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  • 1.  Presentations at Technical Conferences

    Posted 06-28-2019 03:17 PM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 06-28-2019 03:17 PM
    ​Good Afternoon,

    I recently attended the International Bridge Conference and listened to an array of presentations.  What do you think are the keys to creating an engaging slide presentation (i.e. PowerPoint, etc.) for technical topics?  Please share examples of presentation styles that you have enjoyed listening to or presenting, at a technical conference.


    Jameelah Ingram P.E., M. ASCE
    Washington, D.C.

  • 2.  RE: Presentations at Technical Conferences

    Posted 06-30-2019 09:18 PM
    Presentations that are engaging to the audience are the best ones at technical conferences. Every presenter should be looking at a presentation from the audience's point of view. Presenters should be asking themselves "Who is my audience, and what should that audience learn from my presentation?" You would not present the same topic in the same way to, for example, new graduates versus senior managers, or private practice consultants versus academics. You also certainly wouldn't attempt to "brain dump" everything you know about a particular topic into one presentation when you start to look at presentations from the audience's shoes. 

    If a presentation includes a powerpoint, it needs to include pictures (not all words), and should only have one main idea per slide. Presenters should be stopping every 8-10 minutes in a presentation and asking for audience participation. You can ask questions like "Raise your hand if you've ever had this happen on a project", or poll the audience anonymously using one of the many free online tools (I like https://www.mentimeter.com/ and have used it several presentations.). I often also find panel discussions, where the audience can ask a lot of questions, very engaging. It's been proven over and over again that being lectured at is not even close to optimal for learning something, which makes one wonder why many technical conferences still primarily rely on this format.

    The IES sessions at SEI's Structures Congress are a good example of an engaging style of presentation. Each person presents for a very short period of time on one slide on a certain topic (every slide in the same session is related to the same subject), and then there are breakout sessions where the audience can go to different tables and ask questions to do a deeper dive on the topic. 

    I've attended engaging sessions that were part presentation, part audience workshop, where the audience was asked to do an exercise and discuss with those adjacent to them. I've even seen that done in a large auditorium where they said to turn to the person next to you and share what you wrote down.

    I am the chair a committee that presented at the Structures Congress this year, and we put together a "Business Bootcamp for Structural Engineers" where we have seven presenters do one lightning talk each (we were targeting 5-8 minutes long) on seven different business-related topics, one right after the other. Then, we had breakout topics on each subject. That was both very fun to present , and very engaging for the audience.

    Stephanie Slocum P.E.,M.ASCE
    Engineers Rising LLC

  • 3.  RE: Presentations at Technical Conferences

    Posted 07-01-2019 11:35 AM
    ​Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing excellent ideas and resources in your thoughtful reply.  I particularly love the "bite-sized" approach for presenting information you've mentioned.  The lightning talk that you planned at the Structures Congress session sounds both digestible and engaging.  Also, thanks for providing the website link for the use of smartphones for crowd interaction and polling.  I hope to see more engineers using these styles at conferences and will promote them myself!

    Jameelah Ingram P.E.,M.ASCE
    Washington, D.C.

  • 4.  RE: Presentations at Technical Conferences

    Posted 07-02-2019 12:06 PM

    At the structures congress this past April, there were some great presentations. There was a presentation about how to better communicate our research and better transmit our ideas, it was a very powerful presentation. The presenter was Melissa Marshall and it was by far the most entertaining and eye-opening presentation I have ever been too. She talked about how to better organize presentation slides to create a visual memory rather than just talk about it. I would recommend you see this TED talk video of her where she covers some of what she talked about at the conference (https://www.ted.com/talks/melissa_marshall_talk_nerdy_to_me). 

    You can also find her website here, https://www.presentyourscience.com/ for more information about it

    Luis Duque EIT,A.M.ASCE
    Structural Engineer
    Broomfield CO

  • 5.  RE: Presentations at Technical Conferences

    Posted 07-03-2019 10:10 AM

    Thank you for steering us to Melissa Marshall's TED Talk -- Great!

    I do speaking presentations and webinars and write about speaking and include her great ideas. They are so simple and effective.

    But -- seems there's always a but -- way too many engineers keep doing the same "dumb" stuff -- bullets, techy terminology, back to the audience, mumbling, exceeding their allotted time, .......

    The problem is not having useful speaking tips available. That former problem has long been solved.

