It’s easy to get excited about a project that you are working on – in fact, it happens to me all the time.
I start working on something and as I find out more about the technical issues, or the work’s relevance in the overall scheme of things, I get more and more excited about the work that I am doing. And when I get an opportunity to present out the status of the project or brief the experts on a particular issue being worked on, I want to make sure I present as full of a picture of the project as possible. That just makes sense: good data in = good results out.
I was once investigating the stresses on rotating engine blades. When we reached a milestone of collecting enough data to start making decisions about the future of the project, I initiated a meeting to discuss our results. I was very fortunate to be able to invite a number of recognized experts in the field to the meeting.
Our investigation focused on the approach to set correct blade limits for the upcoming tests, and our team worked hard to try to understand all the factors involved. We took temperature, vibration, strain, flow visualization, and pressure data at many different conditions. We also tried to match our data to some of the historically available data from a few years ago and to a few computer generated models. It was very important to communicate the conditions that we used to gather the data, present the data itself, and then present to the experts our conclusions based on the data.
I was excited about the data and wanted to present as full of a picture as possible to the gathered audience. I spent a week putting the slides together for this presentation. Excel plots? Yes! MathLab plots? Yes!! I plotted that data six ways to Sunday, obsessively trying to include as much information as possible on every slide.
Holding my head high I went into the meeting, and – everything went “sideways” right after the introductory slide.
I am not going to go into the gory details of what happened at the meeting. I realized pretty quickly that in my quest to present as full of a picture of our gathered data as possible, I created visual slides that were confusing and that didn’t always accurately support the verbal portion of my presentation. The worst thing of all was the fact that the brilliant people gathered at the meeting, instead of using their expertise to suggest engineering solutions, were spending their valuable time just trying to figure out what they were looking at. What a terrible waste!
Over the years, I made good and bad presentations. Slowly I built up a number of criteria that I use to review my presentations to make sure I am not repeating my old mistakes. Here is what I try to think about:
Be a Storyteller
Determine what you want to say in your presentation and create a narrative that flows from your first slide to your last. Make sure you tell your audience the whole story, don’t try to imply things or hope that the audience will somehow magically read your mind and make the same connections that you did.
You are telling a story through a series of framed pictures. Imagine you are a comic book artist and consider what the readers have seen previously, what they are looking at now, and what will they be exposed to next. Does the whole sequence of pictures clearly describes what’s happening? Is that the direction you want to take?
Make sure that your story makes sense and your visual aids complement and flow together with your verbal commentary. The best way to determine if everything works is to make a “trial run” to a live audience and get some feedback. It’s not very efficient (or even possible) to make “trial runs” for every presentation you are going to make, but the important milestone presentations – definitely.
I personally always found it invaluable to make my trial runs to an audience, even if the audience is completely unfamiliar with the subject of my presentation. My poor wife has had to listen to project status reports and technical paper presentations that are completely out of her realm of expertise, and yet, I have always found her comments valuable.
Know Your Audience! Who Are You Presenting To?
Directly tied to the last point is the awareness of your audience. Are you presenting to a high school class to get students inspired to pursue a career in engineering? Or are you presenting to a group of experts in a particular technical field?
You have to know your audience and have a very clear, surgical-like understanding of what you want to communicate and the amount of detail you need to put into your presentation to make your points understood.
Don’t Imply: This is NOT Creative Writing 101!
You are NOT writing a novel, and you WON’T get extra points for fancy storytelling techniques. Can you imagine a presentation running backwards, like the Hollywood thriller Memento?
The main point of a novel (or a movie) is to entertain and maybe, in the process, to educate or at least to make you think about issues that are not foremost on your mind in your daily life. The main objective of a technical presentation is to inform and do it in an engaging manner, so that the audience is absorbing data and is not wondering how you got from slide 3 to slide 4.
The “closer” you are to the data you are presenting, the more you have “lived” with it, the more conclusions you have already drawn, that might or might not be obvious to your audience. Be aware of this and try to tell the whole story. With your deep understanding of the topic at hand, don’t fail to communicate the basics to your audience.
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!
The watch phrase should be: “Don’t be fancy – be clear!” It is very tempting to create fancy graphs full of data, but that can be a killer for your presentation.
One thing to remember is that as soon as you put a graphic up on the screen, in best case scenario, most people will split their attention. They will be listening to you, but half of their brain will be trying to figure out the graphic in front of them. More likely, if they can’t figure out what they are looking at, their brain will go into over drive and completely tune you out while they are trying to understand the graphic.
As the processing tools at our disposal become more sophisticated, we are able to include more and more data in our graphics. Do not be seduced by tools you are using. Remember, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Milton Glaser, a New York based graphic designer, is famous for his 1970s “I ❤ NY.” The genius of that logo (that has been copied the world over), is that it’s a graphic puzzle that everyone can instantly figure out, even though it contains three different elements: one word (“I”), one graphic representing an emotion (“❤”), and an abbreviation to a geographical location (“NY”). It is simple, informative, and engaging, all at the same time.
It is amazing what a human brain can absorb just in a split second it takes to get a glance at a picture. Graphics are a powerful tool in communicating and color is an amazing graphical device. Use color carefully, thoughtfully, and responsibly. Take a few minutes and look up color theory. What colors look harmonious next to each other? What colors highlight the difference between each other to make a sharper contrast between plotted data lines? This is a type of general knowledge that was taught right alongside Latin just a few decades ago. It might come in handy one day.
Think like a Libra!
It helps if you were born under the Libra sign. According to the astrology chart: “A Libra likes to make sense of all things, so they present all things as straightforward and as clear cut as best as they can.”
If you weren’t lucky enough to be born between September 22 and October 23, don’t despair. Communicating with pictures has been a part of human experience since the cave paintings, starting as far back as 35,000 years ago – it’s part of our DNA.