My first presentation in Delft (XXX)

 

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The first presentation I ever saw at Delft University of Technology was in the faculty of aerospace engineering. I was invited to this presentation to help me get acquainted with the kind of presentations I should expect as a teacher of communication skills. I came from a polytechnic where the majority of the students were female. Their presentations dealt with the management of tourism, the organisation of big events and travel. My colleagues thought that it would be a good idea for me to get some idea of what I was in for in Delft. They were right.

The presentation I got to see was delivered by four students presenting their Bachelor’s thesis. They had designed a modular flight simulator, which involved sliding dashboards, switching switches, disappearing dials etc. The problem that there was solving this way was that flight simulators are type-specific, which means that they can only simulate one specific type of aircraft. If you want to simulate a different aircraft, even if it is quite like the first one, you will have to build a new simulator, which costs millions of dollars. So obviously, as the invention of a modular flight simulator would solve that problem, these students had drawn some attention to themselves.

The room was filled with important people: the Dean of the faculty, the CEO of Schiphol airport, the founder of Martinair, an astronaut (different field, I know, but he was there anyway), two men in expensive suits who were in the flight simulator business, a pride of professors, a flock of fellow students and me. There were no women in the room. The students on the podium looked nervous but proud, impressed but fearless, anxious but able. And then they began.

The presentation was quite good. They ran the PowerPoint using a laptop that belonged to one of the students, they had brought props: parts of the modular flight simulator’s dashboard and electronics. I could tell that they had practised the presentation a couple of times because the whole thing went very smoothly.

The Q&A session also started quite well. There were a lot of questions, and the students seemed to be answering them all professionally because the professors were nodding in agreement. At the end of the presentation the students had hit ‘escape’ so that they could navigate through the slides using the overview on the left of the screen.

Spectacular mistake.

After about 10 minutes into the Q&A session, one of the answers took longer than the 2 minutes it apparently took until the screensaver kicked in, so the screensaver kicked in and it was heavily pornographic and it moved. At first the students didn’t noticstewardess-luxee, because they were standing with their backs to the screen. The audience, however, noticed immediately of course and burst out roaring with laughter. Some men were silently shaking in their chairs. A big man sitting right in front of me was making sobbing noises. Others  were nudging each other and slaying things like: “Yeah, we were like that when we were students, ha ha ha”. Like I said, only men in the room.

All in all, the presentation was a roaring success. And I got a pretty good idea about what makes Delft presentation different from what I was used to.

Nevertheless…

My advice: switch off the screensaver when you’re giving a presentation.

Also my advice: number your slides. This will make it easy for people to ask questions about specific slides, and you can keep PowerPoint in presentation mode. So you won’t have to hit escape to navigate through your PowerPoint.

Also also my advice: keep your porn on an external drive.

 

 

What’s the point of your presentation part two

Again: no I don’t think your presentations are pointless. This time I want to think about why we give presentations in the first place.

Consider conferences. From the point of view of information transfer, conferences are spectacularly inefficient, as you can usually only attend a fraction of the talks that are offered. Conferences have ecologic footprints that are just embarrassing, as attendees have to travel for hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles to get there (the mind boggles at the thought of the amount of airmiles that the average IEEE conference yields). And finally, attendees often suffer from hangovers disguised as jetlags for days after the conference.

So why do we still go to conferences (and don’t tell me it’s to feed that hangover), when in this day and age it would be much more efficient to have an electronic equivalent. It must be possible to organise an online conference that people can attend without leaving their office. The talks you were unable to attend could be recorded and attended “asynchronously” later on. Think of the money and the planet we’d save!

Why don’t we?

It’s because of lunch. Conference lunches are important. This is where people get to mix and meet and network. Sometimes people are expected to move to a different seat in between courses in order to meet more people.

It’s also because of impact. A real live speaker has much more impact than his recorded self. Also he can react to what happens, adapt his talk to help the people in his audience understand the difficult bits and answer questions. And he won’t react when you hit the pause button, so you will have to pay close attention.

And it’s because of the networking possibilities. Scientists don’t attend conferences to absorb as much information as they can. They attend conferences to find out what is new and exciting in their field, investigate (and create) opportunities for research and collaboration, meet colleagues, things like that.

This means that the purpose of your conference talk, apart from informing your audience about what’s new and exciting about your research, is to facilitate the Q&A session that follows it. Maybe the quality of your conference talk can be measured by the number of hands still in the air when the Q&A session is over. And that’s something that you just won’t see during an online conference.

Nor will you see the wine that is usually served at lunch during conferences in France and Belgium.

 

What is the point of your presentation? Bottom line first!

No, I don’t mean that your presentations are pointless by definition. It is juist that too many speakers think that they should keep their conclusions a secret until they get to the end of the presentation. They feel that arguments should come before conclusions and that it would be impolite to “spill the beans” before the pros and cons of all possible solutions to a problem have been thoroughly discussed.

