Ask an engineer what time it is, and he’ll tell you the history of the sundial. Depending on the audience, that can be fascinating . . . or awful. Either way, the example is useful when coaching engineers (and mathematicians, physicists, scientists, etc.) on how to improve their presentation skills.

Presenter strengths and pitfalls are similar across scientific fields, and coaching is fairly consistent, accordingly. In no particular order, here are some guidelines for engineers (and others) to improve their presentations:

  1. Know your audience: If presenting to a group of executives, don’t drag them down with extraneous details. Focus on what they care about: profit, cost savings, productivity, market value, and risks of not doing something.
  2. Remember it’s not all about you: Don’t just do a brain dump of what you know. Think about your audience’s interests. Salespeople are interested in revenue, customer satisfaction, product value, competitive talking points, etc. Marketing folks want to hear about product positioning, placement, promotions, and lead generation. IT cares about network management, development time, scope creep, user support, etc. If your audience is mixed, aim toward executive interests.
  3. Limit your time, so no one else has to. If you’re given 20 minutes to present, cut that number in half and aim to present in 10 minutes. Presenters who run long, risk getting cut off before they’ve made your most important points. This also allows time for questions.
  4. Create a content framework: Focus on 3-5 key points you want people to remember. Present them early, cover each individually, and summarize them at the end. Be clear about any calls to action at the end. E.g. Go to this website, “Like” on Facebook, etc.
  5. Do not present a thesis: Your goal is not to lead up to a dramatic conclusion at the end based on the points you make along the way. It’s the reverse. Make your primary points early, then provide the supporting information.
  6. Be compelling: Share personal stories, analogies, humor, and pictures.
  7. Share less, not more: Not all data is created equal. Share no more than 5-10% of the details you know about the topic (unless presenting to fellow engineers), focusing on three to five key takeaways. Don’t worry, they’ll still know you’re smart.
  8. Avoid alphabet soup: Limit acronyms, and always define each one the first time you use it. Avoid technical terms (anything someone next to you on an airplane wouldn’t understand).
  9. Practice: Present in front of peers to get initial feedback and suggestions. Run through the presentation at least 5 times. While standing. Accept the fact that you will hate doing so. Most importantly, practice your opening. You’ll be most nervous at the outset, and a smooth, streamlined beginning will boost your confidence.
  10. Be confident: If you can’t be confident, fake it. Stand up straight and tall, chin up, don’t stare at the floor, wring your hands, put hands in your pocket, or pick lint off your clothes.
  11. Watch your body language: Maintain eye contact with different individuals across the room. No sheepish looks. Don’t point. Keep hand gestures smooth. Plant both feet. Don’t pace, but don’t be a robot, either.
  12. Project well: Speak louder, somewhat slower, and with more energy than normal. Don’t mumble. Don’t read the words on the screen.
  13. Have fun: Smile! Pretend you’re enjoying yourself.

Fortunately, since engineers tend to be logical, they are able to fully understand their strengths as well as their limitations, rather than be defeated by criticism. They know when to seek help from an expert. A speech coach or communications expert can help them further improve both the effectiveness of their presentations, as well as their comfort delivering them.

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