Tips for engineering presenters: how to tell a story

In previous posts, I recommended structuring your presentations as stories.

This raises the question: How?

My favourite technique is one I learnt from a lecturer in creative writing. She in turn had taken the idea from a book – I believe it was The Weekend Novelist.

It goes like this. Start with a problem. Then explain the attempted solution. Then explain the problem this in turn throws up. Then explain the attempted solution to that problem. Then explain the next problem… and so on.

For example, consider some content that I recently read about the history of Dutch engineering in Indonesia.

  • The problem was that there was insufficient transport infrastructure for Dutch purposes (such as colonial government and economic development).
  • A solution was to build railways.
  • But the then problem of deep valleys emerged: how could railways transverse them?
  • The solution was to build bridges.
  • But the problem was a lack of knowledge in Indonesia of how to do that.
  • The solution was to bring in expert civil engineers from the Netherlands.
  • But the problem then was that those engineers were expert in building bridges for the Dutch terrain and climate: when in Indonesia periods of intense rain brought fast-moving rivers the bridges designed by Dutch engineers were swept away.
  • The solution was to innovate in the area of bridge design and construction.

And so on.

Providing the essential structure is made clear, it is possible to drop quite a bit of technical content into this narrative without losing the audience.

I’ve used this structure, and helped others to use it, countless times. Its advantages are that, typically:

  • it proves easy to construct the story;
  • it is easy to communicate the story to other people (listeners ‘get it’);
  • the stories are easy to remember (so the speaker doesn’t need notes and listeners may relate it to other people, leading to word-of-mouth publicity).

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