Some time ago, I had an opportunity to make a presentation to upper management about ergonomics. At the time, I was young, daring, intimidating, and a bit arrogant. I spent a lot of time gathering information, reviewing statistics, generating cost data, and examining reports. After I spouted incident rates and cost-benefits, upper management was left dumbfounded.

I thought my technically superior presentation would leave them with no choice but to green light my ergonomics proposal. Instead, I was shot down. That's because I went over their heads - I learned later that my material had been too complex and detailed. Instead of dazzling them, I baffled them.

As a result of this and several other subsequent failures, I discovered that I needed to simplify my presentations. Here are five basic steps to clearly and succinctly communicate basic concepts, provide essential details, and clarify your material through questions and interaction.

Start with an outline

Start on the conceptual level; provide only an outline of the subject matter in a few jargon-free sentences. Relate your basic idea in a skeletal format so the audience can later attach the details that you'll present.

Use analogies

Compare your concept to something familiar to the audience. This helps form a mental picture of your subject matter.

I once was asked to explain the mathematics of the ergonomics formula. I launched into a discussion of how the body is nothing more than a lever system, much like a stick figure, and that ergonomic calculations are based on empirical data.

Keep your analogy simple and don't dwell on it. Remember, it's only an example of what you're discussing - not the focus of your presentation.

Encourage interaction

Before providing details, test your listeners' level of understanding. Ask your audience for more examples of similarities between your concept and the analogy you used. In fact, ask for additional analogies. This is how you can develop a common framework to later provide those more technical details.

Provide essential details

Too often, presenters feel compelled to tell everything they know about a subject. Don't cram all the information that you have learned in the past few months or years into a one-hour presentation. A "data dump" will overload your audience, causing some of the important information to be lost. You'll see it in their eyes - "No more, please!"

Instead, deliver the muscle without the fat. Use simple charts and overheads (25 words or less per overhead) to support and outline the basics as you begin to cover the essential details. More complex details, charts, statistics, and information can be provided sparingly during the presentation and afterward using handouts.

Answer questions

Leave time at the end for questions. It gives you the opportunity to get a feel for your audience's level of understanding, and provides you with a chance to clarify and provide additional details. Remember, the degree to which your audience is able to understand technically complex material depends largely on how you communicate what you know. These five steps enable you to clearly and succinctly present basic concepts, focus on essential details, and clear up any confusion through questions and group interaction.

Sidebar: Do you have a story to tell?

by George Swartz, CSP I have an exercise that I use during forklift training seminars called, "Everyone has a forklift story." I start in the corner of the room and ask each student to relate a significant forklift event or injury to the class that occurred at their warehouse, plant, or construction site. These stories provide the foundation for the subject of forklift safety.

In general, the use of personal anecdotes is an effective way to get your employees involved in a training program. Right from the start you've created a heightened awareness of the hazards in your workplace relating to the training topic. Using personal experiences and getting your students talking at the outset is a way to grab their attention. Compare that to the effect of a lecturing instructor trying to paint a picture of the dangers. I've seen the impact of reality evident on students' faces as their peers relate incidents.

Telling examples

Here are a few real-world stories told by students in forklift training sessions. They were either derived from incidents that occurred in their facility or taken from accounts in trade journals.
  • In a warehouse, a member of management began to escort two female applicants through the building. A lift truck going too fast for conditions struck both of the visitors. One was killed and the other suffered serious injuries that kept her hospitalized for months. The operator was new and had not been given any formal training.
  • An ex-Navy veteran related a story of two of his shipmates who were seriously injured while working on an elevated platform in a large compartment of the ship. While working from the platform, which was more than 20 feet in the air, the ship hit a large wave and the forklift and cage tipped over spilling both seamen onto a metal floor.
  • A lift truck operator was carrying a double load of palletized material and could not see around it. Rather than operating in reverse, he leaned his head out of the left side of the truck and drove into a metal door frame. He suffered fatal injuries to his head.

Driving the points home

You can follow up on personal accounts like these by pointing out broader statistics to drive home the threat of hazards. In the case of forklift safety, you can make the point that these stories are only a sampling of the thousands of industrial powered truck incidents that occur each day. There are more than one million powered industrial trucks in the workplace with more than 1,250,000 operators - many of these operators have never received formal training. OSHA's new operator training standard (1910.178(1)) will hopefully reduce the 100 fatalities and 95,000 injuries that occur each year.

Whether the topic is forklift safety or numerous other issues, when operators and supervisors are not trained to recognize unsafe conditions or behaviors, injuries will usually occur. I encourage you to tell stories as a part of your training to remind everyone that the hazards are real and there may be consequences for non-compliance with safe operating rules.

George Swartz, CSP, has been the director of safety for Midas International for 22 years. He serves as the vice president of the Business and Industry Division of the National Safety Council and is also on the Council's Board of Directors. Swartz has authored two books - Forklift Safety, 2nd Edition and Warehouse Safety - both published by Government Institutes of Rockville, MD.