Technical Talks: Is There Any Way To Make This Stuff Interesting?

by drjim on April 12, 2010

Oh No! Not Another Technical Speech!

Oh No! Not Another Technical Speech!

I don’t know about you, but more and more I’ve been finding myself being asked to deliver speeches that have technical information in them. I’ve got a great deal of self confidence; however, having had to sit through more than my share of boring technical presentations this is the one type of speech that scares me the most. There’s got to be a better way…

You Need To Know Your Purpose

Dr. April Andreas has looked into the problem of why technical speeches are so hard to do well and she’s discovered that one of the reasons is that all too often we have no idea what we are doing.

Every presentation, including technical presentations, is given for a reason. Before the first word comes out of your mouth, you need to decide why you are standing up there talking. Are you trying to teach your audience? Are you trying to explain your results to them so that they can use them? Are you trying to find that one member of your audience who shares an interest in what you’ll be talking about so you can find ways to work with them? Or perhaps your goal is to get people talking about what you’ve presented and maybe scare up your next job offer.

Be Basic

Congratulations – if you’ve prepared for your speech, then you really are the smartest person in the room. However, the problem is that not everyone else is as smart as you are. This means that you need to make sure that you don’t lose them from the get-go. Dr. Andreas suggests that you make sure that everyone in the room, no matter what their background is, can follow the first 1/3 of your speech. This way when you are done everyone will have gotten something out of listening to you.

How About Some Examples?

Depending on what topic you are talking about (room temperature fusion perhaps?), when you are giving a technical talk things can get pretty detailed very quickly. In order to keep as many people on board for as long as possible, take the time to relate what you are talking about to examples that your audience can find in the real world.

In the case of room temperature fusion, one thing to talk about would be the temperature that fusion normally takes place at which is 119,999,727 degrees Celsius. You could compare this to the temperature at the surface of the sun which is about 6,000 Celsius. Clearly fusion is hot stuff.

Pictures Are Good

When you are trying to convey information during a technical presentation, it can be tempting to show your audience lots of equations. When possible, don’t!

Instead, use pictures to make your point or, if possible, animation. Yes, it might look a bit hokey, but you’ll do a much better job of creating a long lasting mental image if you do it this way.

Stop With The Equation Reading

This one should be simple. If you must show an equation to your audience please don’t make the mistake of reading it out to them. Either they’ll get it or they won’t, but your reading of it out to them won’t help matters.

What Does All Of That Data Mean?

This is the cardinal sin of technical presentations: blasting your audience with too much data. If you have to present a lot of data to make your point, then at least include a box somewhere that summarizes what it all means. At the end of the day this is what your audience will remember.

What’s Your Bottom Line?

Speaking of summarizing, you should do the same thing at the end of your speech: tell you audience why what you just told them was important. During any technical presentation your audience can get lost or caught up in the discussion and forget “the big picture”. Help them out by bringing it all together at the end so that everyone will leave having reached the conclusion that you wanted them to get.

How To Get Ready

Preparing to give a technical presentation is just a little bit different from getting ready to give any other type of speech. One of the most important things that you need to do is to very carefully practice how long your speech is going to take. All too often technical presentations can run long and nobody likes that…

You’ll also have to prepare yourself to deal with questions once you are done. The whole purpose of a technical presentation is to convey information and this always generates questions. Practice your answers before you need to give them and you’ll always come across sounding smarter.

Finally, you need to make sure that you show some excitement about what you are talking about. The technical presentations that I remember the best are the ones where the presenter clearly had a deep love for their topic and it showed. If you can convey this to your audience, they’ll listen to your every word.

What All Of This Means For You

There is no need to fear giving a technical presentation; however, you do need to respect it. It’s all to easy to make this type of presentation boring and uninteresting. Taking the time to do it right is easy to do and the results make it worth your time.

You need to make sure that you make your presentation understandable to your entire audience as you start out. Help people stay with you by taking it easy on the equations and using as many pictures as possible. Where possible, relate what you are talking about to real-world things that your audience will know about.

Just having a great technical presentation is not enough, you also need to prepare to deliver it. This means making sure that you’ll be able to cover your topic in the time provided and that you’ll be ready to answer the questions that always come after one of these types of presentations. If you can do all of this, then you just may start to look forward to delivering your next technical presentation.

Question For You: Do you think that a technical presentation should be “dumbed down” so that you don’t lose your audience or should you deliver complex material and lose some of them?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

I’ve always spoken English. I never really spent a lot of time thinking about what it took to speak “good English” because it’s my native tongue. However, when I started working with speakers for whom English was not their first language, I quickly came to understand just how hard it is to give a good speech in English if it’s not your first language. That’s “hard”, but not “impossible”…

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