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How to Emotionally Jazz Up Your Technical Presentations

Sherlock Holmes StatueToday’s post is by Dr. Vikas Jhingran, author of EMOTE: Using Emotions to Make Your Message Memorable (CLICK HERE to get your copy).

‘The Crime Scene’. My first slide, certainly not the norm for a technical paper on Vortex-Induced Vibrations. I could see the confusion and surprise on the faces of the audience. This was going to be very interesting.

A few years ago, I was presenting a technical paper at an international conference. The paper was about experiments that had been performed by our group, and the results had been rather surprising. After months of work, our team had come up with a controversial explanation – one that most researchers would not have intuitively guessed. My paper that day was about those experiments and the unusual results.

I wanted to introduce a story into my presentation and after some thought, decided to relate the presentation as a Sherlock Holmes mystery case. This controversial and hugely popular character seemed a good fit.

I planned my presentation like a Sherlock Holmes case and it began at the crime scene, which was our lab. The data that we collected was the evidence. In my presentation, I shared our struggles to find a solution, which were eerily similar to what Mr. Holmes goes through in his cases. Finally, the famous quote associated with Sherlock Holmes, “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” provided the perfect setup to introduce the controversial and unexpected hypothesis proposed to explain the experimental data. Like all Sherlock Holmes cases, once the observations were explained, it seemed obvious.

Scientific presentations, especially those that involve data, are difficult to present in an interesting manner. Among the sea of good research and interesting ideas, only a few stand out as memorable. Why do some technical presentations stand out? How do people bring a technical presentation to life?

Here are four suggestions that will help bring your data-rich presentation to life.

Focus on the story – not the agenda

For thousands of years, stories have been used to make information memorable. Parents, grandparents and village elders shared stories with children that captured their knowledge, experience and traditions. They understood that the information will be made memorable because of the story.

The same holds true of scientific presentations. The information that you provide is remembered mostly because of the story you tell with it. The story could be about an actual incident related to the information being presented but could also be a clever connection to the presentation, like my Sherlock Holmes story. It is much better to spend your time working on a good story than getting the best agenda together. I did not even have an agenda slide in my Sherlock Holmes presentation!

Surprise is a powerful tool – use it

People commonly bring their approach to writing in the corporate environment to presentations. Corporate reports usually begin with an ‘executive summary’ where the final results and conclusions are presented upfront in a concise manner. These reports are distributed without much focus and the ‘executive summary’ helps busy executives get to the key findings without wading through the details. Those interested can then dig deeper into the document.

Unfortunately, the ‘executive summary’ slide is very common in scientific presentations. Speakers forget that those attending their presentation form a ‘focused group’ of interested scientific minds who want to know more about the topic. By presenting the key conclusions up front, presenters lose the ability to surprise their audience with their findings and provide profound ‘Aha’ moments. These emotions are what will make their information memorable. Sharing unexpected but profound results at the end helps build anticipation during the presentation and the surprising results make the information memorable.

Failures are valuable – share them

Thomas Edison’s most famous quote goes like this ‘I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways it won’t work’. The fact that this line is often quoted goes to show how well failure captures our attention. Sharing adversity makes for a very human connection between people. Scientists are no different. Sharing scientific failures says ‘I’m human’. Not sharing them says ‘I’m smarter than you are’.

But there is more.

Sharing failures provide an opportunity to add humor to a story. Failures make it real, failures make it memorable. Every insightful data point has behind it ton’s of information that did not make sense and copious experiments that did not work. The ability to laugh at these ‘crazy’ ideas is a sure way of connecting with the audience. It should not surprise you that in my Sherlock Holmes talk, I shared my struggles to make sense of the experimental data.

People remember concepts – not content

Have you see a presentation where slides are used as documentation tools? Every conclusion is listed and every chart and data point is included. When I come across such a presentation, unfortunately a frequent occurrence, I wonder why I am attending the presentation. I might have read a document containing this information.

Data and content by itself do not make for a memorable presentation. People get excited about concepts, ideas and passionate work. These are the reasons I attend presentations. Information and content can, and should be, shared in technical papers, corporate reports and white papers. The concept and key insights are what a face-to-face interaction is about. A presentation that covers too much information, fails to develop the key insights and does not engage the emotions of the audience has missed the mark. It would have been better if the presenter had prepared a detailed document and given audience the duration of the presentation to read it and ask for clarifications. No presentation was required.

Use these ideas to make your next data-focused presentation an unforgettable experience for your audience.

Emote by Vikas Jhingran– Dr. Vikas Jhingran is a speaker, author and engineer. His new book, EMOTE: Using Emotions to Make Your Message Memorable (CLICK HERE to get your copy), introduces a unique emotion-based approach to verbal communications. Vikas has a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and leads a team of engineers in Shell Oil Company. Find more information about Vikas at www.VikasJhingran.com.

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Photo: Holmes!!… by dynamosquito

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