on December 19th, 2014

Dear Colleagues,

You may be one of the many engineering professionals not particularly enthused with the idea of making presentations. The reasons may be that one gets nervous; the audience shows obvious boredom and the poor presentations reflect badly on one. It is thus not a particularly pleasant experience for both the audience or the presenter. You’re unlikely to ever hear from someone, who has to attend an engineering presentation, that they are looking forward to it.

However, doing a high quality presentation is a key part of every engineer, technician or technologist’s toolkit. And helps make your career and job considerably more successful.

And by application of one simple rule (sounds like black magic or a quick get rich scheme doesn’t it?); you can dramatically improve your presentations. And that is practice, practice and more practice.

Personally, I find practice a bit irritating and unpleasant. Going through one’s slides a few times is often tedious and unrewarding work (like discovering your old smelly running socks in your backpack a few weeks down the track?). But it works; and pays off with great feedback from your audience.

In preparing your actual presentation – ensure that it is simple, addresses the issues in a clear way and is interesting.

Four Reasons Why Practising Your Presentation Helps You
The first reason is to eliminate your nervousness when presenting. When you have practised your presentation thoroughly you will find your nervousness disappears. Once you start your presentation; your lines and ‘patter’ seem familiar to you, giving you comfort and you quickly build up your confidence and can then focus on your audience. Nothing is more nerve wracking than not knowing your presentation and at the same time having to interact with the audience.

Secondly, you can then focus on interacting more spontaneously with your audience and catering to their needs and requirements. You can focus on individuals, their reactions, their body language and those who may have lost interest in what you have to say. You can drive up their interest level by throwing questions out to them to get them more involved. And thus avoid the one way monotone presentation.

Thirdly, you can be more dynamic in your presentation and respond to particular audience needs. Jumping to a particular slide as a result of a question or dealing with a particular issue brought up by the audience on the whiteboard. All help to show everyone that you are a person obviously in command of the subject and the issues.

Finally, every successful presentation you give, makes the next one slightly easier and builds on your skills in presenting. Some of our instructors who were initially very poor presenters; by practice and a large number of presentations; have become superb at their craft. Simply, because they have practised over hundreds (thousands?) of presentations.

Professionals know the Key Secret to Excellence is Practice
Most good speech makers, actors and indeed trainers know the power of practice. Actors are a great example of professionals who practice until they know their lines, facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures and movements so intimately that they can be absolutely spontaneous and bring the play or film to life.

How to Practice
A few suggestions on how to practice your presentation:

  • It is best to go through all your slides several times and to present verbally as if you are in front of your audience (but presumably to your dog or cat or mirror). Build up confidence in your phrasing, time allocation and think of potential questions that may come up from the audience. Commence powerfully and with energy and enthusiasm. Avoid reading off the slides, but talk around them.
  • Prepare your presentation equipment and ensure your computer connects to the overhead projector and the audio and video (esp. when embedded in powerpoint or another program) all works seamlessly.
  • Prepare any associated equipment so that it all works well. Test equipment and instrumentation can sometimes be embarrassingly slow to boot up or not do exactly what you require.
  • If you are getting anyone else to co-present make sure you have carefully synchronised with them on what they are going to say. Ensure it adds value to your presentation; isn’t repetitive or embarrassingly poorly done.
  • Practice your call to action. What do you want to achieve with your presentation? What do you want your audience to leave with? Finish off with a powerful energised last slide and exhortation to action.
  • Finally, ensure your time management is done well – if you have a deluge of questions but only a fixed time; what can you cut back on? And if you have an embarrassingly quiet audience, what can you add in to the presentation to ensure it runs for the full time?
  • Ensure throughout that you do not read off the slides but sound like someone completely in control of their subject, friendly and enthusiastic. Chat to the audience as colleagues’ ¬- not as a patronising professor to 250 first year engineering students who have just commenced study.

Thanks to Susan De La Vergne of the IEEE for an eminently readable article on doing great presentations.

You Can’t always be Perfect

A Roman emperor (Augustus Octavius) remarked two thousand years ago: Practice, the master of all things.

Yours in engineering learning,


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