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.