Throughout our engineering careers we will have to give LOTS of technical presentations. Here are some tips that may serve you well if you are doing your first internship or haven't done a technical presentation in awhile!
1. Use pictures, graphs, and tables more than words
This is just good advice for any type of PowerPoint presentation in general. This is especially true for engineering presentations because the type of topics we present are very complex and technical. Using pictures, graphs, and tables make it easier to communicate complex ideas. They are also just easier to look at than a wall of text.
2. Use colors and bolding to highlight key words in presentation
This is a simple, yet effective way of highlight important words in your presentation. Some people in the audience are going to be as lazy as possible, and this ensures they at least read the most important words while we are presenting. Here is an example of what I mean:
3. Practice lots, get constructive feedback, repeat
For my second internship at an oil and gas company, I had to do a 20-minute technical presentation. A few weeks before the presentation I felt really certain that I knew all my stuff. I’ve been thinking about it all summer, and used the knowledge daily. However, when I went to do my first practice presentation it was a disaster. I couldn’t clearly communicate the technical ideas to a third party who wasn’t as familiar with my work as I was. However, I asked them for criticism and kept practicing until I could easily explain the topics to anyone. By the time presentation day came around, it was easy to walk the entire audience through my ideas and recommendations. Knowing something really well, and being able to teach it are two completely different things. Once we have our ideas down, we have to practice lots to make sure we can clearly communicate those ideas. During your internship, try to make some friends with other students or employees and ask if they will take some time to give you constructive feedback on your presentation. Apply the criticism, and just keep repeating.
4. Don’t look at the Powerpoint/Screen
In order to really make a connection with the audience, we have to make eye contact. If we continue to look at the PowerPoint/screen while talking it comes across as unprofessional and makes us seem less confident in what we’re saying. If we follow tip #3 and practice our presentation a lot, we will learn it by heart and won’t really need to look at the PowerPoint. Although, sometimes it is useful to point something out on the PowerPoint when you want to bring emphasis to it.
5. Know your audience
As engineers, it’s crucial for us to know our audience. Are we presenting for an audience with limited to no technical knowledge? Are we presenting to other engineers? Are we presenting to supervisors and higher ups? Depending on our audience, we have to tailor our presentation differently. For an audience with no technical knowledge we may have to simplify ideas or take the time to teach them all the background information they will need. If we’re presenting to other engineers, explaining basic ideas may just be a waste of time. For supervisors and higher-ups, they may be more interested in the bottom line (economics, production, safety, etc.) and not they technical stuff as much. Different situations call for different presentations and we should be flexible and willing to adapt. I found that the best way to give a good presentation is to make it about the audience. It’s not about me, what I want, or trying to show off my technical knowledge. I try to provide the most value for the audience, that way they have an interest in what I have to say.
6. Practice body language, tone, and vocal inflections
Knowing how to easily explain the technical aspects of our presentation and providing good accompanying graphics makes for a great presentation. To take our presentations to the level of excellence, we have to practice presenting with expressive body language, tone, and vocal inflections. Listening to a speaker who stands still and speaks in a monotonous voice is boring, even if what they are saying is valuable to me. Equally bad is when we go overboard and our body language looks forced; it’s distracting. We should try to be natural. The idea is to let our personality, and passion shine through so that our presentation is very unique. The key to this is just to keep practicing it alone, and then in front of an audience. Usually, we have to know our presentation very well before we can get to this stage (unless of course you are naturally gifted at public speaking).
7. Be simple, yet accurate with language
We should never try to use big or technical words to impress the audience unless its necessary and the words are explained in the presentation. We are serving our audience. They aren’t there to serve us. We should use plain language to make the presentation easy to understand while at the same time ensure we’re not talking down to them. If our audience doesn’t understand our presentation they may not say anything (for fear of looking dumb) and they will instead just write us off. This could result in loss of funding, promotions, etc. Again, the best way to ensure our language is plain is to practice for an audience that is not so familiar with the presentation and ask if they understand. The amount of technical jargon to include in the presentation really comes down to the audience (another reason why knowing our audience is so important).
8. Get friends/employees to ask questions after practicing
At the end of most technical presentations there is time at the end for questions. A presenter that can confidently and accurately answer questions after a presentation will really stand out from their peers. Personally, this is my weakness. I’m not the best at thinking on my feet but I combat this weakness by getting friends and employees to ask as many questions as possible during practice presentations so I can practice thinking on my feet and get an idea of the weak/confusing points in my presentation. Also, when answering questions at the end of our presentations it’s okay to say we don’t know the answer if we legitimately don’t know. I usually just let the audience member know I will get back to them and grab their contact information after the presentation.