A cat, algae and a small snake

A few years ago I was asked to coach the contestants in a pitching contest for one of the big oil companies. The goal of the pitches was to present new, greener energy sources. For one of the participants I was able to come up with a shrewd plan involving a prop.

A prop can be anything you bring to the presentation for demonstration purposes, but don’t take this too far. I once saw a man who brought a cat to a presentation in order to demonstrate the mechanics of it landing on its feet. The cat was not happy. You can guess how it ended. It’s amazing how fast a cat can move its claws when it is properly motivated.algae

Anyway. William, my student, came on to the stage carrying a glass that was filled with something that looked like algae in water. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, he said, I would like to present to you algae, the biofuel of the future!’ and he held up the glass. The audience were properly impressed and William put the glass down and floated fluently through his presentation, describing the many benefits of his idea with great confidence.

When he got to the end though, he appeared to be making a dreadful mistake. He said: ‘I am sure that this fast-growing green fuel will be available in every service station in less than five years. I’ll drink to that!’ And he set the glass to his lips. The audience, who had been quite captivated, jumped up and shouted: ‘No, no, no! Stop, you fool! You can’t drink that!’ And William smiled and said: ‘Yeah yeah, don’t worry. It’s lemonade … Cheers!’ Needless to say that William won first prize.

Props can be really helpful if you do something with them. Don’t just stand them on a desk or they will be very distracting (unless they are a glass of lemonade). The more spectacular looking props are best kept hidden until you need them. Show them when you do – and make sure everybody can see them – and then put them away again. I remember a biologist who left a small snake lying on the desk just for decoration. To this day I still have no idea what his talk was about and I am guessing nobody else in the audience do either. Something to do with snakes, probably…

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!