Presenting Design Concepts: How Mechanical Engineers Can Sell Slam-Dunk Ideas

by Gary McCormick
- Sep 8 2015 - 5 min read

If you’re like most mechanical engineers, you entered the field because you like solving problems and making things. That’s the fun part of the job. But other aspects of mechanical engineering are necessary to support the designing-cool-stuff part, and although they might not be as interesting, they don’t have to be unpleasant. One such task is presenting design concepts.

Whether you are pitching to VC angels for startup funding or presenting to your company management about an ongoing project, presenting technical information—often to nontechnical people—is an important, and challenging, part of a mechanical engineer’s job. Keeping the following basics in mind can ensure your presentation goes smoothly.

Know Your Audience

This is the single most important factor to consider when preparing a design presentation. Any time you present technical information, you have to be aware of your audience’s level of expertise. Presenting to “money people” or management (even engineering managers, who may be years removed from actual design work) usually requires a broader, big-picture type of approach with less technical nitty-gritty. Too much emphasis on technical details with a nontech audience, and they will stop following you and start thinking about their dinner reservations or afternoon tee time.

I recently served on a jury for a case that called a mechanical engineer as a witness to present expert testimony. All his talk of three-axis accelerometers and moment arms was meat on the table to me. And thanks to his communications skills, my fellow jurors, none of whom had a technical education, also followed—and understood—his testimony. He kept the explanations fairly simple, without talking down to his audience, and the results reflected his skill.

know_your_audienceBut if your audience does comprise other engineers, you can get into the nuts-and-bolts technical issues—the stuff you really like to talk about—without fear of losing their attention.

“When you’re presenting to your peers, you’re looking for suggestions and ideas on ways to improve your design and make it more manufacturable,” says Elise Moss, senior mechanical engineer at Newisys. “If you’re working in the same company, they might be working on similar projects, and they may have parts or assemblies or purchased components that you can cannibalize to make your project easier to manufacture or cheaper to produce. So when you’re presenting to other engineers, the goal is to get ideas to improve your design.”

Know Your Product

The types of questions you may have to field during and after a design presentation vary depending upon your audience, so the better you know all aspects of the subject matter, the better-equipped you are to field questions.

Alternative concepts (especially lower-cost alternatives, if your audience includes bottom-line-type management or budget people), materials, manufacturing resources, potential materials suppliers or parts vendors, safety issues, schedules—all are fair game for questions. You might not necessarily include them in your pitch, but have the information in your hip pocket. In-depth knowledge of the concept and preparation based on the makeup of your audience are the best way to be prepared for questions.

What if you are asked a question that you don’t have the answer to, at least not in the moment? As a young engineer, I had to present to the head of a government agency, a man with a reputation for being short-tempered and impatient with waffling engineers. After watching him thoroughly dress-down a coworker for his lack of knowledge, I knew what to do when I couldn’t answer a question on the spot (my mother didn’t raise any fools): I responded that I didn’t have that information at hand, but I would transmit the information at the earliest possible opportunity. My answer satisfied the customer, and I left the podium with my pride intact.

presentation_materialsMoral of the story: Take action to get the answer, and get it to the person asking as soon as you can. Hemming and hawing makes you look like you are hiding something, at worst, and, at best, gives the impression that you are not well-prepared for the presentation.

Tailor Your Presentation Materials to the Subject

The most common presentation method is the ubiquitous Microsoft PowerPoint. Slavishly following PowerPoint’s lead usually results in information-sparse, outline-oriented lists that presenters then read to their audiences, a technique derided by premier information specialist Edward Tufte.

A slideshow can be a viable presentation method, but rule No. 1 is: Don’t read your slides. Prepare a narrative, which is your main information source; let the slides present basic points; and then deliver that narrative as the meat of your presentation.

Of course, engineers can usually do better than a slideshow. Utilize 3D graphics, computerized animation, or even 3D-printed prototypes to demonstrate your concepts. Engineers excel at visualization, so when presenting a design concept, put those powers of visualization to work to help those who don’t possess them.

When presenting to his manufacturing clients, Scott Wertel of Wertel Enterprises, LLC, finds that those visualizations are key. “Share a screen, if you can, so it’s live, and you can visualize the model,” he says. “Hide and show things so the client can actually get a viewpoint. The focus is always very much, ‘Your operator is standing here. Visualize the product going through the machine. Visualize what the operator is doing. Here’s why it’s better; here’s why it’s safer; here’s what your throughput is going to be.’ It really helps, too, if I’ve modeled up a mannequin so they can see how the person is standing around the equipment.”

Courtesy ADEPT Airmotive (Pty) Ltd.

Prepare, Practice, Present

Not everyone is a natural public speaker, no matter how well you know your subject matter. The best way to combat that fear is to prepare thoroughly and practice your pitch beforehand. Preparation breeds confidence, and there is no substitute for running through your presentation a few times with colleagues or friends.

But that’s not all. If possible, check out the venue and the equipment beforehand to make sure that everything is connected and operating properly. It’s surprising how a little thing like reaching confidently for the switch on the projector as you start your presentation can get you out of the starting blocks smoothly—and how quickly things can run off the rails if you start with technical glitches.

If presenting design concepts is going to be a regular feature of your job, make it a strength. Work at it if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Take a class at the local college, find a chapter of Toastmasters International, whatever it takes to develop that skill. You may be an excellent engineer, but if you cannot communicate the pertinent information about your design to others—especially nontechnical folks—you might as well have a blank sheet of paper.

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