on August 27th, 2009

Dear Colleagues

We have all sat through interminably boring power point presentations, often riddled with the poor use of graphics. As engineering professionals we tend to stick to the technical side of things and avoid presentations full stop. However, there are times when they are unavoidable. Here are some really great tips that I have picked up (or stolen?), over the years, on how to use graphics/visuals, with panache, in engineering presentations.

There is no doubt that graphics are vital in a good presentation and can gain and retain attention from an audience of technical personnel. I get quite despondent, though, when I see graphics used wastefully and poorly and, more recently, the killer - the use of enormous tracks of video (which are often poorly explained or have very little relation to the actual presentation). Another dubious trick is to make extensive use of sound and animated graphics. Which, while initially entertaining, end up confusing (and ultimately boring) everyone. Unfortunately, there is no machine or software available to research, rehearse and make a dynamic presentation for you!

But there are a number of points regarding graphics which may be useful when you next have to get up and present. The keys to good graphics in presentations:

* Use them sparingly

* Make them big so that they can be clearly seen

* Make them simple so that they can be understood by everyone in the audience

* Avoid colours that can’t be differentiated from the back of the room

* Make them memorable, leaving a lasting impression

* And remember engineering professionals tend to prefer useful schematics rather than cute pictures of industrial plants and equipment

So why use Graphics in your Presentations?

* You simply can’t present slide after slide of text – this is too boring – graphics can be useful dividers of text and refreshers

* Graphics can be helpful when explaining difficult concepts where text is not up to the task

* Graphics are great for communicating symbolic points that you want remembered

* They provide useful prompts or props for talking around when discussing some concepts

* If used appropriately, graphics show your audience that you have gone to some trouble to create a really professional presentation to benefit them (rather than a bunch of text-ridden slides)

Cut out the Clutter (and noise)

Many graphics have an enormous amount of ‘clutter’ in them. One needs to apply the so called “three second rule” - if your audience can’t read and understand the graphic in this time; you need to simplify it further. Otherwise the graphic becomes a distraction – the audience focuses on the unraveling of the mysterious graphic rather than on the presentation content.

Ways of reducing clutter:

* Unnecessary detail should be removed, for example; grids and numbers

* The graphic should focus only on what you are discussing (this may mean that the remainder of the graphic needs to be eliminated).

* Numerical detail is confusing and too detailed - use a bar or line graph to get the point across

* Legends with graphs are difficult to read– label directly on the lines in the graph to minimize your audience flipping back and forth to the legend.

Give your Bulleted Sequences the Bullet

An endless stream of bullet points can be exhausting slide after slide. Be innovative – break them up with graphics. For example, draw a star and place the individual ideas at each point of the star - you still have text, but text which is visually represented. This is much more appealing.

Symbols and more Symbols

Symbols, to replace text, can make your message more memorable and at times more humorous.

Some examples:

* An electrical plug and socket for - “plugged into a concept or thought”

* An engineer swinging a bat for - “taking a swing at corruption/poor practices…”

* A rocket with the concept written on it for - “taking off like a rocket”

* A blindfolded person about to step down a manhole with no cover for - “blind to danger or safety issues”

* Kids building blocks for - “the basic building blocks in creating some new concept”

At the end of the day; however, ensure that an incredible graphic doesn’t take the focus from you and distract them from your message.

Thanks to Peter and Cheryl Reimold for some good ideas in writing this piece.

Always remember Alfred Montapert’s comment about the end game of visualization – you still need to do something : “To accomplish great things we must first dream, then visualize, then plan... believe... act”!

Yours in engineering learning


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