Tag Archives: presentation skills

When an upgrade is downgrading

I had slightly surreal time last week.  I visited the USA to attend a review of a research programme sponsored by the US Government and reported on two of our research projects.  When I arrived in the USA on Monday evening, I went to collect my rental car and was told that I had been upgraded to a pick-up truck because the rental company did not have left any of the compact cars that had been booked for me.  I gingerly manoeuvred the massive vehicle, a Toyota Tacoma, out of the parking garage and on to the freeway.  I should admit to having owned a large SUV when we lived in the USA and so driving along the freeway was not a totally new experience, except that the white bonnet in front of me seemed huge.

The following morning, I drove to the location of the review and strategically selected a parking space with empty spaces all around it so that I could drive through into the space and avoid needing to reverse the behemoth.  As I was walking across the parking lot, someone accosted me and said: ‘Nice truck, how do you like it?’  Embarrassed at driving such an environmental-unfriendly vehicle, I responded that it was a rental car that I just picked up.  To which he replied that the best protection against my Tacoma, was his Tacoma. And, that it was his dream car.  Then, I noticed that he had parked his black one alongside mine.

Our children learnt to drive in our ancient Ford Explorer and loved it.  We all knew that it was wrong to drive something that consumed fuel so voraciously even if it did get us effortlessly through the most horrendous winter storms.  However, we have left all that behind and now either use public transport or drive cars that achieve 60 mpg or more on good days. But here I was being admitted to a club that worshipped their pick-up trucks.

We walked together into the review which was held in a small lecture theatre equipped with comfortable armchairs, which was just as well because we sat there from 8.30 to 4.30 for two days listening to half-hour presentations with only short breaks.  We were presented with some stunning research based on brilliant innovative thinking, such as materials that can undergo 90% deformation and fully recover their shape and how the rippling motion of covert feathers on a bird’s wings could help us design more efficient aeroplanes.  More on that in later posts.  Of course, there were some less good presentations that had many us reaching for our mobile phones to catch up on the endless flow of email [see: ‘Compelling Presentations‘ on March 21st, 2018).  At the end of each day, we dispersed to different hotels scattered across town in our rental cars.  On Thursday, I drove back to the airport and topped up the fuel tank before returning my truck.  I worked out that it had achieved only 19 mpg (US) or 23 mpg (UK), despite my gentle driving – that’s almost three times the consumption of my own car!  On the plane home I started reading ‘Overstory‘ by Richard Powers, a novel about our relationship to trees and the damage we are doing to the environment on which trees, and us, are dependent.

Compelling presentations

It used to be that you only had to compete with the view out of the window when you were talking to a group of people.  Now, you have to compete with the view of the world available through people’s mobile devices.  You know when your audience arrives and sets up their laptops that you have a challenge ahead of you.  A few of them might be planning to take notes using their laptop but most will be distracted by the constant flow of information delivered by email and messaging applications.  Of course, you can use the same technology to embellish your presentation and to hold their attention; but often the result is ‘death by Powerpoint’ and the audience retreats into their own worlds – doing their own thing.

There’s a nice quote from an interview with Eric Clapton in the San Diego Union Tribune (September 4th, 2005): ‘It’s very hard, so I try and make it as engaging as it can be. But you have to face the fact that, no matter how good it is, you can only hold their attention for a little while.  So, you have to plan you talk in small steps and to re-engage your audience at the start of each step.  There needs to be a narrative and the same rules apply as when writing [see post entitled ‘Reader, Reader, Reader’ on April 15th, 2015].  Powerpoint is not a requisite nor a substitute but preparation is essential.  As a group of undergraduate students told me during a recent visit to another university, they can easily spot the lecturers who prepare conscientiously and are worth listening to.

I am at a scientific conference this week where a wide range of speaking skills will be on display and I have my mobile devices with me to provide alternative stimulation.  The real value of the conference is the opportunity to interact with other researchers in a community of knowledge and for that we need shorter talks and more time for discussion.  But the mechanics of modern scientific conferences is a separate issue!

 

Image: view from lecture theatre on London campus where I taught science and technology leadership last year [see post entitled ‘Leadership is like shepherding‘ on May 10th, 2017].