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.

Section Titles: Learning from Newspaper Headings

Imagine what would happen if the newspapers started using headers like this:
“the Middle East” or “Bicycles in the City” or “President Johnson and Prime Minister Germany”

You would be left with a couple of questions, wouldn’t you? What do they mean: everything you ever wanted to know about the Middle East but were afraid to ask? How many bicycles are there in London city? Are President Johnson and the Prime Minister of Germany getting married? The mind boggles.

And yet this is exactly what I see in a lot of technical reports. Section headings like: “Concept 3” and “Background” and even “Other”. As if the writer is trying to keep everything a secret for as long as he can. ‘We have generated three concepts, but if you want to know in what way they are different from each other you will have to read the entire section. Teehee! Oh, and we have named the next section “Detailed Design of Winning Concept”, so you will have to move all the way to that section to find out which concept that is.’Most of your readers will have about 15 minutes to read your report. How annoyed do you think they will be when you make them search for information this way?

Newspaper editors have learned how to make life easy for selective readers like theirs and ours. Maybe we can learn from what they do.

Pick up any newspaper, paper or online and read the headlines. You will find that almost all headlines contain a verb. “Donald Trump announces Mike Pence as VP” (the Guardian, 15/07/2016), Winona Ryder, an Emblem of ’90s Cool, Grows Up” (NYT 15/07/2016). The effect is that every heading reads like a tiny summary; you don’t have to read the actual article to find out what’s going on. If you click on the heading (online newspapers only) you usually get a bold printed summary of the article, about the size of a tweet, and underneath that we finally get the actual article.

It makes sense. Readers who are in a real hurry just skim the headlines, readers who are just mildly late read the summaries, readers who are on holiday read the entire articles. The second and third group use the headlines to select the articles that they want to read. That sounds a lot like the reading strategies our readers use when they read our reports.

What would happen if we applied the same principle to our reports? What if, instead of naming the introduction simply “Introduction”, we call it “Introduction: planning a new runway for Alice Springs airport”? What if, instead of “Trade off”, we say “Trade off shows HydroCAM meets all the important criteria”?

I dare you: in your next report write short informative sentences has section headings. Better still: practice this on the most recent report you have written. See what happens. If I’m right, the table of contents will read like a summary. How can that be a bad thing?

Using an acrostic to insult your professor

A colleague of mine whose name shall remain a secret until they reveal it themselves, told me the following story about a Ph.D. student and his professor. Certainly, it is one of the best stories on writing I have heard in a long time and I hope you will like it too.

Recently, this candidate graduated from our university, although I think he wouldn’t have, if the committee head read his dissertation more carefully. Our candidate was so annoyed with the quality of the guidance his professor gave him that he decided to hide a message in the first part of his conclusions section as an acrostic.

Some of you may not know what an acrostic is, so I here is a really simple explanation. The acrostic is a text in which the first letter of every word, line or sentence you write is the next letter of a new word or sentence, rather like this post in fact, just read the first letter of every sentence, together they make up a word.

It must have been really difficult for our candidate to write this message while still maintaining good academic quality of the text, but apparently it worked, because nobody noticed anything peculiar about the text. Certainly, he must have been rather nervous during the defense of his thesis, because he had manipulated the first twenty-two sentences of his conclusions to make the first letters of every sentence say “my professor is an asshole”.

(No, students in my class, don’t try this on me, please. I am sure I will fail your test!)