This appendix is intended to provide some general guidelines for the content and style of oral MQP presentations. The ability to give effective oral presentations is one of the most important skills a technical professional can possess. No matter how good your work is, if you cannot effectively communicate its results and significance in both written and oral formats, you and your work will not be fully appreciated.
Fortunately, the MQP provides an opportunity for you to gain experience giving an oral technical presentation. This presentation is a requirement in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
While some of the guidelines refer specifically to MQP presentations, and others to technical presentations, many of them are common to all presentations. No matter where your career path leads, it is highly likely that you will need to develop effective presentation skills to be successful.
You will be called upon to give presentations to supervisors, managers, prospective employers, clients, customers, research sponsors, colleagues, conference attendees, and so on. You will be judged not only by what you have to say, but also by how well you say it, and even how you look while you are saying it. This document will try to address some of the concerns resulting from this fact of professional life.
Designing Your Presentation
A presentation must be carefully tailored to the specific format, audience, presentation media, and level of formality associated with the presentation forum. In this section, the appropriate form and content for an MQP presentation will be discussed.
The format for MQP presentations is very brief; typically five minutes per project plus five minutes per project student is budgeted. (Thus, a two-person team gets 15 minutes, etc.) This time also includes questions from the audience, so the actual presentation time is less. The brevity of this format may please you at first, but it is one of the most difficult things about the format. Simply put, there is not nearly enough time for you to give a detailed description of your project.
Your overview must give the audience a general appreciation for these points:
- What you did
- Why it’s worth doing
- How you did it
- How well it worked
More specifically, an outline of your talk should be like the outline of a written report:
- An introduction that describes the problem and motivates its solution
- A brief background section that describes such things as special theory or devices you used, or previous work done on the same problem by others
- An approach that gives a broad overview of your solution to the problem, preferably at the macroscopic level
- The results of your work, including (when appropriate) a demonstration
- A conclusion, perhaps touching upon improvements or future work that could be done
It is extremely unprofessional to exceed the allocated time for a presentation. Focus on the "big picture" at the expense of technical details. There simply isn't enough time to talk about everything you've done. Tailoring your talk to the right length and level of detail might require several tries.
A demonstration of your project is nice, if
- It is brief and to the point
- There is something that can be easily seen or heard by everyone in the room
- You are sure that it will work
The audience for MQP presentations generally consists of junior and senior ECE students and ECE faculty, plus assorted family and friends. The level to which you should gear your talk is that of a competent junior or senior ECE student, i.e., assume that the listener understands basic ECE concepts. The talk should be accessible to the students without boring the faculty to tears.
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words; depending upon the image resolution and the richness of your vocabulary, it may even be worth more, from an information theoretic viewpoint. The visual aids you use for your talk can make a deep impression (good or bad) on your audience. The best visual aid for this type of presentation is a set of viewgraphs (also known as overhead slides or transparencies). These can be easily generated by a photocopier from any clear original with good contrast. Every major point in your presentation should be represented in some form on a viewgraph. They convey information to the audience and help to prompt the speaker.
Some guidelines for using viewgraphs:
- A horizontal format is somewhat better than vertical; it is easier for the eye to scan horizontally than vertically.
- Use typeset material; MS Word or some other document preparation system is recommended.
- All viewgraphs should be easily readable from anywhere in the room, so large type (14-16 point) should be used to generate them.
- Do not overload your slides. It is better to keep them simple and use a few extra than to cram them full of information.
- On the other hand, each slide should contain more than just a few words. Try to achieve a balance.
- Data, such as tables, graphs, etc., should be particularly clear, uncluttered, well-labeled, and easy to understand.
- Don't put up a slide unless you're going to give the audience enough time to look at it. If you're rushing through them, you have too many.
- On the other hand, if a slide is up too long, it is either too detailed or irrelevant to what is being said. A good balance is usually achieved by a rate between 0.5 and 1 slide per minute.
- A block diagram describing your system or procedure is usually a good way to describe the project. Make sure that any block diagrams are kept simple by combining subsystems into systems, etc., until the diagram is easily understandable.
- You might want to have a felt-tip marker with you in case you need to write on your viewgraphs during the presentation to clarify or emphasize something.
- Take care not to stand near the projector, where you will block the view for a large segment of the audience. It is best to stand near the screen. If you wish to point out details on your slides, use a pointer at the screen.
