Answer the questions or question the answers?

Sometimes I drive my students mad. And I do it on purpose too. You see, instead of giving them answers to their questions, I give them more questions. I’ll give you an example.wrong_question_header

Student: “Please, Bob, should this trade-off table be included in the text or should I move it to the appendix?”

Bob: “Well, that depends. Who do you suppose will be reading it?”

Student: “Why, you are, I guess! I don’t know.”

Bob: “Would you agree maybe, that I am unlikely to read the professional technical reports that you will be writing after your graduation? Would you also agree then, that there must be somebody else who will be reading them, and that it would be wise to figure out who they are?”

Student: “Yeah but you are reading this one and there must be a proper place to put this table. Can’t you just tell us where it is?”

Bob: “Let me put it this way. Why did you make this table in the first place? What do you want your readers to do with it?

Student: “Well, we want them to be able to check whether the argumentation represented in the trade-off table is valid, so that they will understand and accept our choice for the best concept.” (I admit they don’t usually put it quite like this.)

Bob: “Okay. That accounts for its wonderful level of detail. And who would that be doing this checking?”

Student: “That’s easy. Engineers of course!”

Bob: “Excellent! Remind me, what kind of report are you writing again?”

Student: “A management report.”

Bob: “Ah. And do you maybe remember what we discussed during last week’s lesson on presentation skills?”

Student: “Yes, we discussed how there are several different ways to present scores in an oral presentation.”

Bob: “For example?”

Student: “You can give the actual scores, you can use symbols, like pluses and minuses. And colour codes, like red is bad and green is good.”

Bob: “And what might be the reason for the differences between these presentations?”

Student: “That way you can vary the amount of detail depending on your audience’s expertise and needs.”

Bob: “And?”

Student: “You can give them your interpretation of the scores this way.”
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Bob: “Brilliant! So how do you think this strategy might be applied in our present situation, considering that you are writing mainly for a manager who just wants to know the outcome of your trade-off and present this to her team?”

Student: “Ah! You mean that we might put this highly detailed version in the appendix for specialists, so they can check our results, and present a low-tech version for the project managers in the body of the report?”

Bob: “Wow!”

Student: “Why did you not just tell us what you wanted?”

Bob: “What would you have learned?”

Last slide: Aristotle and cute kittens

At the end of your presentation,  when you say “Are there any questions?”, you would expect that people might pick up that it’s time for questions. Most likely they don’t really need a visual aid to help them. Nevertheless, many beginning speakers seem to think that their audience need some sort of support, a visible confirmation of the fact that the speaker did indeed just say that the Q&A session is now open. I find this insulting.

Over the years I have been witness to many brave attempts at finishing presentations successfully. Some of them worked, some not so much. Let me give you an idea of what I have come across.kitten

Some students use some sort of cartoon figure, or a cat or dog that looks particularly
puzzled. For extra effect it may have a question mark hanging over its head. Some use just the word “questions”. Occasionally I catch an animated version of these. Please don’t animate your last slide. It makes people nervous. They want to ask a question, but the slide is distracting them.

Some (many) shosummaryw a summary of the steps they took during the presentation, basically giving an overview, but no content. Invariably, the last words these students utter are: “And then finally we had a conclusion. Are there any questions?” Thank you, no.

Some just keep whatever happens to be the last slide of the presentation. Could be anything. Sometimes it’s a list of things that went wrong during the project. Aargh!

Some students leave the last slide blank, thus giving their audience nothing to work with.

Let’s consider the purpose of your last slide. A wise man, probably Aristotle buany-questionst there are bound to have been others, once said that the only reason why we organize presentations in the first place is to prepare the audience for the Q&A session. In other words, people are usually quite keen to ask questions. They only need a little nudge and off they go. But they do need you to give them something to go on.

As a speaker, you are also keen for them to ask questions, or you should be. An audience that is asking questions is proof of the fact that they found your presentation interesting. Of course you may prefer some questions to others, and of course you prefer the audience to ask questions that you actually know the answer to.

This is where that last slide comes in. What you do is you make sure that the information on the last slide will invite your audience to ask questions that you feel you can answer.  Usually it’s your conclusions, maybe with a couple of supporting bullet points. Of course there is no guarantee, some people will have made notes, but there’s a good chance that this way the first couple of questions will deal with your last slide.

