Imagine a dark and dreary chemical manufacturing conference room. It smells of dank and deteriorating technical manuals. It is about 4 pm and your brain is tired after a day of heated technical discussions and conflict. You are visiting the chemical plant to conduct a day-long risk assessment. In the conference room is a highly technical electrician; he is in his 50’s and “knows his stuff”. He is a PHD, a chemical plant electrical engineer, and teaches courses at the local university at night. You are there in the conference room with him and a process safety engineer. As you look at your watch, formulating your “exit plan” to get home, you make small talk and ask the electrical engineer what seemed like a simple question that would evoke a short answer.
One and a half hours later, the electrical engineer is still answering the question, and his energy and excitement are drawing him into a deeper and deeper technical answer. He is happy that he has a captive (captured) audience. The flip chart has pages of calculations and detailed crowded diagrams. As the flip chart pages fill out with details, he rips them off and sticks them to the wall. You and the process safety engineer are not following the flow of technical information. In fact, you are just politely nodding your head to imitate interest, but you have none in this level of detail.
That was me about 4 years ago. I was a visitor at the chemical plant and too polite to tell the electrical engineer to get to the point and answer the question. Eventually, I got the feeling that there would not be an end-point to this impromptu training session, so I looked at my watch and made some excuse to leave. The disappointment on the electrical engineers face was visible – he had not been given enough time to fully impress us with his mind-boggling knowledge.
When I got back to the corporate office the next day, I joked with my boss about the conference room scenario. He said, “Sometimes you ask people the time, and they tell you how to build a watch!”
Too often, technical people forget that when they are communicating technical data they need to convert it into “information” that the specific audience will understand. I have seen many presentations where there were PowerPoint slides full of overwhelming data resulting in the “glazed eyes” of the audience. This is a complete waste of a corporation’s limited resources.
For the last 12 years I have been reading books, studying presenters, attending workshops, and teaching presentation skills to build my understanding of effective presentation skills, particularly for technical people. I read a book recently by Dave Paradi called The Visual Slide Revolution. His book contains a lot of excellent information on means to convert technical data into clear, concise, uncluttered information. In my opinion, if you deliver technical presentations, this book should be on your bookshelf as part of your ongoing success strategy. The information below is my interpretation of how some of his concepts can be used by technical people who present information (such as engineers).
1. Minimize the clutter
• Label the parts (columns etc.) rather than having a separate reference table. Labeling the parts also allows us to eliminate the need for axis values.
• Eliminate any default horizontal or vertical grid lines that add no value
• Use 2D instead of 3D
• Reduce the amount of text
2. Increase the thickness of any lines (3+) to make them visible (line graphs etc.)
3. Arrange the data in a rational order if possible (chronological etc.)
4. Choose colors that contrast with the background
5. Start the vertical axis at zero to maintain visual calibration
6. If you are only talking about one box or pie part, color it in and leave the others in outline format
7. Be cautious of using acronyms – if they are not known by members of the audience, you can lose them as they try and work it out
8. One source of PowerPoint template charts is at http://slideshop.com/powerpoint-charts
1. Add data labels to each column if needed to show the value of the bars (you can then eliminate the vertical axis markings, as it is redundant).
2. Make the columns as wide as possible for visibility.
1. Label each graph line if the is more than one (for a single graph line the heading will suffice)
2. Highlight specific areas you want to talk/focus on (emphasis circle etc.)
Note: The graph vertical lines provide no value and could be removed. The “X” axis values could also be removed as they are already indicated on the bars
1. Put the most important part of the pie in the 12 o’clock position
1. Set the transparency to ~20% so that the overlapping can be seen and the text can still be seen
2. A PowerPoint template for a Venn diagram can be found at:
Finally: When someone asks you for the time… don’t tell them how to build a watch!