    The problem is too many engineers (and others, not just us) failing to realize they have a speaking problem.

    Ironic that the greatest group of problem solvers on the globe does not recognize their speaking problem.

    Step 1 to solve the problem: Any engineer in any organization who supervises any engineer, make them speak, identify what needs fixing, and show them how to fix it. You, they, your organization, and those you serve will benefit.

    Stu Walesh PhD, PE
    Consultant - Teacher - Author

  • 6.  RE: Presentations at Technical Conferences

    Posted 07-04-2019 08:56 AM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 07-04-2019 08:56 AM
    I enjoyed spending 4 1/2 minutes watching the brief TED talk on talk Nerdy to me.  There is, of course, no magic formula - but the one Melissa postulates is useful.

    I want to mention that many presenters and college professors could benefit from studying Adult Learning Principles.  The National Highway Institute, which is part of the Federal Highway Administration, has an excellent program to teach folks how to become certified NHI instructors.  If you are serious about trying to teach your audience, your presentations will be greatly enhanced by following the NHI parameters.  

    I spent a significant portion of my career teaching technical classes and doing presentations at conferences -- and my presentations were greatly enhanced by following NHI guidelines.

    Stephen Mueller P.E.,M.ASCE
    President and Owner
    The Stephen Mueller Consultancy
    Littleton CO
    (303) 798-8122

  • 7.  RE: Presentations at Technical Conferences

    Posted 07-05-2019 10:16 AM

    I congratulate you on seeking assistance. That suggests that you are probably already a better presenter than most. If not, you will be! Stu hit the nail on the head – the first requirement is that we all must recognize that we can do better and invest the time to do so. The best presenters that I know are their own worst critic and always looking for advice to do better.

    Stephanie's first statement "Presentations that are engaging to the audience are the best ones…" seems obvious, but - based on the many presentations that I have heard at conferences – seldom heeded. She gave sage advice on how to engage your audience without interrupting the flow of your talk. Melissa Marshall's TED talk makes some great points – without bullets! An implicit message from her talk – Do not try to put everything that you want to say on your slides. You are the focus, not the slides. They are there to highlight points in your presentation, not tell the whole story for you. One sentence or thought per slide is great advice.

    Here is the formula that I try to follow (in bullet form, of course!) when developing presentations:

    1. Write down the few (2-4) major points that I want to convey during your presentation. FEWER is always better! If I can't crystallize my thoughts into 2-4 points, developing a presentation will prove to be a frustrating experience. 
    2. Design the presentation to focus (exclusively or almost exclusively) on these points. Design slides to make these points obvious to the audience. (An important corollary to this that I often find difficult - I must leave out many minor points, otherwise they increase the noise level and obscure the major points.)
    3. Design the presentation to keep (well) within my time limit while maintaining a relatively relaxed presentation pace. (For example, let's say that I are scheduled in a 20-minute presentation slot. I know that I do NOT have 20 minutes to present! The prior speaker has to finish (probably late!), the moderator has to introduce me, I need to make sure the mic is working and my slides are ready, then gather my thoughts…all of this takes time. I also need to save time for questions at the end and to get off the stage before the next presenter's time starts. When you add all of that together, I only have 10-12 minutes for your actual presentation. Planning for more is often the first step to a bad presentation in my experience. I am rushed, often fail to focus on the important points, etc. When was the last time someone complained that a presentation was too short? Never; I remind myself of that often!)
    4. Don't use too many slides. I have done thousands of presentations and cannot comfortably use more than 1 slide/minute. So, for a 20-minute presentation slot, I usually allow myself 12 slides including a title slide and a final slide thanking the audience for their attention and time; that leaves me 10 slides to design my presentation (see #2).
    5. Practice, practice, practice. If I can not accomplish 1-4, I know that I must revise my presentation until I am satisfied
    Having a well-designed slide set is a critical step, but it is not the end-all in giving a good presentation. I try not to look at my slides - ever. I should know my presentation well enough to know where I am at all times. (Insider tip - many presentation rooms have something glass on the back wall that reflects the slides,  e.g. framed picture, windows panes in the door, window to an AV room, etc.  – very convenient!) I try not to use a laser pointer unless absolutely necessary. PPT has many animation features to highlight important numbers in a table, locations on a figure, etc.

