As presenter, one of the most challenging presentations to deliver is the technical presentation. They have a unique set of challenges that you don’t find in any other type of presentation. The first challenge is typically the presenter is the stereotypical geek, someone who is not a naturally gifted with charisma and confidence. Couple this with a subject which is inherently dry, and an audience that has varying interest or understanding on the subject and you can start to see why technical presentations are one of the most challenging presentations to deliver.
Understanding that technical presentations have a unique set of challenges, how can you give yourself the best chance of delivering an informative, interesting, and enjoyable technical presentation for everyone?
1. Don’t assume the audience knows what you know
One of the major challenges with technical presentations is to know what level of detail to cover. Whether it’s comfort or whether it’s complacency too often speakers deliver technical presentations at level that the audience doesn’t understand.
The audience is not interested or impressed by a presenter who stands in front of them and spews jargon and technical detail which they cannot understand. Often your audience will sit politely and patiently, with a glazed look on their face and endure your talk. You won’t know that you have bored your audience until you reach the end and they quietly file out of the room without asking you a single question. Both you and your audience have just wasted valuable time achieving nothing…
The key is to understand who will be in your audience. Your audience will have a variety of people, each with their own levels of experience and understanding on your topic. But if you can prepare and deliver a presentation that is understood by at least 70% of your audience you will be successful in delivering a presentation that is understood, and not considered a waste of time by anybody.
2. Compare your concept to something your audience knows/understands
A true expert is someone who can take a difficult subject and translate it so that those who are not experts can understand it. The metaphor is one of the best tools to utilize in a technical presentation to help position you as an expert in your subject – someone who can take their technical knowledge and translate it into something understood and appreciated by others.
There is some work involved in identifying an appropriate metaphor, but the reward will come at the conclusion of your presentation with an appreciative audience who will consider you the “guru” on your particular topic. For a great resource on how to develop good metaphors check out the book Metaphorically Selling by Anne Miller.
3. Keep your slides clear
One of my favourite examples of what not to do in a technical presentation is the application developer who includes lines of code in their PowerPoint slides! What benefit is there in displaying lines of code on the screen for your audience to read? Unless you are showing something VERY specific that needs that level of detail there is nothing to be gained by displaying such detail. Your audience will not have the ability (or interest) to decipher the detail they are being bombarded with.
With everything you display on the screen ask yourself this question “Is this slide for the benefit of audience understanding or is this slide for my benefit?” If the answer is “This slide is crucial to audience understanding” then keep the slide. However if it’s any hesitation as to who will benefit from seeing the slide then dump it! You’ll only confuse and bore your audience!
4. Make diagrams/schematics relevant
Along similar lines as point three, this relates specifically to diagrams. Often diagrams will be displayed to assist audience understanding, and as the saying goes a picture can replace a thousand words. However the issue with most diagrams is that the presenter wants to reference a small section of the diagram. The result is your audience will head off on a journey of discovery as the try and decipher and understand the rest of the diagram, leaving you; the presenter talking about one aspect while the audience is thinking about another.
The key is to display only the part of the diagram or schematic that is relevant for what you are discussing on the screen. I know that this may mean your presentation will take longer to prepare as you tweak your diagrams and slides but as we have covered above your audience will appreciate your efforts and they will elevate you to guru status.
5. You don’t have to be 100% accurate
This might sound like heresy at first glance, and I’m certainly not advocating you distort the truth or provide intentional misinformation. Techies and engineers work in a binary environment where things are right or wrong – it’s the nature of the job. Ask any developer and they will rightly tell you their program will compile or it won’t, there is no middle ground. That’s life in the technical arena; but when we move into the arena of presentation skills we move away from a binary black or white world into an environment where there are many “shades of grey”.
If you try and cover the detail required to be 100% accurate you could easily deliver presentations lasting hours. Too often technical presentations are like drinking from a fire hydrant; too much information flowing too quickly!
Audiences can’t handle receiving all the information you know about a subject – you need to accept that the detail we leave out will not be missed. You need to focus on only the detail that will benefit the audiences understanding. If anybody wants/needs more detail offer a follow up conversation or presentation at a later date.
Too often technical presentations fail to deliver what they set out to achieve. By following the steps outlined above you will deliver technical presentations that exceed the expectations of your audience and elevate you in the eyes of your colleagues. These simple steps will ensure that your technical presentations will be understood and appreciated by audiences (whether they are techies or not!).