Barry Brophy explains why many engineering presentations fail when their close cousin, conversations, work very well. He outlines the three things that we do differently in presentations that undo many of our communication skills

Presentations are often a slog, technical presentations in particular. Conventional wisdom says that this is due to the crippling effects of nerves. But nerves actually do more good than harm, giving you energy and making you ask important questions. Nerves aren’t a bad thing; they just feel like a bad thing. And yet many engineering presentations are still impenetrable. Why?

In my recent book, provocatively titled Awful Presentations, I try to explain why presentations fail when their close cousin, conversations, work very well. What do we do differently in presentations than conversations that undoes all of the communication skills we have already mastered? Being an engineer myself, the case of highly technical presentations really interests me and I have observed three hidden mindsets to which engineers and other technical professionals are prey.

1. The curse of knowledge

Explaining things to small children is difficult because we forget the mental stepping-stones we used when learning those concepts in the first place

The idea here is that the more expert you are on a topic, the worse you are at judging how difficult other people will find it. In other words, experts think things are simpler than they actually are. Of course, we have all observed this, in particular at college, in the shape of the boffin at the blackboard, but the idea is more subtle and embedded in everyday behaviour than you might think.

Learning is a process of building mental scaffolds to understand new concepts and then discarding this scaffolding when the concept becomes solid. We go from having to think our way through a new idea slowly and, in steps, to just ‘getting it’.

For example, the concept of multiplication is explained to kids by drawing an analogy with addition, which the child has already mastered. So ‘5’ multiplied by ‘6’ is explained as ‘5s’ added together six times. And division is then taught, not as multiple subtraction, but as reverse multiplication. Everyone reading this article now knows what multiplication is. You don’t have to think through these steps, you just ‘get it’, but this wasn’t always the way.

Most people cannot recall how they learnt to multiply or divide in the first place because they have long since discarded the mental scaffolding by which they learnt it. That is why explaining everyday concepts to young children is so challenging. Once you master something, you internalise the steps that brought you to that understanding and discard those steps.

Learning maths is actually a long chain of these bridging analogies, each one a scaffolding to bring you to the next concept. When you have mastered multiplication and division, you can handle other arithmetic concepts like factors and squares. Then you can learn about number lines and two-dimensional spaces. Then you can learn about triangles, circles and geometry. Then you bring these last two together to study coordinate geometry.

With this learnt, you can start into differentiation. When that’s done, you can reverse the process and learn integration. And so on. I remember when I first studied differentiation, I thought it was double-Dutch – ‘limit as x goes to zero of dy/dx’ – but now, when it comes to the ‘slope of tangent to a curve’, I just get it.

The problem arises when you are explaining these concepts to a novice. The longer they are embedded and reinforced, the harder it is to disentangle them and explain them from scratch. The solution, though, is found in conversations. But let me look at the other mental blocks, first.

2. Reluctance to be inaccurate

Most of the communications engineers engage with – reports, design drawings, flow charts, SOPs – are necessarily detailed and accurate, whereas presentations – short, transient and verbal – need to be approached in a very different way

This is different to the last point. The curse of knowledge is a cognitive limitation, this one is behavioural. I noticed this when my technical communication course at UCD was joined, a few years ago, by a group of students from a professional engineering master’s programme. These were mature students, with maybe 10 or 15 years’ experience, and their slides and diagrams were more detailed and complex than those of the undergraduates. Even when I pushed the merits of simpler visual aids, they seemed reluctant to let go.

It struck me that they didn’t want to simplify their material because this made it less accurate. Steeped in a profession where precise, detailed documents and protocols are essential to efficiency, reliability and even safety, it is unsettling to speak about these things in the simpler way necessitated by a presentation.

It is symptomatic of a failure to see the difference between a short, high-level, transient presentation and a detailed follow-on document, each with its own place in an overall chain of communications. People seem to get the difference, implicitly, in conversations, but not in presentations.

Many of the lecturers who taught me in college had a similar aversion to this lack of precision. In opening remarks on courses, they would say things like: ‘Consider N arbitrary integers such that the set of all R(N) unit vectors on a Cartesian plane…’etc, which, although accurate, wasn’t appropriate to the particular audience at that time in their learning. It is a mental bias that affects people from all disciplines who have built up a detailed and complex knowledge of their field. And there is one more mental bias with which engineers have to contend.

