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It's not what you say it's the way that you say it


It never ceases to amaze me just how poor many of the presentations by civil engineers at the Institution's evening meetings can be.

Without naming names or embarrassing individuals it is fair to say that ICE members suffer far too often.

For an industry with such a wealth of visual material at its fingertips there is no excuse for putting audiences through hours of tedious verbal explanation delivered with little passion.

This issue's report on the ICE communications competition, which NCE sponsors, highlights the problem. The event aims to promote and encourage better presentational skills by showcasing and rewarding the best.

This year's judges said that while the teams did well enough, they all failed 'to really engage the audience on a personal as well as a technical level'. Not even a joke or two to break the ice, they complained.

The ICE recently spent a small fortune on audio-visual equipment for its Telford lecture theatre at Great George Street.

The podium now bristles with technology, although, sadly for many audiences, the presenter's flustered struggle with the Powerpoint screen is the closest they get to glimpsing the personality on stage.

But the problem does not stop with lectures at the ICE. An impersonal approach to communication unites the profession. There seems to be a consistent failure to judge what the audience wants.

Take for example the recent press conference by engineers trying to explain why the Millennium footbridge in London was wobbling. The finest minds were on show with graphs and tables to explain what was happening and why. Unfortunately only about three other people in the room understood.

Lord Foster's innocuous soundbite, made shortly after, thus grabbed the headline - and probably for no reason other than that the audience understood what he was saying. He judged his audience better and gave them facts they could use.

This is just one example and of course there are many more.

For instance, a presentation of the facts about the Heathrow Express collapse was made two weeks ago to the world press and then later to a learned audience of tunnellers. But the style of presentation meant neither event really added much to just reading the report's summary.

The fact is that it does not take much to change a dull presentation into one that an audience can bear to sit through.

The recent launch the ICE's equal opportunities forum ICEFLOE bears this out. A succession of talking heads was followed by a simple slide presentation - but set to music.

This two-minute interlude really grabbed attention because it entertained as well as informed.

One member of the audience actually thanked the presenter - the ICE's Shona Cooper - for breaking out of the usual mould and daring to play music at the ICE. Regardless of the content, people at least left with a memory of the event.

While I am not for one moment suggesting that the civil engineering world follows the current trend of replacing substance with spin, as a profession we could do much to improve delivery of the message.

Civil engineering has a voice - the challenge it not just to make it heard, but to make it understood and remembered.

Antony Oliver is deputy editor of NCE

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