Remember that your viewgraphs don't have to tell the whole story—that's what you're there for. They should, rather, focus the attention of the audience to key points and provide a basic understanding of how any pieces of the project fit together.
Level of Formality
The word that best describes the impression that you should try to give the audience is "professional." This applies to your appearance, manner of speech, and visual aids. You should dress as if you are going on a job interview. Speak in clear and complete sentences, avoiding slang and obscure technical jargon.
Your viewgraphs should be typeset using some sort of package designed for the presentation of technical materials; the one you are using for your report will probably do nicely, as long as you can select an appropriate font size (or enlarge it on a photocopier). If hand drawings must be used, they should be very carefully prepared.
Once you have determined the content of your talk and visual aids, you must pull it together into a presentation. This will require practice—it’s easy to find yourself tongue-tied the first time you attempt to describe or explain something, even if you understand it well. Here are some pointers for preparing the presentation.
- Introduce yourselves, give the title of your project, and indicate who the advisor is. This information should be presented on a title slide.
- Don't jump into the details of your project until you have given the audience enough introductory and background information to understand what your project is all about.
- If possible, try not to read from your viewgraphs. It is better to use them as cue cards with brief phrases or lists serving to remind you of the topics you wish to discuss. If you find that you absolutely have to read from the viewgraphs, at least try to ad lib a bit of introduction, insight, and/or summary.
- Practice, practice, practice. The first run might be just among the project partners, or in front of some close friends. Then, recruit some ECEs to listen and give you feedback and questions. Ask them to be brutally honest. After a few tries, you should have the length of the presentation down to within a few minutes. Now you are ready to give the presentation for your advisor, who may suggest that you change the whole thing. Do so, for this person will be grading you. Then go back to the beginning of this paragraph and start over.
- Don't go too fast. This is a common problem for nervous presenters. People would rather be a little bored than completely lost; remember that most of your audience may have never even thought about your project before. Make sure that important ideas have time to sink in; give enough time to look at any figures, equations, etc. that may appear in your viewgraphs.
- For multiperson presentations, transitions should be smooth. Lead into the following section ("Now that the problem has been defined, Joan will describe our approach..."); tie into the previous section ("As we have mentioned, verifying Ohm's Law will require some resistors...").
- Try to make your conclusion as upbeat as possible while still being honest. Even a project which does not produce a working system can have educational merit. Be sure to acknowledge anyone who has contributed significantly to the project other than the project team and advisor. Welcome questions.
- Look at the audience. A person speaking from behind a pile of notes is incredibly boring.
The best way to handle questions from the audience is to be prepared. Elicit questions from the practice audiences. Try to anticipate anything that might confuse or intrigue people. Be aware of anything you have done that is unconventional or impractical, and be ready to discuss why. Your advisor may be of some help here.
It is a good idea, if you can anticipate certain questions, to prepare "backup slides" for answering them. For example, there may be derivations, data, circuit diagrams, or whatever that were too detailed for the main body of your presentation, but would serve to answer a tough question quickly and painlessly.
Don't try to snow anyone; if you don't know the answer to a question, say so. Perhaps someone in the audience can provide an answer; ask for a little help if you need it.
Each presentation will be assigned a specific time slot and room; multiple parallel sessions will be held throughout the day. You should attend the entire session; don't just come in for your presentation. One reason is that any canceled presentations will change the time of yours; another is courtesy to the other presenters.
Be sure to contact your advisor immediately if you cannot give your presentation at the assigned time. If your MQP schedule makes a D-Term presentation impossible (e.g. if you finish and graduate in B-Term), see your advisor to schedule a presentation during your final term.
An overhead projector and screen will be available for your use in the presentation rooms; you are responsible for any other equipment you might need for a demonstration (extension cords, etc.) If you plan to do a demonstration, be sure to arrange your apparatus so that it is easily moved into place for your presentation and out of the way when you are done without causing disruption to the proceedings.
You may make your overhead slides in the ECE department office. Transparencies are quite costly, so each group is limited to 15 without charge. Make draft viewgraphs on paper to use in rehearsals; practice with the final versions (and show them to your advisor) before making the actual transparencies.
Plan ahead; there will most likely be a long line on the last few days before presentation day.
Effective presentation skills come with practice; as your career progresses, you will gain more confidence in expressing your ideas to others. This MQP presentation is not meant to be a traumatic experience, but rather a chance to share the results of your work with the WPI community. Be sure to take full advantage of this opportunity by preparing a high-quality presentation.