However, we’re not talking about philosophical or ethical issues where a buildup like that might be required, we’re talking about presentations that deal with technical solutions to problems. Your audience will want to know what your expert opinion is, and why. In that order. And don’t beat about the bush; some people will have to leave the room before the end of your talk, and they should still know what your conclusions are before then.

So instead of saying something like “today I am going to talk about the three concepts for our power source”, which keeps your audience guessing which one you think is best, you should give them the bottom line first. Say “I am here to explain why we should use lithium ion batteries to drive our device”, right after you have introduced yourself. This way, your audience will know what to expect from the rest of your talk.

Maybe you have heard of the “Tell Them Technique”, which builds on the same idea: in the introduction you Tell them what you are going to tell them, in the body of the presentation you Tell them, and in the conclusions you Tell them what you have just told them. This way you give them the bottom line three times. By then it should really be clear what you’re trying to say to them.

Speaking Anxiety and golden retrievers

A couple of months ago I had a student in my group who got so nervous when he faced the other students to deliver his presentation that I was afraid he was going to faint. He was trembling, he looked pale except for the red spots in his neck, he could only make choking noises and his eyes were getting bigger and bigger. Some people say that when you are nervous about speaking in public you should imagine that the audience is naked. If he was trying this it wasn’t helping very much. In fact, he looked as if he was imagining that he was standing in front of a pride of hungry lions.

You don’t want fainting students in your group. It is bad for morale. The student who has fainted will feel embarrassed, and the other students will feel disheartened. They still have to do their presentation and nervousness is contagious. So after a few seconds I stopped him and sat him down in a chair in front of the group, facing the other students. “Do they still look scary when you’re sitting down?” I asked. He looked around carefully, disbelievingly, as if I had just performed a magic trick. Then he brightened up and set “No, this is much better, thanks.”

I let him do the entire presentation sitting down. It was still rubbish: he got stuck a couple of times, stammered a lot, forgot all about his PowerPoint and he clearly had not practised, but at least he was talking and he knew exactly how to prepare for next week. He got a big round of applause from the other students when he finished, which must have done wonders for his confidence.

In the next meeting I told him to sit on a table. One step up as it were. And so we continued. After a few sessions he was able to deliver his presentation standing up unaided. In the end his final presentation was actually quite good and he passed the course with flying colours.

So what can you pick up from this? Well, first of all it shows that you should practise your presentations in front of an audience. That is the only way you will experience what that feels like. And yes, practising in front of your friends may feel awkward but you can bet it feels a lot more awkward to ‘practise’ in front of a real audience.

Secondly, many people who have speaking anxiety can be helped by bringing down the level of formality. In this case my student felt a lot more comfortable when he sat down. He might also have benefited from the “coffee break exercise”: students walk around the classroom, meet a colleague and tell them about their presentation. If you repeat this a couple of times the students will know each other a bit better, which makes them less scary during the presentation. And besides, they will all have talked about their presentations a couple of times, which is good practice.

P.S.: A colleague of mine recently told me that she tells her students not to imagine that the people in the audience are naked, but that they are dogs. Preferably golden retrievers. Golden retrievers will love you on sight and they will believe anything you say. She says it works wonders.

I don’t know. Give it a try and let me know if it works.

Group Presentations

Sometimes, you will be required to deliver a group presentation. How big can a group be? I have seen groups as big as ten. Please don’t give presentations in groups of ten. At any given time, nine out of ten people are standing in front of the audience doing nothing, looking awkward, scratching parts of themselves they should not be scratching in front of an audience, while the tension builds up until it’s their time to talk. Often, because a teacher has read somewhere that they should keep their hands locked in a particular position, they look like the Von Trapp Family Singers, which is highly amusing maybe, but for the wrong reasons.

Preparing a presentation for ten people is hell. You will need a pet dictator to make it work. He or she will have to make sure that everybody is contributing material, decide on a lay-out, sequence and number of slides, correct the language mistakes, etc etc. This person will probably have no friends left after the presentation, nevertheless they should be given large quantities of coffee before, and inebriants after it.

Me, I like groups of two or three. Groups of two or three can take turns a couple of times, which is nice and dynamic. If they are given five minutes speaking time each they will fill ten to fifteen minutes in total, which is quite audience-friendly. They will be able to coach each other through the difficult bits. They will have a small audience to practice on. They can look interested while the other person is talking. They can decide who of them is going to answer what kinds of questions. They can be expected to know what the other two are talking about.

Actually, That last one holds a bit of a snag. It means that all speakers are collectively responsible for the content of the entire presentation and not just the bit they have prepared themselves. Their nonsense is your nonsense, as it were.

So make sure you prepare the presentation together. In the same room. And together decide on content, structure and all the other issues you face, including the number of turns all speakers take.

Here are a couple of different ways to take turns.

  • Q&A (Tom, I have heard that this system has a couple of drawbacks with respect to …. Could you tell us how that affects …)? Works really well, but make sure you don’t look like a news show with two hosts.
  • Announcements (That concludes my part on the batteries. Now Dick will fill you in on ….) Most people use this one, because it is quite businesslike and clear. Make sure somehow it doesn’t get boring.
  • Interruptions (Hang on, hang on, Harry. Before we …, let me first explain why we …).  Funny, but a bit too glib, if you ask me.
  • And the one where the next speaker simply continues where the previous one has stopped. Looks simple. It isn’t.

