on January 7th, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

I hope 2014 is a wonderful year for you and yours.

I writhed in my seat with embarrassment last week when an esteemed engineer did a presentation on fixing the local electrical distribution network problems to a mainly lay audience comprising families, local businesspeople and civic councillor types. I had been looking forward to the presentation as it had great importance in the area in improving the electrical supply.

The presentation was disastrous – full of acronyms and technical terms which would baffle even an experienced electrical engineer. This continued for most of the hour. His presentation comprised mainly of PowerPoint slides presented at breakneck speed with huge amounts of numerical detail and with absolutely no effort to engage the audience. There were not many questions at the end. The presenter was also somewhat nervous; so bolted as soon as the few questions were haltingly answered.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual for technical people to present like this. Often it is well outside their comfort zone and they are not well prepared.

I hasten to add this problem is not only with engineers but goes right across the spectrum to the plumber explaining to the (bored?) housewife/househusband why a particular fix had to be effected to their heating system or the technician explaining to the manager of a processing plant why she had to change the settings for a PID loop. Or indeed, an engineer explaining to her management what her project is all about.

But with a bit of effort, you can connect in a winning way with audiences and ‘win hearts and minds’ with a personable and entertaining presentation, which both you and the audience will enjoy and benefit from.

One of the keys is to understand who your audience is before your presentation. You would be surprised that even highly technical audiences appreciate a somewhat simple straightforward presentation in simple lay(wo)man’s language . Practise meticulously your presentation and then speak from the heart in simple English using as much of a story as possible to underpin your presentation. Everyone can follow a story.

Inevitably, you will probably say: Why bother? Well, most of the time in your career and life you are dealing with people who may not have the deep technical insights and knowledge you may have built up in a specialist area. And in order to connect and communicate with them about what you are doing; you need to build up some skills in the area of non-technical communications.

A suggestion to make your presentations more palatable is to try and build a story around them. People love stories and this is a great way to make your highly technical story very understandable. I am also not suggesting that you dumb things down to make them understandable. I utterly believe that you can get highly technical concepts across in prose understandable to your even your grandmother.

A few suggestions for your next presentation to non-technical people.

  • Understand your audience and what they (and you) want to achieve from the presentation
  • Practise your presentation so that you understand it and it is polished. But talk to the audience as a valued equal partner – this is not a lecture.
  • Confirm what you both want by sounding them out at the beginning of the presentation
  • Use graphics and qualitative stories rather than enormous wads of numbers and zillions of ghastly PowerPoint slides
  • Avoid all acronyms, equations and jargon
  • Make the presentation entertaining
  • Get the audience involved in the presentation by asking them questions and getting feedback from them at regular intervals.
  • Remember that what you say may be of critical importance to the community or stake holders; so they need to understand what the issues are.
  • The presentation needs to have an outcome or reason for its existence– ensure you don’t just give content but some reason to listen to the content.
  • Make sure there is ongoing dialogue throughout your presentation or if the audience is too large – that you are available to answer questions at the end.
  • Ensure that you provide lots of supporting information for those that want to dig deeper into the topic.
  • Make sure you are available to discuss the topic further (via email or phone, perhaps)

It should be remembered that those who go the furthest in their engineering careers are those that can communicate well with all levels of audiences. Particularly the lay person.

As Les Brown remarks: Your ability to communicate is an important tool in your pursuit of your goals, whether it is with your family, your co-workers or your clients and customers.

Yours in engineering learning,

Steve Mackay

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