Engineers are extremely adept at turning concepts into images through the use of graphs, diagrams and schematics of various kinds - but the humble still picture is often overlooked
Mech

Author: Barry Brophy is a mechanical engineer who provides training in how to make technical presentations and teaches two masters’ courses on this topic in UCD

A picture is worth a thousand words, we all know that. And engineers are extremely adept at turning concepts into images through the use of graphs, diagrams and schematics of various kinds. However, in all of this, the humble still picture is often overlooked.

This is a missed opportunity as pictures are one of the easiest to use and most effective of all communication tools. What really brought this home to me was a set of presentations I attended two years ago given by a group statisticians and engineers.

These presentations, although extremely professional and slick, were a little dry. Like many such talks, there was information overload in the form of slides full of text, equations and diagrams that were neither very engaging nor comprehensible.

Later on in the session, one speaker plugged her laptop into the overhead projector and a splash of colour filled the screen. The image was like an impressionist painting – it may well have been an impressionist painting – and when it appeared, full-screen and without any text, someone in the audience impulsively uttered a ‘Wow!’.

Given that that woman making the presentation was working in the area of data analytics, I thought this image might have come from a data visualisation or simulation model. However, it turned out to be just the computer’s screensaver. A few seconds later, the image was replaced with a dull, text-filled PowerPoint slide and the presentation proper began.

Why make it hard, visually, for the audience?


This story may not seem like much but the lessons stayed with me. Firstly, the biggest reaction of the day was for a screensaver. That tells you something about the dullness of the bullet-filled slides that surrounded it. Secondly, and more importantly, it brought it home to me that you cannot instruct your eyes what to like. They decide for themselves, before you even become consciously aware of what you are seeing. Why work against this perceptual predisposition? Make your slides visually appealing as well as relevant. Images enable you to do this.

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Strong images (left) are often placed in overly busy PowerPoint slides (right) so they become diminished and camouflaged

From the moment we wake in the morning until the moment we close our eyelids at night, we take in a ceaseless stream of video and audio information without overloading our brains. Listening and seeing at the same time is easy. Listening and reading at the same time, however, is impossible. Filling slides with bullet points doesn’t work. And it is not just a bad idea, it’s a missed opportunity.

Many presentations in the workplace today contain no pictures, or have a few small images as thumbnail decorations on a larger text-filled slide. This utilises none of the real power of images which work on three levels. Firstly, images grab people’s attention, as the colourful screensaver inadvertently did.

Secondly, they aid comprehension which is the ‘thousand words’ idea we are all familiar with. Thirdly, they are memorable. Sometimes an image will stay with you long after the content, or even the presenter, has been forgotten.

The counter-argument to all of this is that a serious presentation is no place for gimmicky images. You are there to inform, not entertain. This is wrong. Yes you are there to inform but the simplest way to do this is to work with the audience’s preferences, not against them. Your images should always be relevant to your topic – not just there for effect – but given the choice between viewing an engaging high-definition full-screen image or a tombstone of text, the audience’s heads will turn automatically and the image wins every time.

Images: engage, explain, remain


There is nothing frivolous or gimmicky about using appropriate images. ‘The Irish Times’ is probably the most erudite news publication in this country and the content of its printed edition is 30-40 per cent visual, primarily images. The newspaper reports on important world affairs and takes itself very seriously. But it also recognises, as all good publications do, the power of images to attract readers to a story, help them to understand the content of this story and remain in their memories long after the paper has been discarded.

It is so easy, nowadays, to put pictures into a presentation. You can either take these pictures yourself or search for them online. They should always be relevant to your talk but this still gives you enormous scope to bring a visual angle to your ideas. Even if the audience has seen what you are describing before, there is great merit in showing a clear image in the light of the new insights you are presenting. Never underestimate the power of the obvious where visuals are concerned.

And if you are still unconvinced, take a browse through this very journal. Each article contains an average of two to three images. Also, this is a written communication – no voice over – so the need to increase the visual content in a presentation should be obvious by comparison. It will make your presentations more interesting and it will free you, the speaker, to talk around these images instead of being a slave to those wretched bullet points.

http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/aaaimage1.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/aaaimage1-300x226.jpgDavid O'RiordanMechUCD
Author: Barry Brophy is a mechanical engineer who provides training in how to make technical presentations and teaches two masters' courses on this topic in UCD A picture is worth a thousand words, we all know that. And engineers are extremely adept at turning concepts into images through the use of...