This blog post was inspired by my recent interview with Neil at Teach the Geek. Click below to see the interview.
Today, I am planting my flag in the sand. Engineers, listen up! If I may be blunt: many of our presentations are not engaging, lacking in visual appeal, and generally terrible. It’s time to put a stop to terrible engineering presentations, and this blog is going to give you a head start on doing so!
I recently attended an engineering conference, where I was late to one of the presentations. I slipped in through the back of the room, gently guiding the door shut so it didn’t make a noise. As I sat down in the back row, I looked up to see a presenter who was reading from his notes, as he scrolled through slides that included a basic white background with bullet points that I could barely read.
Assuming maybe he just hadn’t caught his presentation stride yet, I watched as he continued to drone on in a monotone voice, slide after slide of bullet points and material completely lacking in visual appeal.
I kept waiting, hopeful that the presenter would do something – anything – to engage myself and the rest of the audience. My eyelids started to feel heavy as the presentation continued, despite the fact that it was mid-morning. I’d even gotten a full night’s sleep, and I was over-caffeinated with my Starbucks Venti almond milk latte.
After about ten minutes, I slipped out of the room, in search of a more engaging presentation. No matter how good the content may have been, I wasn’t going to learn anything because the presentation style and materials were putting me to sleep. Life is too short to voluntarily listen to an un-engaging presentation.
There is a stereotype about an engineer’s abilities to speak in public and communicate with others. That presentation was one of the most relevant examples perpetuating the stereotype that I have ever seen, reminiscent of how I imagine Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory would give a presentation. Unfortunately, it was also not the first one I’ve seen presented this way. It’s simply the first one that I was easily able to leave.
Yet, how many times have I attended that exact conference where an engineer complains that his or her clients “won’t listen?” Or that a client “doesn’t understand all the work we put in.”
It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror, my friends. If we can’t communicate in a way that is engaging – even if it’s just in a conference presentation to peers – why should anyone listen?
Last week, I did a YouTube interview with Neil Thompson who is an engineer and founder of Teach the Geek. He’s doing something about the stereotype. He has an online course that teaches engineers and STEM professionals how to be effective public speakers; you can find it at teachthegeek.com. Click on the video at the top of this page to watch the interview.
I wasn’t originally planning to write a blog about this topic. In fact, this interview came at a time when I am in the middle of a different blog series. However, Neil was such a great interviewer that the conversation brought out a number of actionable and extremely valuable tips.
The things we discussed will immediately improve not just your presentations, but more importantly the outcomes of your presentations. Trying to convince upper management or a client? You probably need Neil’s course, and you definitely need these tips. Additionally, I have a couple of other tips we didn’t have time to discuss in the interview, so they are included in this blog as well.
One last thought before we get to the good stuff: I’m an introvert, and public speaking is not something I ever set out to do, let alone get good at. To be frank, I avoided it for many years. This is one of the very few regrets I have in my career of things I didn’t learn earlier. Knowing what I know now, I would have made a much bigger time and monetary investment in honing this skill early.
Why? Because public speaking and being able to effectively communicate makes every single thing you do in the technical realm easier.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that engineers who are good at public speaking find success earlier than their peers. It seems to be one of the few career “shortcuts” that actually works in many engineering firms. Frankly, the bar is set pretty low here, so you do NOT have to be “great”. Since many engineers avoid public speaking like I used to, it may be the single best way you can quickly gain visibility. For return on investment, there are few “soft skills” you can learn that will have an impact on your career trajectory more quickly than public speaking.
When I think about the women (and men) that have made it to the top of their organizations more quickly than you would expect given their experience levels, almost all of them are far above the engineering norm when it comes to public speaking. Specifically, those engineers are good at engaging and persuading others using public speaking. Do you want in on what they do differently? Then let’s continue with the five secrets to mind-blowing engineering presentations.
Secret #1: Know your audience.
Let's say you're going to present at a conference where there's many different types of people that could possibly attend your presentation. You could be presenting to academics or professionals. New graduates just starting their careers or managers might be in the audience. You might even have firm owners in the same room watching your presentation. It's tempting to think you need to tailor your presentation to all of them. That's the first mistake a lot of engineers make when creating a presentation.
When you're creating your presentation, imagine the single person you want to reach with your message. Where are they in their engineering career? What are their struggles? What do they want? Why should they listen to your presentation?
For example, if I’m giving a presentation about transitioning ownership from one generation to the next, there are a number of possible audiences. I can cater that presentation to senior leaders who want to retire and don't yet have the next generation of leadership in place. I can also cater that presentation to young professionals who see themselves in leadership in the future and don't know what they should learn now to get there. Those are two entirely different presentations.