    I have found that using a lapel mic, leaving the podium, and talking to the audience works for me. I feel much more comfortable with that casual pose and it seems to make it easier to communicate. Notice Ms. Marshall's approach; she strikes such an engaging pose. For me, a podium feels like a significant communication barrier.

    These are probably obvious. But, hopefully there is something useful. It helped me to remind myself of these principles!

    Good luck!

    Donald Hayes
    Research Environmental Engineer

  • 8.  RE: Presentations at Technical Conferences

    Posted 07-05-2019 04:47 PM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 07-05-2019 04:46 PM
    Hello Jameelah!

    I agree with Don - the fact that you are asking puts you a step ahead.  Ditto on everything that has been shared here.  I will jump in, however, to emphasize a few points.  (Bona Fides:  like the others here, I have given hundreds of talks over my career, and teach communications in our Professional Issues course.  In 2018-19 [so far], I have delivered 10 "invited" keynote talks - and most of these invitations were not because of my technical brilliance, but to quote the invites "...we know you will give an engaging presentation...")

    So - to emphasize:

    • YOU are the source of the information - not your slides.  If your slides can provide all that is needed, do not talk - simply print the slides and hand them out.  Think about it: we call them "visual aids" (emphasis mine).

    • I absolutely agree with pictures, clear charts/graphs, etc. - in lieu of lots of words.  Recognize that you lose your audience for the time it takes them to read every word that they see on the screen; minimize that time.

    • If the conference allows this, inform your audience up front that the slides will be made available post-presentation.  Invite the audience to concentrate on the information, rather than trying to race to jot down the words that appear on the screen.

    • As much as possible, relax your audience by treating your talk like a group of colleagues getting together to 'just talk' - rather than a formal "presentation".  Personally, instead of having a slide up front titled "Outline" (which smacks of traditional, "presentation" style), I title my outline-type slide "What are we going to chat about today?"  Follow this with a much more lose, discussion-focused speaking style rather than a stiff, formal-presentation style.  Remember: your goal is to transfer information; in almost all cases, the less formal the better.

    • In keeping with the above (and one of Don's comments), if the venue makes this possible use a lapel microphone and physically get out from behind the podium.  Know your presentation so well that you do not have to refer to notes - your visual aids ARE your notes.  If you must stay on the stage, stroll across and back (don't pace!!) very naturally as you speak.  If you can get out into the audience - do it!  You can engage individuals much more effectively by literally getting on their level.  (I was told after one of my talks that the folks who know me had a pool going, regarding how many minutes would it take me to come down off the stage into the audience - the winner was three)
    Lots of great advice on the discussion posts here!  I plan to capture all this for my class.  Thanks for the topic/post!!

    Kevin Hall Ph.D.,P.E.,M.ASCE
    Univ Of Arkansas
    Fayetteville AR
    (479) 575-8695

  • 9.  RE: Presentations at Technical Conferences

    Posted 07-09-2019 01:12 PM

    Very relevant topic, Jameelah, and some good advice in the responses!

    We often make the same mistakes over and over. I surely commit the sin of too many bullet points in my presentations. My favorite presentation in the  20-minute slot at the EWRI conference was by a guy who thought this was a lightning talk limited to 8 minutes!

    I've found it most difficult to present to a mixed audience. For example, we do brownbags for a client, where some people are deeply involved in the project (will already know most of the things in the slides), and some hear about it for the first time. How much background do I give? How do I keep it interesting for the people who are deeply involved but not lose the new ones?

    I also wanted to add something on the basic physical fear of public speaking. I found that the best way to address it is by repeating my presentation, aloud, over and over, so that I don't freeze like a deer in the headlights when the time comes.

    Natalya Sokolovskaya P.E.,M.ASCE
    Wynnewood PA

  • 10.  RE: Presentations at Technical Conferences

    Posted 07-09-2019 05:06 PM
    Edited by Tirza Austin 07-09-2019 05:05 PM

    The next time you think of using slides, ask yourself: Why slides, why not something else like props?

    For some prop ideas, see my short article "Prop Up Your Presentations" available here:   Prop Up Your Presentations
    Helpingyouengineeryourfuture remove preview
    Prop Up Your Presentations
    Given that vision is the dominant sense, judicious use of props in your presentations will help others understand and remember your message.
    View this on Helpingyouengineeryourfuture >

    Stu Walesh PhD, PE
    Consultant - Teacher - Author