Stop showing me your bald spot

baldspotI’ve been to several engineering conferences in the last couple months. That is a lot of engineering presentations to absorb in a short period. I can tolerate smaller doses, but that kind of volume makes me want to jab a pencil into each ear and eye.

Engineering types seem to be completely unaware of their lack of presentation skills. Either that, or we’ve come to the belief that a boring presentation is a “professional” presentation. I recently made a case for improving your presentation skills to earn higher pay. Now, let’s look at the altruistic flip side of this coin.

People say engineers aren’t naturally social creatures. Maybe so. That doesn’t mean we are all hanging out on the Asperger’s end of the spectrum, though. Most of us feel fear, joy, regret, jealousy, euphoria, and social pain. So, let’s agree that everyone in the conference room or auditorium deserves empathy and respect from you, the presenter. If there are 200 people in your audience for 1 hour, you are responsible for the next 200 man-hours of human experience in that room. Shouldn’t you take that obligation more seriously?

I got the idea for this article while sampling the talks at SAE World Congress. The rooms were packed, and I often found myself standing against a wall in the back. From that perspective, I noticed a sad, recurring process. Each presenter would take the podium, start Powerpoint, and turn 180 degrees to reveal their bald spot to the audience. Their entire show consisted of reading text-heavy slides, word for word.

You may not yet agree (or even realize) that this style of presentation is rude,¬†ineffective, a missed opportunity, and a costly waste of man-hours. But, if you would just turn back to the audience, you might see it my way. If I could just get you to quickly spin another 180 degrees, you’d see an ocean of bald spots. Every time the presenter turned to the screen, the entire audience bowed their heads in unison to peer at smartphones in their laps.

What’s going on here?
Are you that boring?
How can everyone in the room condone this idiotic dance?

The bad news? This is the norm, folks.
The good new? It doesn’t take much effort to stand out in the engineering world!

I saw a few presenters who understood the game. They had lots of interesting images, a few highly understandable data graphs, an engaging story, and persistent eye contact. These were the most valuable presentations if measured against the ratio of information to eyeballs. Even if the content was less valuable than the boring presentations, far more knowledge was transmitted.

If you aren’t going to do it for yourself, do it for your audience.

Image by Jennifrog

6 comments

  1. DCheng · ·

    Guy Kawasaki once said “Understand your audience. Know who the oldest guy in the room is and his age should be the size font you use.” (paraphrased)

    1. Yeah, I think I remember reading that. Turned out to be something like 30 point, right? That’s a great way to limit the amount of text on your slide, too!

  2. spot on, jeff. Some of us like to present, some of us don’t. Either way, we as a community should take it serious and think bigger and broader than we do. We need to stop presenting power point and view it more as educating, informing educating our peers. In a nutshell. Give them some insightful information that is easy to absorb and even easier to remember. Best advice I ever received was dont work on presentation skills as much as work at being a good story teller. Outside of engineering, what do we recall and retell stories we have heard or presentations that we watched?

    1. That’s the ticket, Derrek. Totally agree. It’s about story-telling. Even if it’s dry engineering data, there’s a way to turn it into a story.

      Near the end of my interview with Tony Kordyban, he makes the case that engineers are natural story tellers if they put themselves in the right state of mind. That is, talk like you do around beers with your work buddies. Watch the F bombs, of course.

      Agree, too, on that advice about not working so much on presentation skills. We are getting into semantics, but the idea is correct. For example, you don’t need to obsess over eliminating all the “umms” and “you-knows” from your delivery. A great story will trump all of that.

  3. Lorraine Mclaughlin · ·

    The “bald spot” issue is true not just for engineer types. It happens with just about any professional group…health care, community organizations, school board associations. As soon as a presenter starts reading from his/her slides, I tune out. It says to me that this person doesn’t understand his own material.

    1. Great point, mom!