How to succeed in a technical presentation

Whether you are an engineer, maker, hacker or baker, at some point you will want to share your work with other people. Maybe it’s a meeting at work to discuss process improvements, or a lecture at a conference about research you’ve done on hacking a new integrated platform. Or maybe you’ve developed a whole new baking profile for rye breads that cuts energy consumption in half. Either way, there are techniques you can use to help you communicate effectively in a room full of people and have fun doing it. Unlike some, I really enjoy standing in front of a crowd to present my work, so I wrote this article to share with you some tips that can help you give a technical presentation that everyone will love, including you!

Editor’s Note: We planned the art of this item before Carrie Fisher passed away. Leia certainly made a convincing technical presentation. We are releasing this in memory of a great actress.

The Basics – Preparing Your Presentation

First of all, know your stuff. This is especially crucial in commercial environments. Throw an incorrect number on the projector screen, and you’re screwed. Not only will someone catch him, but he will undoubtedly be your own worst enemy, Terry from Product Development. He’s been a complete jerk ever since Mark got divorced and took over the Honda, and today he’s pissed off that you had that decimal point in the wrong place. He’s going to tear you down in front of everyone for that. But worse than that, now no one can trust the numbers you present. You will have a much harder time convincing people to trust your analysis, and therefore your conclusions. One small mistake can derail a presentation; two or more will kill him dead.
You will find yourself using tables and charts of all shapes and sizes. The key here is clarity. Keep colors and formatting as simple as possible. Above all, think carefully about how you present the data. In a previous life in the die-casting industry, I attended a presentation analyzing the different wear rates of die-casting tool components. The graphics were virtually unintelligible, with stacked bars, twenty colors, axes with little to no labeling – it was a total mess. If you have to explain your graph to people, that’s probably not good enough. Think back to how you put it together; Does rearranging things or using a different type of chart make things clearer? People will trust your words much more easily if they correlate with what your graphics say on screen.

Clarity applies to all aspects of your presentation. Use photographs from a project? Taking a good technical photo is quite an art. Focused, evenly lit and with relevant details easily visible. Of course, it’s not always that easy. When you take pictures of damaged hydraulic hoses in a dark, fluid-soaked machine pit, you’re going to have a hard time. The good part is that we are now in 2016 and smartphones offer very usable cameras in a compact body, with flashes and autofocus. In my career, I have found mine to be invaluable for taking photos of problematic material. And combined with a tripod, I was able to take some great photos and videos to share my projects on Hackaday.io and YouTube. Make the effort now and your presentation will go much more smoothly.

Walking in a combat situation

UnstitchedOkay, so you’ve put together a great presentation. You only have the number of slides 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 details and look neat and professional. Now comes the hard part: getting up in front of a crowd and delivering it.

Public speaking doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. If you’ve got a bit of ego and love attention, you’ve got a head start. For others, the thought 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 you.

The state of mind is everything. If you are afraid, you will act afraid. If you are confident, you will act with confidence. The trick is, if you can pretend you’re confident just long enough for people to respond positively, you’ll start a feedback loop that puts you in a big space. But how do you pretend? Everyone has their own techniques, but one of my favorites is the beach ball.

As you approach to begin your presentation and as you begin to speak, act as if you are holding an imaginary large beach ball in front of you. Seriously. Walk like you’ve just taken your awesome beach ball out of the car and powerfully headed for the beach, ready to throw it right behind your best friend’s head, before laughing loudly. Get a little excited and deliver your presentation.

Hello, my name is Lewin Day and I’m here to show you how we can save $ 100,000 per year by optimizing our robotic machining paths.

Your first words should be spoken loudly and clearly, to draw attention to the hubbub of a distracted room. Don’t yell, but speak in a voice that makes everyone turn to you. Your first line should allow people to instantly understand the topic of your presentation. Once people are listening to you, you can then modulate your voice as needed. Speak at a steady speed and state your words. Your goal is to make your ideas as easy to understand as possible, and that now flows from your presentation, down to the way you speak.

dwight-shrute-master-oratorKeeping people engaged is important. Maintain a high energy level to keep people’s attention from wandering. If this is an arid topic in a professional environment, stick to the key points and be as brief as possible. Tell people what they need to know and be brief, to the point, and to the point. If this is a personal project that you are presenting at a conference or hackerspace, you may prefer to tell a story. Guide people through your development process from start to finish, and share fun facts about the fun things that happened. If you are working with a small group, a great technique you can use is interaction. Keep people involved by establishing references between your work and them personally. Use people’s names and involve them in any examples you might make – this is an effective way to keep people’s attention focused on your message.

Face adversity

There will be questions. You might be faced with exciting questions about your research or incisive inquiries that challenge your decisions. Ideally, if you’ve got the basics right, it’s not about why your numbers don’t match last month’s reports. Knowing everything about your project is the key here. People will want to know, have you thought about X, Y and Z? Why did you choose to use B rather than A or C? Why are we doing this differently than before?

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

Why did you use parts from the old supplier? This is filth! Your results should be everywhere.
-We just used what was in the stores, it seemed to work well.

This answer shows a lack of knowledge about the project and does not answer the real question – it is not about the parts. The real question is whether the results are reliable.

Why did you use parts from the old supplier? This is filth! Your results should be everywhere.
-We had limited time to run our test regime, and only parts from the old supplier were available. Our calculations showed that for this test, the old parts were well within the specifications for this application and would not have a negative effect on the results.

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

Bring it home

You worked hard from the start, honed your material, and then delivered an energetic and engaging presentation. Along the way, you showed off your knowledge, shared a few laughs with the crowd, and people learned a thing or two. A well-made presentation gives you a good impression, and once you have one under your belt, confidence will come much more easily before the next.

Over time, you will discover your own tips and techniques that work for you, and you will notice that people will understand your message much more easily as you communicate more effectively. Jump at every opportunity to showcase your work and, in between, study the great presenters you respect. If you need inspiration, check out the lectures given at the Hackaday SuperConference and learn the tips and techniques you see for developing your own speaking style.


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