3. Loss of creativity

The boffin at the blackboard is a well-known stereotype but the reasons behind this failing are not obvious

This is also something that worsens over time but not in the way you might think. The stereotypical view is that young people – children in particular – are creative and free-minded, middle-aged people are mature and consistent, and old people are stubborn and set in their ways.

This is true to a certain extent, but general ageing is not the driver for the loss in creativity I am talking about here. What I have noticed is that between leaving college and spending a few years in the workplace, divergent thinking diminishes in a way that is damaging to presentations.

I have frequently observed instances where the presentations in companies are far less imaginative and diverse than presentations given by students on the courses I teach. The strange thing is that many of the people in the companies are only a few years out of college, themselves. In other words they are nearly the same as the students with the added benefit of a few years’ experience.

And experience is supposed to make you better, not worse; it gives you confidence, knowledge, a bank of stories to tell and practice at giving presentations. When I looked closely at the content of these presentations, though, I could see that the one thing that was lacking was creativity – and creativity is vital in all communication.

You have to think of different ways of making connections. Every audience and every presenter is different, so you are always seeking novel ways to make complex ideas clear with pictures, videos, demonstrations, stories, examples and analogies. It struck me that students are still learning concepts and seem more adept at forming novel connections and thinking divergently.

People working in companies for a few years, however, surrounded by other professionals who understand the same things and speak the same language, have a narrower mindset in this regard. In many ways, the nature of experience and expertise is to refine your thinking – ‘cut to the chase’, ‘get to the point’, ‘see the wood for the trees’ – but an increased precision and efficiency in thinking can lead to a stifling of creativity, which can damage your communications, particularly to people outside your company.

Correcting these mindsets

Fixing these problems is very easy. You just have to speak in the concrete, not in the abstract. Use analogies, cite examples, tell stories, show images, play videos and do practical demonstrations. Be as direct as you can be. You already do this in conversations where you tend to be direct, simple and even creative in how you communicate – ‘Think of it this way…’ ‘Imagine you had…’ ‘Give me a piece of paper and I’ll sketch it for you…’ – and it is just as easy to do this in a presentation.

Engineers can be great communicators – Stephen Donnelly attributes much of his success in politics to his ability to break complex economic concepts into simple analogies and examples

Good communicators do this naturally. In my interview for last year, Stephen Donnelly said, “One of the nice bits of feedback I get from people is they say, ‘We love the way you explain complicated stuff without patronising us. There’s nothing missing from your explanation.’” And in another interview, CEO of Dairymaster, Edmond Harty, likened his high-tech business to a cake. “The mechanical side is a big element of what we do,” he said, “whereas the software and electronics are a bit like the icing, but that’s actually what makes it attractive to your customer.”

The presentations you give are short, so it is only appropriate to communicate high-level ideas with clear, concrete language. More detail can be included in a follow-on document.

There are other mental biases that lead people, for example, to tell less stories in presentations than conversations, and, of course, to fill the screen full of text in the form of bullet points. But these and the behaviours discussed in this article are easily corrected if you model your presentation on a conversation.

There is a prevailing assumption that engineers are bad communicators, but this is not true. My experience of teaching engineering students tells me the exact opposite. Engineers have an innate visual sense, a creativity fuelled by curiosity and a confidence that leads them to present better than people from most disciplines.

If only they would let themselves.

Awful Presentations‘ is the new book by engineer Barry Brophy which looks at why competent, professional people give such ineffective presentations. Based on nearly twenty years experience training companies as well as teaching this subject at UCD, the book looks at the unconscious biases that lead technical presenters to communicate very differently in presentations to how they would in conversations. It focuses on the use of powerful presentation tools such as images, infographics, videos, stories, examples, analogies and audience interaction. O'RiordanMechCommunications,education,tender
Presentations are often a slog, technical presentations in particular. Conventional wisdom says that this is due to the crippling effects of nerves. But nerves actually do more good than harm, giving you energy and making you ask important questions. Nerves aren’t a bad thing; they just feel like a...