Recently, I had to make a short presentation. For some reason, maybe reflections while I celebrated my 75th birthday, I was reminded of my first ever technical presentation. As a new graduate engineer, I thought I had the world by the tail and knew a lot about a lot. At this event, I discovered how naive I was.
Associated Electrical Industries (AEI) near Manchester, England manufactured heavy electrical equipment such as steam turbines and generators. In 1966 AEI had over 20,000 employees in the Manchester area and I was one of them. As a company apprentice, I cycled through different departments in order to understand the breadth and depth of the company. That experience was excellent. Seeing so many aspects of electrical engineering helped me to figure out what I wanted to do with my engineering career.
In my second year with the company, I was approached by one of the senior people on the Apprenticeship Board to see if I was interested in entering a ‘paper’ in the yearly contest. He explained to me that the papers would be judged and the first place one would earn the writer £25. As he talked, I thought about how I might be able to prepare such a paper.
I was the musical director for a stage review we apprentices were to perform; on alternate weekends I hiked with the company outdoor club; and I was always working on my photography.
I was a busy guy when not at work, so I said ‘no’.
I thought that was it. Then, a week later, the chap from the Apprentice Board sat down beside me in the cafeteria while I was eating lunch.
“You know, Jack, this is quite a prestigious event for apprentices and we like to see overseas apprentices involved. You chaps always have something different to present and it’s good exposure for the local engineering apprentices.”
As he talked and kept circling back to the £25 honorarium for the winning paper, I thought why not. Surely I could come up with something Canadian that would be of interest. Also, I couldn’t help but think of the enjoyable ways I could spend that £25. By the time we finished our lunch I had agreed to prepare a paper. We shook hands—deal sealed!
Thinking about what to write, I turned away from anything to do with the field of engineering that I was interested in—electronics and automation. The knowledge and experience at AEI in that field was extensive and I was pretty sure I couldn’t write anything unique. I circled back to my summer job after each of my first and second year engineering studies-pipelines. I thought, there is something that the local engineers and apprentices would not have seen before, especially the long pipelines over the expanse of Canadian prairie. I penned a letter to my cousin in Calgary, who was an executive in a pipeline company, and explained what I was doing. I asked him to send along some information and pictures. My idea was to have lots of images of the large pipeline construction on the prairies to enhance my paper. I then settled back into my normal life, working, hiking, photography, and good weekend evenings in the pub. I thought, as soon as I had information mailed back to me, I would get started.
The days rolled on and the deadline for entry approached. I hadn’t started writing, because I was waiting for the information from my cousin. About two weeks before the deadline for the submission of the papers, the apprenticeship people started hassling me. The pressure was building.
A week before the deadline the material from my cousin arrived. It was interesting, from an industry news point of view, but there wasn’t much technical information, nor pictures, the things I’d asked for.
I naively thought the ‘paper’ just had to be well written, have appropriate graphics, and some photographs. I went to work preparing it in that vein. This was 1967 and the technology for printing photographs after getting them out of a magazine was crude, compared to today. I had to cut them out, then stick them into the appropriate spot on pages I created on a typewriter. The results were less than spectacular, but I finished two days before the deadline, so in they went for printing, warts and all.
Next came the announcement in the monthly apprentice newsletter.
APPRENTICES PAPER CONTEST PRESENTATIONS PRESENTED IN THE APPRENTICESHIP HALL FRIDAY, MAY 15, 5:00PM
What! Presentations! For some reason, I knew nothing about the presentation part. I thought it was truly just a matter of submitting a paper.
The day of the presentations arrived. There were three of us presenting and I gave mine last. I was more nervous than I expected, so my talk was nothing wonderful. The images I was projecting on a transparency overhead projector* were difficult to see and not very effective. But then the killer happened—the question and answer period.
Of course the audience was filled with young engineers like myself. Several of them were graduates of Cambridge, where the approach to education requires even undergrads to present papers and defend them. The questions were good—to the point, challenging, and technically probing. I wasn’t prepared for this grilling and I failed—completely. As I stood in front of that audience of my peers, sweating bullets, I swore to myself, never again.
Never again would I try to make a presentation on a subject that I didn’t know thoroughly, nor would I be without equipment that allowed me to present my information in the best possible way. And, never again would I allow myself to be coerced into making a presentation with short notice or when I was too busy and unable to properly prepare.
The scars I carry from that long ago event have earned me the badge of ‘paranoid Jack’ whenever I put on a presentation. I’ve done many presentations and seminars in my day. Now I prepare presentations and supporting paper documents far ahead of the event. Everything is proofed by others. My AV equipment is checked carefully before the event, by me, and I have redundant devices for as many things as I can. This ‘paranoia’ has paid off. Things have gone wrong at my presentations during my career and my preparation has allowed me to recover, on the spot.
I wish I’d learned about this risk-averse approach in a slightly less painful way, back in 1967. Coming in third out of three wasn’t my most brilliant moment.