By: Essie Bester
As an engineer you must realise that your communication style has a major impact on how the general public views your work, as well as on the willingness of organisations to provide funding for your projects.
Statistics show that engineers who climb the success ladder are almost always those who understand the art of engaging and persuading other people thanks to the help of their reasoning ability.
You have to remember that those who make the money decisions are often not engineers themselves. And complex technical topics aimed at the general public (often your target audience) require an excellent presentation.
Presentation expert Melissa Marshall focuses on teaching engineers and other scientists how to make successful presentations that deal with complex technical topics.
According to her, the three aspects that are key to a successful presentation are:
Eliminate unnecessary information. This is a common mistake many engineers make in their presentations because often they know so much about a given topic. However, all that knowledge is of no use if you cannot explain it to your client in a way that he/she will understand.
The purpose of your presentation is to communicate your findings. Do not confuse and overwhelm your client with unnecessary information and technical terms he/she does not understand. Provide just enough information about the background for your audience to make an informed decision.
This applies to any form of communication. Get to the point as quickly as is reasonably possible. If more information is needed, it will be specifically requested.
Grab your audience by presenting your great, powerful ideas. You must be passionate and enthusiastic about your work and you must bring it to life through your words and physical presence.
You can give or take energy. Your audience reflects the energy you give/take. You have to be passionate and enthusiastic about your topic, while your attitude must be one of wanting to be of service – there is no room for your ego and the need to be right.
Radiate the energy you want to get back from your audience by:
Advance preparation, especially for public presentations
Listening to an energetic song before your presentation
Standing up in a meeting to state your case – especially if it is a long meeting and the energy in the meeting is low.
You can also stand instead of sitting down for conference calls.
The content of your presentation should be appropriate for a specific audience and should take the level of knowledge of that particular audience into account.
When you have to make a presentation that will be attended by people from many different backgrounds (academics, professionals, recent graduates or even company executives) it will be a mistake to think that you have to adapt your presentation to suit each of them.
Decide for yourself beforehand which single person you would most like to reach with your submission/presentation. Where is that person in his/her engineering career? What are the problems he/she is encountering? What does he/she want? Your presentation will be much more effective if you focus only on your primary audience.
The more technical elements of a presentation include:
- A strong start – Grab the attention of your audience within the first two to three minutes of your presentation by asking a question or by using an unexpected and/or interesting example. The key is to realise that the audience must choose to listen to your presentation, and it is the introduction to your presentation that should motivate them to do so.
- Tell a story – Stories are remembered much better than statistics are, and they are one of the most effective ways to engage an audience. A technical presentation may well require facts but using a story to convey the point of your statistics will ensure that your audience remembers it.
- Focus on the overall goal – Think ahead about the destination you want to lead the audience to so that you can structure the story to lead to that goal.
- Interaction – Good presentations allow for regular audience participation in-between.
- Presenting it – Your words and actions, in other words your ability to convey clear messages, can make a huge difference.
Use pauses effectively so that your audience can absorb everything you say – avoid filler words and insignificant comments or actions. Those things divert attention and create the idea that your thoughts are not fully developed.
It is a good idea to make a recording of your own presentation and to then play it back to yourself. In this way, you will better understand which aspects of your submission still require some work.
- Imagery and lively language – The use of these methods can anchor abstract ideas to more familiar concepts. Studies show that people’s attention span has shrunk by 50% in the past decade.
The use of interesting visual aids is therefore essential. However, avoid traditional slide shows. Use colourful images of high quality and avoid captions. Text is uninteresting to look at and can quickly cause cognitive overload as people can only absorb a limited number of words.
Remember, a visual presentation is not limited to slides only. Sometimes using demonstrations rather than a text-based explanation makes it easier to convey how a product works.
An excellent reasoning ability is the one soft skill that can accelerate your career progress faster than any other skill.
Fortunately, the ability to express yourself convincingly and eloquently is something that can be learnt – but preparation and practising it are important.