Tips for engineering presenters: the value of a bad ending

Anthony Haynes writes: In the previous post, I said in telling the story of their projects, presenters can choose between framing it as a comedy (i.e., a story with a happy ending) or a tragedy (i.e., one that ends badly).

Why, you might ask, would anyone want to do the latter? Doesn’t that, in effect, amount to presenting yourself as a failure?

In fact, there are reasons why tragedy might be the way to go.

In professional settings

In business literature, there is a massive bias in favour of success stories. Look in the pages of business magazines — The Director, for example — and on the bookshelves of airport bookshops, it is the stories of success that prevail.

Such accounts can be inspiring and also render the secrets of success less secret.

But I’ve consistently observed — in business meetings, networking events, and so on — that although people like success stories, the stories they really prick up their ears for are the ones of failure.

Although you don’t want to overlook opportunities, in business you can usually afford to do that. But being blasé about causes of failure, on the other hand, is pretty reckless: it could sink the business.

wordcloudtragedyIn research settings

Research engineers often talk in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ results, the differentiator being conformity with expected results.

Here too there is a massive bias: the majority of engineering research publications will focus on studies in which the results confirmed expectations.

That might be fair enough. If the results were ‘bad’ because the research was poorly designed or carelessly conducted, they won’t be of interest to anyone.

But supposing the study was well thought out and proficiently implemented?

Then the fact that the results weren’t as expected should be of public interest. The negative results aren’t negative in any absolute sense: they represent a contribution to knowledge.

The emphasis of the story should then be on conveying the rationale — why the study may have been expected to produce so-called positive results, even if it didn’t.

Papers reporting such results can work particularly well in seminars, where audience members may engage by offering explanations.


Research, especially I think in medical fields, has seen the advent of registered reports. This is where researchers provide an account of their research design, which is then peer-reviewed. This is known as a ‘registered report’ system.

If a design is positively reviewed and the study then produces ‘negative’ results, journals that support he system will not regard such results as, per se, a reason not to publish.


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