Do you speak jargonese?

“In a world crowded with complexity, simplicity stands out. It brings clarity instead of confusion, decision instead of doubt. And the rewards are real. Simplicity inspires deeper trust and greater loyalty in customers, and clears the way to innovation for employees.” ― Global Brand Simplicity Index 2013, siegel+gale

Lately, I was listening to a conference talk about “an UART implementation on FPGA using VHDL.” And the presentation certainly rang a bell with me. Not the “Ah, that’s interesting!” bell, but rather the “Help, what am I doing in here!” one.

Although I have worked in tech industry for more than half of my lifetime and I have listened to hundreds of this type of presentations, enthusiastically embraced by engineers, I still suffer from acronyphobia or fear of acronyms.

OK, the presentation became a lot ‘clearer’ to me when the speaker expanded the accursed four-letter abbreviations into “Universal Asynchronous Receiver/Transmitter”, “Field-Programmable Gate Array”, and “VHSIC Hardware Description Language.” (yes, sometimes an acronym may hide another one.)

But then, I was gripped by a sense of hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia. Why didn’t the speaker explain in simple human language that he had used a programmable chip to build a new piece of computer hardware? OK, I admit that I am more of a software guy, which may be a an explanation for why I was not appreciating the hardware design jargon. Though I’m pretty sure that I was not the only VHDL layman listening to this presentation in jargonese.

Here are a few public speaking tips for this (without any doubt) highly qualified hardware engineer ― and for the rest of us techies  too:

  • Don’t overestimate your audience. Even if there are few experts in the room that fully understand the technical details on your slides, the majority of your listeners may not (very often it’s not the engineer, but rather his or her manager that attends a conference…)
  • Apply the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. No acronyms (hehe, do you see the joke?) No difficult words. No long sentences. And refrain from technology/financial/business jargon.

acronyms

Image courtesy of Manu Cartoons

  • Avoid complex drawings with detailed architectures. As a speaker you will need too much time to explain them, your audience will spend too much energy to understand them, and most often the text on the slides will be too small to read anyway.
  • Prove to your listeners that you have the “right to speak”, that you’re a person of interest and an authority on the topic you are presenting. Win their attention ― as well as their respect ― by telling interesting things instead of difficult ones.
  • Don’t just copy & paste text from a written document to a PowerPoint slide. Sentences will be too wordy and too structured. Never use your slides as your teleprompter.

So, next time you’re start preparing a technical presentation, keep Arthur Schopenhauer‘s advice in mind:

“One should use common words to say uncommon things.”

Here’s some more reading (not only for UART designers):

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Trust me, I’m an engineer

Last week I delivered a presentation skills training to a group of Bell Labs researchers. As a computer scientist who started his own career in R&I, I know that it’s not obvious for an engineer to present a complex research topic, and to cover the necessary technical details while keeping the undivided attention of an (often mixed) audience. Therefore, I can only agree with what Sean Buvala is saying about storytelling techniques for IT and research departments:

“The more esoteric your work is, the more you need to use storytelling in your job.”

Believe me, it is certainly possible to tell compelling –and even exciting—stories about science and technology.  If you want to see some good examples of hi-tech storytelling, take a look at one or more episodes of “Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections” on the National Geographic Channel.

richard_hammond

In this TV show, Hammond (also known as one of the BBC’s Top Gear hosts) discovers how inventions of the past, along with the forces of nature, are helping designers and engineers today. The series explores exceptional technical achievements like the building of the Airbus A380, the Taipei 101 skyscraper, the Millau viaduct over the river Tarn in France, the Wembley soccer stadium and the Sydney Opera House.

Here are a few tips for preparing your next technical presentation:

  • Always comply with the KISS rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid
  • The AIDA structure also works for content that may be hard to present
  • Focus on the possible applications, rather than on the technical details
  • Talk about the why, the what, and the how
  • Make it interesting for all (not everybody in the room is an expert)
  • Don’t try to list the details of a full year’s work in 30 minutes
  • Avoid (if you can’t: explain) acronyms and technical jargon
  • Illustrate your points with everyday examples
  • Facts and figures are OK, but don’t overload your listeners
  • You are the expert. You know the problem. You have a solution – PROVE IT!
  • Don’t feed the chameleons

And, as I explained in my post on “How to write a paper”, once you’ve got your presentation act together, it’s fairly easy to (re)create a paper or magazine article from it.