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.


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.

How to write a paper

I started my career in R&I. As such I have published a couple of research papers and presented these at industry conferences around the globe.

Each time again I was surprised to see (undoubtedly) bright scientists appear on stage, reading the words (they had straightforwardly copied & pasted from their technical paper into PowerPoint slides) aloud from the projection screen. I won’t even mention the ones that were shamelessly presenting with their back to the audience.

Unfortunately I have also seldom experienced any thrill or excitement when listening to these –often interesting, but always boring– presentations.

Well, this is why I commenced doing it the other way around. Starting from an proper presentation pitch, a consistent storyboard and a compelling set of visuals, it’s actually fairly easy to create a clear, well structured and readable conference paper, white paper or magazine article (even illustrated with some relevant graphics). What works for listeners and viewers, may also work for readers.

Take the necessary time to follow the steps below. You’ll be surprised how quickly you have the first draft of your paper ready.

  1. Choose your topic, build your storyboard, create your presentation.
  2. Rehearse, present, fine-tune …
  3. … until content and flow are stable and resonate with the target audience.
  4. Write down speaker notes. Use the words, examples, anecdotes that worked well with the listeners.
  5. Copy & paste the notes into a text document (yes, now you ‘re allowed to use ctrl-c and ctrl-v).
  6. Add structure, layout, titles and images as necessary.
  7. Proofread, correct, reflow, reword … until you’re satisfied with the result.