I call it The Conference Tragedy. A researcher spends a few years of their life developing their work, and they’re given a few minutes to talk about it at an international conference. Tens of slides are produced, each filled with sentence upon sentence of technical detail. Minutes pass as they’re forced to read through each dot point, turning their backs on the audience as they do so (well, once it’s all on screen, it can’t be ignored). The bell rings, and the key message hasn’t been articulated or is lost amongst the pages of text. How tragic, I always think as they’re rushed off stage.
Do you think your work colleagues are more forgiving about time? Perhaps, but the tragedy is the same. You might not be sat down at your meetings, but your audiences can switch off fast. If we believe the neuroscientists, our attention spans decrease as our use of technology increases. So as engineers, we’re used to getting our information quickly, and yet, tragically, we seem to be terrible at giving our information quickly.
I know, it’s extremely difficult to talk about complex projects in a short space of time, but engineers aren’t the only ones facing the challenge. When I finished my PhD a few years ago, I was a prize winner in the first UNSW Three Minute Thesis Competition (shortened to 3MT, for modern attention spans). Three minutes to talk about (at least) three years of work, one slide, no transitions, all faculties welcome.
The engineering temptation is to put as many descriptions as a slide can carry, and assume that your audience will just get it. But I used no dot points, just a title. And just a couple of abstract pictures, no schematics or flowcharts. This did three things: it forced me to face the audience and talk like a natural human being (see my last column about talking to people like you love them), it forced the audience to pay attention to me directly, and it forced me to focus on the purpose of the project rather than the details.
Too many people, both engineers and non-engineers, hide behind their slides. In our Expressive Engineering corporate courses, we make engineers reduce their presentations to a single slide with no more than 20 words including the title. The speakers immediately become more engaging as they pitch their ideas, facing the audience and focusing on the most important message rather than the details.
As engineers, you communicate to get buy-in for your ideas, whether it’s support from managers or expertise from peers. If your message is lost on your audience, your engineering suffers and you forfeit your impact. Avert the tragedy: message first, details later.