I just got back from an industry symposium where I watched a bunch of engineers give lectures on various topics. Each was an expert who had knowledge to share, and I was hanging on as best I could, not being an engineer myself. One fellow stood there like a tombstone with this PowerPoint presentation. He hung onto his lectern as if he were steering the Titanic and stared down into the screen of his laptop as if it would reveal the future. As he droned he also tapped and the key words he was saying appeared on the screen for all of us to read.

I found myself reading the words on the screen while trying to pay attention to what the guy was saying. The PowerPoint was a visual echo. He’d speak and then his words would appear on the screen. It was like watching a bad Japanese movie. And it wasn’t as if the PowerPoint was adding anything to what the guy had to say. There were no photos, or graphs, no pie charts to see – only words. And he was already saying those. So what was the point?

In another room, I sat through the polar opposite of the PowerPoint man. Here, an ancient engineer was lecturing on air quality while writing on a white board with a black marker. He spent more than half his allotted time with his back to the audience. We could have gotten up and left.

I don’t think this guy would have noticed. He was your old algebra teacher. He would say something like, “The resultant carbon monoxide from smoking is severe.” Then he would turn his back on us and write on the white board, The resultant carbon monoxide from smoking is severe. Every single word. And he wouldn’t speak while he was writing. We’d have to wait for him to finish. People in the audience looked at each other and shrugged. Some got up and left. The Professor never noticed.

And the coot never erased anything either. He was like God writing to Moses. As he got closer and closer to the bottom of the white board, he had to bend further and further over and twist his arm into an unnatural position. I thought he was going to topple over at one point. And his scribblings got smaller as the hour wore on. Most of us couldn’t even see what he was doing down there at the bottom of his white board, but that didn’t stop him. And you want to know the best part? No one was taking notes. Except for him. And he already knew the material.

Go figure, eh?

In a third room, a young engineer was talking about NOX. He was also using PowerPoint and had gotten to a part of his presentation where he was displaying a series of charts that had been scanned from some manufacturer’s catalog. The first chart looked like a plate of linguini with clam sauce.

“I know you can’t see this, but . . .” the young engineer said, and then he used a laser pointer to pick through the tiny clams and strands of linguini. “I know you can’t see these numbers on the side here,” he said, “but let me tell you what they are.” And then he picked at them some more with his jiggling infernal red dot.

And all the while he was doing this, I wondered why the heck he was showing me this if he knows I can’t see it?

That’s a fair question from some poor slob in the audience, don’t you think?

So here’s a humble suggestion that I’d like to make to the engineering community. If you have any influence within your organization as to who gets to stand before the congregation and deliver a talk, how about making sure that the person tasked with delivering the message has received some training on how to give a speech. Do it for the sake of the audience. Please.

A great place to start is with the Dale Carnegie. Not to blow smoke, but I’m known as a pretty good talker. I actually do it for a living. I took the Dale Carnegie course in 1971. The first night I was there the instructor asked me to stand up, say my name and tell what I did for a living. I couldn’t do that.

I was that shy. Twelve weeks later, they couldn’t sit me down, and I haven’t sat down since. The Dale Carnegie Course is a brilliant investment, one every engineer should make at some point in his or her career. The earlier the better.

The other place you can go to learn how to speak is your local chapter of Toastmasters International. Check your phone book; there’s probably a chapter nearby. I belonged to a group that met at a local library. I gave talks there for years. The atmosphere was friendly and people were all in the same boat.

We watched each other and critiqued our talks and we all got better. Toastmasters gives you a chance to make your mistakes and learn your lessons before you have to get up in front of the technical congregation.

You may know your stuff, but if you do a lousy job of communicating, your message won’t get out there. It’s like having an FM transmitter and an AM receiver. You may think you’re sending out beautiful music, but no one is listening.


Dan Holohan

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