And then, when you’ve answered your last question, you click the remote to show your contact details on the screen and say: “Thank you very much for all your questions. I realise that there may be one or two questions that we haven’t addressed yet, or maybe you suddenly wake up tomorrow morning at 3 AM because you had a dream about a really good question that you forgot to ask today. Either way, please don’t call me but send an email to this address”.

Whatever you do, please avoid the word “questions” on your last slide, and certainly don’t show a kitten with a question mark over its head. I don’t care how cute it is!

Do not underestimate the power of the dark slide.

Yes, there is one. A dark side of PowerPoint I mean. It can be a tad dominant (like Vader). In fact, some presentations look as if the speaker has thought only about what they could show in PowerPoint, instead of what they wanted to say.

All the books I know that deal with preparing presentations say that you should first identify your audience and goals, and then generate content and structure. Creating visuals comes after that and should be one of the last things you do. And yet I see a shocking number of students who, when asked to prepare a presentation, immediately start PowerPoint, Keynote or even Prezi. This is beginning to annoy me, so I asked myself: what would happen if I told my students that the projector was broken, and they would have to improvise?

I tried this a while ago: they improvised.

For this particular lesson I had asked my students to prepare a presentation in groups of two, using slides, just like they always did. This time when  they came in, however, I told them that there was a problem with the projector and that they would have to come up with a creative solution. I gave the group 15 minutes to prepare. The results were not only educational, they were spectacular.

One student used her partner as a prop. She explained the aerodynamics of speed skating and made him assume different speed skating positions to show what she meant. She was thrilled to have a movable 3D model on a 1:1 scale to help her make things clear. Between the lines it became audibly clear, by the way, that maintaining a certain knee angle for a long time is not necessarily very comfortable.

Another student made three people from the audience perform as passenger aircraft , flying from Amsterdam to New York in formation (arms wide, propeller sounds, pilot banter), slowly moving through the room together. They managed to land safely one by one.

Some groups found out that the slides that they had made were pointless and that the presentation worked just as well, or better, without them. They certainly noticed that the audience were listening quite intently to what they were saying.

The thing is, not only did we prove that life without slides actually exists, but also everybody in that group still remembers exactly all the presentations we had that day. Of course my spectacularly innovative didactics may have played a role, but I like to think that most of the presentations simply had more impact than they would have had if they had used slides.

Of course PowerPoint is not a useless tool; it can show in a flash what would otherwise take you hours to explain. But it is just that: a tool. One of many. The presentation is not what you show, the presentation is you, and there are several moments in any presentation when you as the presenter may want the audience’s full attention, without being distracted by PowerPoint. Then you might use that most wonderful of features in PowerPoint: letter B on your keyboard.

Hitting letter  B will make the screen go black, which will make everybody focus on you (I call it B for Bob). Anything you say now will be consumed like hamburgers by a starving man. Trust me and try this; and I promise that the power of the dark slide will be with you. Always.

Oh, and you should have seen the look on my students’ faces when, after our class had finished, the next group came in and started the projector, which was working perfectly well…

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.

 

Communicate Technology

Helping students to write and present technical reports.

Welcome!

This blog was initially created to help my students at Delft University of Technology write and present better technical reports. It turns out that a lot of people who are not my students are reading my posts too. Cool! I hope you find what you need and that you enjoy reading my blog.

What do you mean with “better technical reports”, you may ask. Better means: more geared to your readers’ needs and wishes.  So, all we need to do is find out who your readers and listeners are, find out what they need and wish and then find ways to deliver.

Easy? Hardly. The tricky thing about professional reports is that they are all read by several different people who all have different expectations from the same report. The fact that the reports that we write deal with technology adds an extra layer of challenges to this.

Presentations also, are usually attended by mixed audiences. Some people will be experts in your field, some will not. Some people will expect pictures, some people will expect numbers. And it’s you job to decide on a good mix.

In this blog  I will post anecdotes, examples, exercises and ideas dealing with writing and presenting  about technology. Please feel free to leave comments and questions.

Punch those keys!