Your presentation is much more effective when you focus on only the primary audience. Ask yourself:
“For my specific audience, if they take only one thing away from my presentation, what would it be?”
The goal of your presentation – which dictates everything from layout to slide order – is then to convey the answer to this question.
Secret #2: Eliminate Unnecessary Information
A common mistake in many engineering presentations is having the “curse of knowledge”. Because you know so much about a subject, you attempt to brain dump everything you know.
Three months into my very first full-time engineering position, I had completed an extensive analysis reviewing options for how we could design a laboratory floor to minimize the vibration experienced by the equipment. This is critically important because vibrations translated through the floor can cause inaccurate test results and/or invalidate a test. Translating this to non-engineer speak, if you’re a patient at a hospital rushed to an ER with a life-threatening trauma, what happens to you if the lab’s test results are either wrong or need to be rerun?
I was very proud of that analysis. I had created an impressive spreadsheet to distill weeks of work with more than ten different options. I presented it to my manager, and we decided we were ready to share our findings with our client.
In the conference room with our client and my manager, I gave a summary of all the options. The client then asked about the assumptions we made to come to this conclusion. I began explaining how I developed this spreadsheet, and started diving into technical jargon. I began explaining things like how slow or fast walking translated into criteria for the design, and how floor frequencies are calculated. I was fully in the geek zone and paying no attention whatsoever to how my message was being received.
Fortunately, my manager came to the rescue. He was paying attention to the very confused look on the client’s face, and after a few minutes jumped in to say, “I think what Stephanie means to say summarize is……..”, and then concisely explained only the things the client needed to know to make a decision.
As I watched my manager sum up in less than two minutes everything that it had taken me weeks to analyze, a light-bulb went off in my head. All my knowledge was completely useless if I couldn’t explain it to the client in a way she could understand.
What is the point of speaking? Is it to get your point across and be heard? Show off everything you’ve done to get to this point in your analysis like I did? Is it to prove you are the smartest person in the room?
If you guessed to get your point across, you’d be correct. Too often, I’ve seen presentations packed with information overwhelm and techno babble, exactly like the explanation I started to give to a very confused client. I’ve sat through presentations packed with unnecessary information that either confused the audience or put them to sleep.
There are rare exceptions, for example if you are giving your PhD thesis. However, in most professional settings, and especially when you are talking to non-engineers, eliminating unnecessary information avoids audience confusion and makes your message clear. It avoids your audience mentally checking out, like the client started to do when I gave an overly-technical explanation. In a larger audience, it also keeps your audience from physically checking out, like I did during the conference presentation discussed earlier in this blog.
Often, it's a non-technical person that you need to convince once you reach a project manager level to do the thing that you're recommending. It’s often the non-technical person holding the purse strings on your project that you need to convince that the direction she gave you increased the project scope (and thus you need more money and/or a deadline extension).
Pare down all your information to only the exact things your audience needs to know. Provide just enough information about the back story to allow your audience to make an informed decision (if you are presenting to come to a consensus), or to demonstrate your main points (if you are presenting solely to inform or teach).
This applies to any type of speaking, be it public speaking, or simply asking your boss or coworker a question. Get to the point as quickly as reasonably possible. If your boss wants a play-by-play of every way you looked at an analysis from the beginning of time, he or she will specifically ask for it.
Eliminating unnecessary information helps you avoid audience information overwhelm, which is likely to result in a lackluster presentation that does not produce the outcome you desire.
Secret #3: Tell a Story
Human beings have been wired since the beginning of time to pass things along via story. We remember stories a lot better than we remember statistics.
I could tell you that 70% of Americans believe that excellent speaking skills and presentation skills will help you get promoted, get raises, and do better in your career long term. You’ll probably forget this statistic by the time you reach the next paragraph.
To make the same point, I could instead tell you the story about how I gave a presentation to a very skeptical audience (a Board). Our team wanted approval to move forward with a particular idea, and I volunteered to spearhead the presentation. Despite the skepticism and the fact our team had never met the majority of the audience members previously, I was able to convince them that the idea was worthwhile and should have their full support. I might continue with the story to say that my boss was at the presentation, and was so impressed that he put me up for a promotion.
The statistic and the story, which one are you more likely to remember? It's the story. Both make the same point, but because we are wired to remember stories, stories are one of the most effective ways to engage an audience.
You might be thinking to yourself, “But a story isn’t appropriate in a technical presentation. We only focus on facts.” While I completely agree that facts are required in technical presentations, use a fact combined with a story for the main point of your presentation. Use of a story drives a statistic home, causing your audience to remember it long after you’ve stopped speaking. If you want an audience to take action on your presentation, appropriate use of story is imperative.
