Opinion: 10 Worst Practices For Technical Presentations

Opinion: 9 Worst Practices For Technical Presentations

Dec. 4, 2023
Keeping the audience puzzled and off balance can be an advantage, especially if you haven’t made a clear and forceful point.

At a recent technical conference I attended (names redacted to protect the guilty), I observed a number of wonderful presentations and a few lousy ones. To save future generations a lot of work and help them get their research published because it is both meaningful and interesting, I would offer these guidelines of what NOT to do for a presentation.

  1. Do not thoroughly research your topic. Instead, focus on the one element that will satisfy your advisor you are on the right track to making a breakthrough, even if that breakthrough is inconsequential. Heaven forbid that there may be an audience member beside your professor who is familiar enough with your topic to formulate an intelligent question.
  2. Construct your project in isolation under unrealistic test conditions. It is essential to develop data on your subject, even if it is to the exclusion of reality. (Example: If a product is produced under low or no oxygen conditions, consider using a nitrogen blanket to exclude any oxygen—even though the commercial product would never use a nitrogen blanket because of the added cost and potential liability.)
  3. Consider producing the test material in small quantities because it’s easier to handle.  If the material is produced commercially in ton quantities, the scale-up from grams to tons is a minor consideration to be solved by others after your graduation.
  4. Dress casually. It gives you the appearance of being confident and nonchalant about the consideration and consequences of your work. I’ll admit to being an old curmudgeon about presentation dress and conferences, but I believe that part of one’s presentation is more forceful in formal business dress than if it is made in beach attire.
  5. Cram everything in your slide deck and presentation. You have only a short period of time to convince the audience of your qualifications. If you leave more than 100 square centimeters of available space blank, you are missing an opportunity to show the audience how smart and busy you are.
  6. Keep the laser pointer moving. Sure, you are nervous about your presentation, but the laser pointer moving wildly about the screen or circling an object you wish to highlight keeps the audience from looking too closely at your tables and expressions. Heaven forbid that the audience may actually understand or be able to read the fine type used on the x and y axes of your graphs and be able to understand, let alone see, the numbers you use.
  7. Strive for impossible timing. Set the number of slides in your presentation to be time allotted less than five minutes, and plan on three to four slides per minute of presentation. You will use one minute at the beginning and one minute at the end of your presentation to introduce yourself and thank the other members of your team and your professors. That will allow the audience just under three minutes for perhaps one or possibly two questions.  There is an advantage to speaking quickly, and flashing slides at a rapid rate—it mesmerizes and intimidates the audience into believing that you really know your subject.
  8. Keep the audience puzzled and off balance. This can be an advantage, especially if you haven’t made a clear and forceful presentation. You can always indicate that additional research is required in your field to answer the embarrassing questions for which you don’t have the answer.
  9. Consider using the Platinum Bridge Approach. If one looks at the properties of platinum and its durability, perhaps we should consider constructing bridges from platinum because they would be durable and essentially maintenance-free. Never mind the up-front cost — look at what is saved in maintenance costs.


About the Author

Dave Russell | PE, ASP, president, Global Environmental Operations Inc.

Dave is a PE and Associate Safety Professional who practices from his company Global Environmental Operations Inc. He has lectured and consulted on environmental and safety issues all over the world.