Presenting Engineering Old School

I attended a meeting recently consisting of engineers presenting preliminary designs to our government customers and company management. The company doesn’t provide much direction in the way of formatting or training on presentations. Execution and appearance still rate with being a successful communicator. During this particular meeting, I believe these people may be real whiz kids at engineering, but they absolutely have no clue as to how to present their ideas.

The Power Point presentation consisted of slides full of black text, to the point that if you squinted hard from the back of the room at the slide, you could just make out Charlie Sheen’s image embedded in the characters.

Dress for Success, the mantra of the business colonies in the 1980’s, needs to make a comeback. Larry the Cable guy is alive and well and working as an engineer at my company, and he’s presenting designs. Complete with camouflage baseball cap and jeans, this guy got up in front of this esteemed audience. It wasn’t the kind of meeting that called for three piece suits and ties, but Larry gave new meaning to business casual.

I took a class in preparing presentations as one of my first company-sponsored training classes. Power Point with its pre-loaded templates, styles, colors, animation and slide shows did not exist. We had typewriters, black and red typing ribbon, white out, one font, one font size, copy machines and transparency films. Characters and logos, you know them as clip art, were cutouts from letters, magazines, and newspapers, pasted into the chart.

The presentations had no excitement and were boring. They stuck to the facts. I learned about color, such as using red for emphasis, black on white for maximum contrast, and concepts like the eye is attracted to white and yellow couldn’t be seen. I learned about content; no more than three or four bulleted statements on a page.

Preparing a presentation manually took a lot of thought and time. Tedious doesn’t begin to describe it. Secretaries converted the hand written scratchings into typed text. The typed sheets were photocopied onto plastic sheeting called transparencies (because you could see through it, I guess). Repeat this process for however many pages you have and there’s your presentation.

If you think developing a presentation manually was hard, try actually presenting a stack of these films. The sheets are viewed with an overhead projector. You may have had experience with these machines in school. Businesses have for the most part moved on to Power Point and projectors.


The Infamous Overhead projector

One at a time, the sheets are placed on the projector’s light plate and, through its internal mirrors, the image is displayed on a screen for the audience to view. It’s a wonder I am able to see; one of the dangers of using these devices is the glaring one thousand watt light bulb that comes out of the machine directly into your eyes. Standing to the side helps, but then there are the sheets to put on the plate and, oh my, we have come a long way. Presenting from this contraption may not seem to be that hard except for two things: nerves and static electricity.

Depending on how large and who is in the audience, my nerves seemed to always be frazzled. It was enough to remember the details of the presentation, let alone handle a stack of films that could tumble onto the floor at any careless minute and at the same time try to impress the big wheels without ruining your career by becoming ‘that person’ who screwed up the presentation.

Static electricity is quite a different beast. Uncontrollable, as I would try to put a sheet up, invariably, it stuck to the next one. Short of licking my fingers in front of the audience, there wasn’t a lot to do to get them unstuck. I learned to separate the sheets prior to the pitch. Then someone showed me a neat trick of putting a single sheet of paper between each one. Situation solved, although it did create a much larger stack of material that could have fallen into pieces all over the floor.

Oral presentations were also rehearsed but even the best rehearsals don’t always result in stellar performances. The best mentor I’ve ever had gave me a chance to present to a room full of people, including our chief engineer and the NASA chief engineer who was our customer. This program employed several thousand engineers, technicians, aides and other supporting cast members. I dressed up for the presentation that day and looked good. Everything was on track for success.

So in front of the program’s big dogs, I blew it. I fumbled, stumbled over my words, my train of thought took a different track; you name it, it went wrong. I came off the stage to my loving mentor. “Boy you really screwed that one up.” Mentors are there to teach, the student is there to learn. I learned to stay away from him after a blown pitch.


About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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