attention. If the room is uncomfortably warm or cold, your talk is just before or just after lunch, or there aren’t enough chairs, you’ll have to work harder. The more you know about the setting ahead of time, the better you can prepare. Ask about the schedule and what else is on the program when you agree to give the talk. Try to visit the room where you’ll give your presentation so you’ll know how far away the back row is. And attend as many of the preceding presentations as you can. That way you can build on what other speakers have said. You’ll also know a little more about your audience.

Another difference between writing and speaking is that speaking allows for interaction between you and your audience. You can see their faces to know whether they’re with you. You can solicit questions or comments. And you can ask them questions. You also have the possibility of tailoring your presentation to suit their needs.

Keeping them with you

Everybody loves stories. My undergraduate materials science class met right after lunch in a big, dark lecture hall. Yet the professor drew us into each lecture with a story related to that day’s topic—samurai swords to introduce us to martensite steel, a patent lawsuit over CorningWare® to illustrate  crystallizing glass. That class sparked my interest in materials science, and I still remember those stories.

Early in my career, I presented the results of round-robin testing of concrete cylinder strengths. John Bickley and I had analyzed the variability of two sets of data—one from blind testing and another from tests qualifying the labs for contracts with Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation. Not surprisingly, the variability of the latter tests was considerably lower than that of the blind tests. The audience included employees of the participating labs. As a young woman at a time when the construction industry was nearly all male, I needed to get them on my side. To make my point about how much better they performed when they knew they were being watched, I showed a Far Side cartoon of some natives in a grass hut. One, looking out the window to see white guys in pith helmets, shouts, “Anthropologists! Anthropologists!” while the others scramble to hide their TV, lamp, and upholstered chairs. As the audience laughed, I presented our data.

However, humor can be a double-edged sword. In that case, it was a gentle but effective way to make a potentially offensive point. But humor can backfire if you offend your audience or they just don’t “get” your joke. In my experience, cuteness works better than cleverness. Self-deprecation can work, but I prefer not to put anyone down, whether others or myself. An atmosphere of mutual respect will help you connect with your audience.

Object lessons

We’ve discussed using object lessons in a previous blog. Having a physical object or demonstrating your point directly can be both effective and memorable. Practice your demonstration thoroughly ahead of time to make sure it works. One of my physics professors never seemed to get his demonstrations to go as intended. He’d told us we should learn to identify the odors of the various circuit elements as they burned so we’d know what to disconnect and replace. That should have been a clue; most of his demonstrations ended up in acrid smoke.

The object lesson also needs to be visible to everyone in the room. If you’re passing objects around so people can handle them, bring enough to distribute throughout the room. Don’t assume that what starts in the front row will get all the way to the back. If you’re showing something from the front of the room, be sure it’s large enough to see from the back. And hold it high enough to provide clear sight lines.

A manner of speaking

The way you speak affects how well you communicate. Speech habits result from long practice, so if you need to modify them you should work on them over time.

My mother, who had been an elementary school teacher, insisted on clear enunciation even when I was first learning to talk. She always enunciated clearly to me, using full, grammatical sentences. She used baby talk only for our cat; her own babies got correct grammar and pronunciation. Her early training continues to pay off.

For technical presentations, you want to sound authoritative. Members of the military learn to use command voice, which is a way of projecting the voice. As in singing, you use your diaphragm rather than your vocal cords to lend your voice the necessary volume without strain. That way people in the back of the room can hear you.

In addition, a low-pitched voice is preferable. It may be a relic of the days when only men had authority, but a high-pitched voice is no asset in public speaking. Keep in mind that if you’re at all nervous in front of an audience, your voice will get higher. So practice lowering the pitch of your voice. But a monotone will put your audience to sleep, so vary your intonation.

Beware of the questioning intonation; the pitch should drop, not rise, at the end of a declarative sentence. And speak firmly; a breathy voice sounds tentative, not confident.

Many of us use “like”, “um”, “okay”, or “I mean” in our everyday speech. In public speaking, such fillers are distracting. It’s far better to have a brief silence than fillers. Similarly, quirks such as clicking the tongue or audible breaths can distract the audience. If you’re using a microphone, the distraction will be that much more conspicuous.

Let them know where you’re going

A long, rambling presentation suggests that you didn’t care enough to plan or prepare it. Instead, show your audience the courtesy of letting them in on the plan. Unlike mystery stories, technical presentations should not keep the audience guessing until the end. Although the old formula, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them,” is something of a cliché, it has a lot of truth to it.

But you can do even better than that. Begin your presentation by explaining your purpose and the main point. Then provide an advance organizer such as an introduction or an outline.

If you have several points to make, show the outline again at the beginning of each new point so your audience will know where you are and where you’re going. You can also use the outline items as headers for your slides to show where you are. Or you can use ordinal words—first, second, and so on— to make clear which point you’re discussing. Just don’t do what one speaker did, repeating the phrase, “And finally…” many times before—finally!—ending.

Conclude your presentation by summarizing the main points. If you like, you can then speak to the future—what action you recommend or what you hope will happen next. Then invite questions from the audience.