Technical Presenters: From Nerd to Master in 6 Easy Steps

Whether it’s a speech or a webinar, technical presentations need the breath of life to capture an audience’s attention and motivate them to action. Don’t be that boring guy that you made fun of at the last conference. Follow these six steps for your technical presentation strategy and have them cheering instead of snoozing.

You’re sitting in the audience at a medical practitioners conference. The speaker is droning on about the latest therapy for carpal tunnel syndrome and dumping data on you like you’re a Cray supercomputer. You don’t care because you’ve already tuned out and are drawing pictures of the back of the guy’s head who’s seated in front of you. You laugh at your caricature that makes the part in his hair look like the butt of a rhinoceros. Frustration sets in when his head flops down on the writing surface before him, robbing you of your muse and forcing you to finish the pastel from memory.

The professor winds up his talk a brief 47 minutes later and receives polite applause from a yawning, stretching audience that is about half as large as when he began the lecture, reminding you of the scene at your wedding when security gently ushered your Uncle Elmer from the reception hall after he imbibed too heavily and mooned the polka band. Pity quickly replaced entertainment value. You’re speech to the group is tomorrow, entertaining them with the mating habits of tsetse flies and the impact the process has on modern medicine. As you mentally rehearse your opening, it suddenly hits you—“OMIGOD! What if I am this boring?!”

A pathetic state of affairs, no doubt. Feel lucky that you found out before you went on and sedated a few hundred colleagues. In my technical and executive career I’ve had the pleasure (?) to witness dozens of business presentations like the one described above, which, incidentally, is from memory and not imaginary. The scariest part is that if you can bore colleagues who have a modicum of interest in the subject matter, just think what happens when you present this technical prattle to a lay audience. Vital signs weaken and rigor mortis sets in before your second pie chart. If you’re giving a webinar, these rules apply in spades.

Here are the primary keys to avoiding this disastrous fate during your next presentation:

1. Have a Point to Make.

What is the purpose of your presentation? Is it just to give information? Data analysis? Look what I can do in a lab when left alone for four months? Let me suggest something a bit more basic and absolutely necessary for you to succeed in the presentation of ideas. Give the audience the reason why this is important to the world. Say it in clear language; don’t assume that it’s obvious. Your job first and foremost is to answer the unasked question, “Why?” Why am I sitting here? What’s it all about? This tells the people where you’re going and provides a framework for them to look at the tech stuff, trying to fit into your overall purpose. Without this controlling objective, they’ll hibernate on you as soon as the presentation hits a slow spot.

2. Talk to the Audience’s Needs.

You know, it may be really impressive that tsetse flies can mate ten times in a week (I’m making that up, so entomologists, hold your dukes), but what does that do for those who are seated before you at rapt attention? Today’s audiences have a few basic needs that you can tap into. How can what you’re saying save them money, time, or lead to a better quality of life? That last one covers health, feelings, peace of mind and relationships, among other things. Everything in your presentation should lead you to addressing one or several of these human needs. If you don’t, if you stand there and blandly spew information like so much regurgitated spinach, your name will be forgotten before the crowd hits the exit doors.

3. Layer Your Ideas.

There are several key reasons why technical speakers are ineffective. Is the speaker monotone and dreary? Many times she is. Does the presenter cut an impressive appearance? Often the answer is no. The most significant flaw in technical presentations, even to technical audiences, is that people get lost in the details—the data. Information overload kills. Most of the time they’re too polite to say anything, but if you look out to the people and their eyes are glazed over like extras from Night of the Living Dead, Houston, we have a problem. Even if you’re an engineer presenting to engineers, be aware that they didn’t do the same research, so you can even lose the geekiest of geeks.

Look, you can teach a person brain surgery if you introduce ideas one step at a time, step by step. If you have technical slides, don’t clutter a single one with twenty different concepts. Use twenty slides, layering the ideas together as stand alone entities that are woven into a tapestry of conceptual understanding. Talk about the concept, introduce the visual aid, allow it to sink in, and re-emphasize your point before moving on.

4. Stimulate Emotion.

Hopefully your internal purpose is to persuade some form of action on the part of the audience. Professional salespeople, those who live the persuasion game every day, know that people buy based on emotions and justify their actions with facts. As a technical persuader, you have no shortage of facts. Where do you stand on emotions? Make the information personal to the listener. You now know you have to focus on the human needs of the audience, so how do you best drive home the points? The easiest and most effective way is to use personal stories and analogies that talk about elements of life that are important to people—kids, parents, pets, and golf scores. Do everything in your power to draw comparisons between the technical material and the homey, down to earth stuff that creates emotional responses from people. Do you have to make them cry? Laugh? No, but if you do either or both, you’ve got ‘em right where you want ‘em.

5. Request Action.

If you’ve gotten this far, you may have successfully fired up your audience and kept them conscious during your entire talk. Congratulations! Here comes that part that 80% of tech-presenters miss. Ask them to do something; request action from the listener. You see, he may have missed the cues you left during your talk, so now that you have an emotional reaction supported by your wall of facts, tell them exactly what’s expected. Do you want them to vote a certain way? Contribute to an educational foundation? Ride a bike to work to save the atmosphere from fossil fuels? Whatever it is, culminate your talk with a request for action.

6. Q & A.

If you’ve done well, you’ll have plenty of questions. Don’t interpret this as a sign that you didn’t properly explain things; take it as a victory. You have successfully engaged the audience, and now they’re actually thinking and want to know more. If you know your stuff, this is an opportunity to shine, deftly handling questions and points of concern. Q&A is important to any presentation, but for those with technical subject matter, it is essential to leave at least ten minutes at the completion to take questions. If the time allotted runs out and there are still questions, let people ask you after the presentation during the lunch break or via telephone a few days later. Providing listeners with this opportunity enhances your credibility and makes you a sought after speaker for future engagements.

Once upon a time I worked on a senior design project with four other engineers-to-be at the University of Maryland. Our professor encouraged us to enter a design contest at George Washington University. Out idea was a small fluidic (go mechanical engineers!) device that would adjust the flow in an IV line based on the back pressure coming from the patient’s arm. We had a conceptual sketch and a few derivations. We had no data, no working prototype, and no earth shattering principles of scientific discovery. We did have Brian Moore. Brian was one of our five who had worked in the real world and come back to college to get his degree. He was as intelligent as the rest of us but no genius. His hair was prematurely gray and he wasn’t particularly imposing physically, but oh could he speak. The rest of us nominated Brian to be our presenter, gutless bunch that we were. He began with a joke, and basically followed the six steps I’ve given you today. Brian’s presentation was completely different from all of the other team talks. Guess which team won the contest?

Learn how to present technical information effectively and you too might come out the winner in your career.

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