The Importance of Communication in Communications
About once a year I have the opportunity to speak at career days at local Middle and High Schools. I am the Engineer on the agenda and kids who are interested in Engineering are usually my audience. I like to take in SFPs and optical fiber samples, cards from equipment and whatever telecomm gear I can scrounge up. I show them how exciting the communications business is and blow their minds with numbers about how much information can be carried on something the size of a human hair. At the end of one recent session, one student asked me what classes I would recommend for someone who wants to go into Engineering as a career.
The obvious answers – and the ones that the students were looking for – were science and math. It is important to understand the mechanisms underlying engineering before stepping into more detailed analysis and these were the kids who enjoyed science and math. The other answer – the one they were not expecting – was that they should also focus on traditional liberal arts classes, especially literature, writing, and English. The reason for the focus in those areas is that communication is a very important an often neglected part of any engineering.
Without the ability to communicate information, the greatest discoveries of humankind could never take off. An engineer who comes up with an innovative new solution but can’t communicate it to anyone else has not come up with a useful solution. Being able to communicate is critically important. This is not to imply that every engineer should write like Charles Dickens or Steven King, but it does mean that engineers should understand their audience and be able to communicate their information in the clearest way that they can.
Understanding your audience can be hard, especially for engineers. When I presented my graduate research back in my university days, I knew that the audience had a similar experience and I could assume a relatively deep level of basic understanding. However, it was still important that I highlight the parts that were important in my talk so that the audience could understand why they were spending time listening to me. So even though those talks would be boring to a general audience, they were informative to the academic audience that I was speaking to.
The much harder audience is the general audience that usually attends trade shows. Now that I have a Marketing title, I have had engineers scoff at “marketing fluff” presentations that don’t have scores of numbers on every page. However, those “marketing fluff” presentations, if done well, are aimed precisely at the type of general audience that would be lost in a sea of numbers. My instructions to those who have worked for me in the past is that every slide presented must have a “why” statement at the bottom of the slide to explain to the audience (and presenter) why that particular slide was put on the screen. It can be removed later, but if the speaker can’t determine what critical message the audience should receive from every slide, then the slide is not necessary.
Just a few suggestions for anyone who is putting together a presentation for a trade show – any trade show, regardless of the level of the audience – to ensure that the audience gets out of the presentation the information that you want them to know. In most cases, the audience is there to learn and will work with you so long as you put in a little effort. And yes, each of the issues below are ones that I have seen during this year’s Trade Show Season.
- Understand your key point and any underlying points before you start writing.
We want to learn from you, but a disjointed presentation that is hard to follow leaves no lasting impression. It is best to know before you start where you want to end. Covering the optical components business challenges, recent innovations in switching technology, the growth of data centers worldwide, and recent security intrusions in one slide is exhausting and you can’t possibly communicate useful insights in every area.
- Know your audience.
Don’t just use your standard slides in every case. Are they executives concerned with finance? Don’t show them QAM constellations. Are they PhDs in optics? Don’t try to educate them on how coherent optics work. Are they an MSO audience? Don’t show slides about power utilities. Put in the effort to understand who will be sitting in the chairs.
- Don’t put everything that you intend to say on the slide.
If you are reading the slide, then you are redundant. The audience, usually, can read. Give them more information than you can put on a slide.
- Use a font big enough to read from the back of the room.
14 point is too small. It doesn’t matter what it looks like on your screen. Fill up the slides with the biggest font you can use. If you’re using 10 point, you have too much information on the slide. One recent presenter used tiny and skinny text with 3-4 bullets on every slide, then referred to them extensively. No one knew what he was talking about.
- The best slides are a picture.
Words on slides are boring and lose the audience’s attention. Show them something. The best presentation I’ve seen this year was on antenna grounding. It’s a topic of no interest to me, but the pictures were fascinating and the entire audience followed with rapt attention.
- Be respectful of the time you have been given.
Don’t run over. Don’t go long. Don’t speak too much. Just don’t. Don’t put 250 slides in a presentation scheduled for 30 minutes. Don’t look at your watch and keep going. Just stop when you are out of time. I was once the last speaker of the day in a session where everyone had run long. By the time I got up, we were already 30 minutes late for dismissal. I promised the audience that if they would stay, then I would do my entire presentation in 5 minutes. I did, and got several compliments and (more importantly) solid leads as a result. Your audience appreciates your respecting their time.
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