Group presentations can be a pain. After all, you are only as good as your weakest link. But then, if you know that, you should make sure that this weakest link is as strong as it can be. It will be a lot stronger with a bit of help from the rest of the team.

Pronounce the big words slowly, or why ‘camel’ is pronounced as ‘Bob’

Even if English is your first language, but particularly if it is not, during your presentation you are likely to stumble over the big words. And sometimes even the little ones. Here’s an embarrassing story about how I got into trouble because of a pronunciation mistake (somebody else’s) combined with stupidity (mine).

It was during a project in our aerospace faculty that involved students from abroad, innovation specialists from one of the main aircraft builders and everybody who was anybody in the faculty. During lunch, one of the Dutch organizers of the social program was talking about how it had been challenging for her to organize a special camel tour for the students, which had taken place the day before. Maybe it’s because on the whole her pronunciation was really good, but it took a long time, a very long time, much too long a time for me to realize that she was mispronouncing a word. It’s just that I wouldn’t put it beyond TUDelft to actually organize a camel tour for real. And she kept saying things that would make perfect sense in a talk about a camel tour. ‘The camels are really nice’, ‘Not all the students have seen a real camel’, ‘Only some of the students had ever been on a camel’, but also the strange and puzzling ‘They are very different from other camels’, and I still didn’t catch on! Finally she said: ‘We could not fit all the students in one camel boat’.

 

Suddenly the whole thing made sense and because I was shocked at my own stupidity I’m afraid I was a bit loud in my reaction (‘Oh I see, you mean CANAL tour!’). That must have been embarrassing for her, because a lot of people had heard the whole thing (if you’re reading this, I hope you will forgive me). I should have recognised the obvious pronunciation mistake much sooner of course. And in polite conversation, naturally, pronunciation mistakes must be ignored anyway

In a prepared presentation, however, any language issues are the responsibility of the speaker. This means that it is your job to make sure that you are understood and understandable. Words like “regenerative desulfurization”, “peroxidases”, “mesophilic sludge” should be treated with proper respect, and so should your audience. Mispronouncing their jargon may be construed as uninterestedness. ‘If you can’t even be bothered to learn to “speak the speak”, why should we believe that you should be taken seriously?’ If you look up, practise and take your time to pronounce words like “toxicity” slowly a nummer of times, I promise you will get it right during your talk and your audience will be able to understand what you are talking about. You can find the pronunciation of the words above (yes, they are real words, I did not make them up), and many others on howjsay.com. The word “canal” is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, the word “camel” is pronounced as “Bob”.

Never be afraid to try something new even if it is 60 years old.

Nick and I were preparing a presentation for our town council a couple of years ago. The topic was serious: our foundation poles were in jeopardy, due to the fact that the level of the groundwater under our houses was too low.
“So, while you finish the slides, I will go and find a suitable poem”, Nick said.
“You’ll do what?”, I asked.
“Find a poem. A suitable poem. One that has to do with the presentation. You know.”
I did not know.

Nick was 83. He had been trained as an engineer in Delft almost a century ago , headed the engineering department of one of the major aircraft manufacturers, sailed the world’s oceans, headed several companies and charities. He had dined with royalty. In short, he had been a very successful engineer, he was not some fruitcake who thought the world would be a better place if more people read poetry. If Nick said that a serious presentation should end with a poem, he said this for a good reason. So logically, I asked him what that reason was.

“When I studied engineering in Delft, the university thought it was important that people realise that a Delft student is not a one trick pony”, he said, “not some idiot who only knows about nuts and bolts, but an excellent engineer who also knows about the arts, history, languages. So we were trained to slip in proof of that in every presentation or report that we made. We were the only university who did that and it made us stand out very positively from the rest. People would recognise a Delft report or presentation immediately and actually perceive us as more reliable.”

When Nick told me this story I had been teaching presentation skills in Delft University for 10 years and I had never heard anything about students citing poetry during presentations. Neither had any of my colleagues, some of whom were a lot older than me. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a whirl. Never be afraid to try something new even if it is 60 years old. So I gave the presentation, cited the little poem that Nick had found …
… and got a standing ovation! The entire town Council and the people in the audience thought it was brilliant and everybody found the presentation perfectly convincing (maybe not entirely due to the fact that there was a poem at the end, but still). Nick was beaming and patting my back while people were shaking my hand, complimenting me on being so erudite. All credit should go to Nick though, hence his appearance in his story, and I thank him once again for teaching me this wonderful tool. Before my presentation the room had been tense, after it the mood had changed completely.

Every year for the past seven years now Delft University has appointed a cultural professor for 2 months. Now you know why. This year it is Flemish writer Griet op de Beeck. Should be fun!

Oh, and you can be sure that this year I will require all my students to recite a poem at the end of their presentations.