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ASK OCE — August 4, 2006 — Vol. 1 Issue 11


Slide presentations are a core communications tool at NASA, and like any tool they are well suited for some applications and not for others.

Engineers have their own means of communicating. In the preface to his new book Success through Failure: the Paradox of Design, Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering at Duke University, observes that:

“Engineers approach the lecture format in quite a different manner from that of humanists. In my experience, the latter typically read verbatim from a prepared text and use few, if any, graphics or illustrations. In contrast, engineers tend to use a good number of slides and related visual aids — in the form of drawings, diagrams, charts, graphs, equations, and demonstrations — to illustrate their talks, which are typically delivered extemporaneously. This is not to say that they are unprepared, for the engineer will more likely than not have gone over and over the visual materials and the essence of the commentary that will accompany them.”

First, context is everything. Who’s the audience? Briefing your branch chief around a conference table in a weekly staff meeting is different than presenting at a design review for forty colleagues or a professional conference for two hundred strangers. The less familiar the context, the more important it is to think of a presentation as a performance.

Understanding the context also means determining if slides are the right medium for a given topic and audience. Is the information too detailed? Would the material be better suited for a white paper or a NASA technical memorandum? If appropriate, send a read-ahead if you want your audience to be familiar with complex material before your presentation.

Second, a speaker cannot hope to compete with a screen. The moment an image appears on a screen, all heads swivel away from the speaker. Is the image on the screen so compelling or important that the audience should look away from you? It better be. Do you absolutely need words on the screen? If so, they’re most effective and memorable when supporting images.

Finally, the cardinal rule of storytelling also applies to presentations: show, don’t tell. An image is far more effective than a bullet point list when it comes to explaining what can happen if a project fails to practice good risk management. If you’ve properly identified a slide presentation as the proper tool for communicating a given message, the audience will engage much more interactively when shown the evidence rather than being told what to think.



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