How To Nail A Technical Presentation

Whether you’re an engineer, a maker, a hacker or a baker, at some point you’ll want to share your work with other people. Perhaps it’s a meeting at work to discuss process improvements, or a talk at a conference discussing some research you’ve done into hacking a new embedded platform. Or maybe you’ve developed a brand new cooking profile for rye breads that cuts energy usage in half. Whatever it is, there are techniques you can use to help you communicate effectively to a room full of people, and have fun doing it. Unlike some, I actually enjoy getting up in front of a crowd to present my work, so I’ve written this article to share with you some tips that can help you make a technical presentation that everyone will love — including you!

Editor’s Note: We planned the art for this article before the passing of Carrie Fisher. Leia certainly knew how to give a compelling technical presentation. We publish this in memory of a great actress.

The Basics – Preparing Your Presentation

quote-small-mistakesFirst thing’s first — know your stuff. This is especially crucial in business environments. Throw one inaccurate number up on the projector screen, and you’re screwed. Not only will somebody catch it, but it’s guaranteed to be your worst enemy, Terry from Product Development. He’s been a real jerk since Mark divorced him and took the Honda, and today he’s furious that you got that decimal point in the wrong spot. He’s going to tear you down in front of everyone for it. But worse than that, now nobody can trust the numbers you’re presenting. You will find it much harder to convince people to trust in your analysis, and thus, your conclusions. A small mistake can derail a presentation; two or more will kill it dead.
You’ll find yourself using charts and graphs in all shapes and sizes. The key here is clarity. Keep colors and formatting as simple as possible. Most of all, think carefully about how you present data. In a past life in the die casting industry, I sat in on a presentation analyzing differing wear rates on casting tooling components. The graphs were virtually unintelligible, with stacked bars, twenty colors, axes with little to no labeling — it was a total mess. If you need to explain your graph to people, it’s probably not good enough. Rethink how you put it together; does rearranging things or using a different type of graph make it clearer? People will trust your words much more easily if they correlate with what your graphs say on screen.

Clarity goes for all aspects of your presentation. Using photographs of a project? There’s an art to taking a good technical photo. Focused, evenly lit, and with relevant details easily visible. Of course, it’s not always that easy. When you’re taking photos of damaged hydraulic hoses in a dim, fluid-soaked machine pit, you’re going to struggle. The great thing is, it’s now 2016 and smartphones offer very usable cameras in a compact package, with flashes and autofocus. In my career I’ve found mine to be invaluable to snap pictures of problem hardware. And combined with a tripod, I’ve been able to take great photos and video to share my projects on and YouTube. Make the effort now, and your presentation will go a lot more smoothly.

Walking Into A Combat Situation

ScrappyOkay, so you’ve prepared a great presentation. You’ve got only as many slides as you need, with a great graph that makes your conclusions from the data obvious at a glance. Your photos of your project show all the relevant detail and look tidy and professional. Now comes the hard part: getting up in front of a crowd and delivering it.

Public speaking does not come naturally to many people. If you’ve got a bit of an ego and love attention, you’ve got a head start. For others, the idea of having to stand up in front of a group and discuss (and defend!) their work is terrifying. As always, practice makes perfect, and there are tools available to help.

Mindset is everything. If you’re scared, you’ll act scared. If you’re confident, you’ll act confident. The trick is, if you can fake confidence for just long enough that people respond positively, you’ll start a feedback loop that puts you in a great space. But how do you fake it? Everyone has their own techniques, but one of my favorites is the beach ball.

As you walk up to begin your presentation, and as you begin talking, act as though you’re holding a big imaginary beach ball in front of you. Seriously. Walk as though you’ve just got your awesome beach ball out of the car and you’re striding powerfully towards the beach, ready to throw it right at the back of your best friend’s head, before laughing raucously. Let yourself feel just a little bit excited, and introduce your presentation.

Hi, I’m Lewin Day, and I’m here to tell you how we can save $100,000 a year by optimizing our robot machining paths.

Your first words should be spoken loudly and clearly, to draw attention over the hubbub of a distracted room. Don’t shout, but speak in a voice that makes everyone turn to look at you. Your first line should make people instantly understand what your presentation is about. Once you’ve got people listening, you can then modulate your voice as necessary. Speak with an even speed, and enunciate your words. You are aiming to make your ideas as easy to understand as possible, and that now flows from your presentation, to the way you speak.

dwight-shrute-master-oratorKeeping people engaged is important. Maintain a high energy level to stop people’s attention wandering. If it’s a dry topic in a business environment, stick to the key points, and make it as brief as possible. Tell people what they need to know, and keep it short, sharp, and snappy. If it’s a personal project you’re presenting at a conference or hackerspace, you might prefer to tell a story. Walk people through your development process from start to finish, and share anecdotes about the amusing things that happened. If you’re working with a small group, a great technique you can use is interaction. Keep people involved by drawing references between your work and them personally. Use people’s names and involve them in examples you may make — it’s an effective way to keep people’s attention focused on your message.

Dealing With Adversity

There will be questions. You might face some excited questions about your research, or barbed inquiries questioning your decisions. Ideally, if you’ve got your basics right, they’re not about why your numbers don’t match last month’s reports. Knowing everything about your project is key here. People will want to know, have you considered X, Y, and Z? Why did you choose to use B over A or C? Why are we doing this differently than we used to?

What you need to do first is to listen. To properly answer a question, you must first understand what the other person is asking. Allow them to finish speaking, and pause to consider your response. Make sure you know what is being asked, and then respond, using your knowledge & backing up your statements with data wherever possible. Consider the two exchanges below:

Why did you use parts from the old supplier? They’re junk! Your results must be all over the place.
-We just used what was in the stores, it seemed to work okay.

This response shows a lack of knowledge about the project, and doesn’t address the real question — it’s not about the parts. The real question is whether the results can be trusted.

Why did you use parts from the old supplier? They’re junk! Your results must be all over the place.
-We had a limited time to run our test regime, and only the old supplier’s parts were available. Our calculations showed that for this test, the old parts were well within specifications for this application and would not have a negative effect on results.

This response is much better. It shows a knowledge of the decisions taken during the project and the reasons why. It also addresses the fundamental question (whether or not the results are valid), and backs it up with data.

Bringing it Home

You did the hard work early on, perfected your material, and then delivered an energetic and engaging presentation. Along the way you showed your knowledge, shared some laughs with the crowd, and people learned a thing or two. A presentation well done gives you a great feeling, and once you’ve got one under your belt, confidence will come much more easily ahead of the next one.

Over time you’ll find your own tricks and techniques that work for you, and you’ll notice people will understand your message much more easily as you communicate more effectively. Jump at every chance you get to present your work, and in between, study great presenters who you respect. If you need some inspiration, check out the talks given at the Hackaday SuperConference and pull in the tricks and techniques you see to develop your own speaking style.

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