Let’s say you are presenting to the CEO at your firm about a feature of a software program you are upgrading. You could say “10% of our users have reported this problem in a recent survey.” But if you tell the story about one of the users who experienced this problem, and how it caused a significant issue with their client to the point that they are now considering other software options, that 10% becomes real. It becomes not just a number, but a business imperative to change.
Good story-telling is a learned skill. If you are skeptical about adding a story to your presentations, try adding just one to the start of your next presentation. The goal of this story is simply to get the attention of your audience. Tell a story that demonstrates why your topic is relevant to your audience and why they should bother paying attention to the rest of your presentation.
Secret #4: Bring the Energy
Each time you open your mouth to speak, you are either bringing the energy to the room or you are sucking it out. There is not an in-between here. Think of your audience like a mirror. They reflect the energy you give to them.
The last time you gave a speech or spoke during a meeting, what were the people in the room doing? Were they checking their phones or appearing to doze off? Were they paying attention? Were you paying enough attention to even notice your audience’s reaction? If not, that is a red-flag-waving hint that you are not bringing energy to what you're saying.
Bringing the energy means you are enthusiastic about the topic. It also means you are speaking from a place of service and helpfulness. You aren’t speaking from a place of ego, the need to be right, or the need to have the last word.
When you hear an energetic person speak, you are riveted to their every word. You want to learn more. You are emotionally engaged because if they are excited about the topic, you feel that energy and start to get excited too, even for “boring” technical topics.
Give the energy you want to get back from your audience. For me, that means preparation beforehand, especially for public presentations. I will listen to a high-energy song that gets my adrenaline going immediately before presenting. I will stand up to make my points in meetings, especially if it is a long meeting and the energy of the room is low. For conference calls and video calls at my desk, I almost always stand and move about (thank you wireless headset!).
Secret #5: Give Your Audience a Break
Presentations should be peppered with breaks for the audience. Depending on which source you cite, you have about 8 seconds in a presentation to hook the audience. Attention spans have shrunk 50% in the last decade, and currently don’t last longer than 5-10 minutes, depending on the study source.
That’s why it’s important to shake up your presentation by using ample visual aids (pictures, infographics, etc.), asking your audience interactive questions, incorporating stories into dry statistics, and using silence effectively so your audience can absorb what you have said.
For example, many engineering presentations wait until the end for questions. However, some of the most engaging presentations I’ve seen took frequent breaks for audience participation. Engaging presentations will often warm up their audiences with a question in the first 2-3 minutes of the presentation, and include short interactive exercises throughout.
Free tools like mentimeter.com allow you to ask the audience a question live in the middle of your presentation. The audience can immediately answer anonymously on their smart phone, and instantaneously see the live-time results on the screen (it embeds into PowerPoint). You can do quizzes or even make a word cloud. This is one of my favorite audience interaction tools for larger presentations because it engages the audience, without concern for time derailment that can happen when you ask an open-ended question in the middle of a presentation.
Public Speaking was Scary for Me at First, Too
If there is one skill I wished I had honed earlier in my career it is public speaking. The ability to elegantly articulate my thoughts and arguments simply makes every single thing in an engineer’s daily life easier. You’ll notice a lot of these skills carry over into general communication as well.
Just because you are an engineer, doesn’t mean your communication and presentations have to be boring!
The first couple of times you give a presentation will be really uncomfortable. It will be hard. It might even be terrible. That’s one reason I recommend practicing presentations in front of a low-risk group (i.e. Toastmasters, a volunteer organization, or another audience where the presentation outcome has nothing to do with your livelihood.)
The first time I did a presentation in my professional career, I physically shook due to nerves. My presentation wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good either. My introverted soul had completely demolished her comfort zone without a life preserver when I agreed to give that presentation.
Over time though, I got better. There’s no magic bullet. I simply practiced, prepared, and practiced more. The more presentations I give, the better I get. I am proof that giving better presentations can be learned. Public speaking can be learned. Being able to express yourself persuasively and well can be learned. And while I am far from great at it, I have come a long way from the shaking young professional.
And as you’ll hear on the YouTube episode with Neil of Teach the Geek, I really, really wish I had learned this lesson earlier in my career. Excellent public speaking is the single “soft” skill that can accelerate your career progression faster than any other single skill I have seen (even the technical ones).
Don’t believe me? Go find those young engineers who have been promoted to partner early, those that seemed to be leaps and bounds above where most engineers are at the same age. I guarantee their public speaking skills are a primary “secret” to their success.