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Guidelines for Giving Technical Presentations

by Douglas Wilhelm Harder

A good technical presentation is a work of art, and, like any art, there are rules and guidelines. Even a cursory search yields many sources in the library and on the Internet where each gives advice as to what makes a good presentation. This collection of guidelines has been the product of suggestions and comments from numerous sources tempered with experience. As with any art form, there are opposing views and consequently there will be numerous sources which will contradict some of the rules and guidelines stated here. It is up to the reader to determine what is most appropriate for the given situation.

While giving presentations is an art, one cannot simply throw together a few slides, stand up in front of an audience, and give a reasonable presentation; otherwise, the presentation will be the technical-presentation-equivalent of the work of art shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. In the Cat's Mouth, an acrylic on canvas, probably by Pangorda, from the Museum of Bad Art.

While there may be individuals willing to collect bad paintings, there is, unfortunately, no place in engineering for bad technical presentations except, perhaps, the front door.

In fine art there are ideas and concepts which must be understood by the artist. For example, an artist must understand perspective which is so beautifully used in Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Last Supper shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.

Failure to understand the underlying principles will result in a product which will appear to be defective and the errors will attract the attention of the audience. For example, consider the painting in Figure 3, the Reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, where the lines on either side of the structure should meet at the same point but do not. This work, from the 13th century, was commissioned two hundred years before Filippo Brunelleschi introduced perspective to European art. Al-Hasan (a.k.a. Alhazen), an 11th century Mesopotamian mathematician and the father of modern optics, set the foundations for perspective; however this was a theoretical understanding not immediately translated into art.

Figure 3. Reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

However, once an artist understands the concepts and rules and has spent sufficient time mastering then, the artist is also able to understand when those rules must be followed and when they may be broken. For example, consider the Calvin and Hobbes strip from Bill Watterson (distributed by Universal Press Syndicate) shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. An excerpt from a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip by Bill Watterson. (Links to a similar comic strip on the Universal Studio's web site.)

Watterson's comment on this particular comic strip was "It's surprisingly tricky to draw things exactly wrong, because you have to know the rules pretty well to break every single one." (Sunday Pages 1985-1995, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2001).

This collection of guidelines will attempt to give a reasonable overview as to the rules and concepts relevant to the giving of technical presentations. We begin by considering what is a technical presentation, how it differs from other forms of communication, and why this milestone is part of an engineer's education. Next, we define what we consider to be the four key aspects of a technical presentation: organization, visual aids, presentation skills, and addressing questions.

A sequence of two lectures entitled On Technical Presentations have been based on these guidelines and they will be presented during the first week of the 2A Academic Term. The slides used in these lectures are available here:

Please note, however, that reading these slides is not a substitute for either attending the actual lectures or reading the detailed guidelines presented here.

Copyright © 2008-2010 by Douglas Wilhelm Harder. All rights reserved.