Sandra Lawes MBA DipM DTM
Public Speaking Coach

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Technical presentations to non-technical audiences


Technical presentations to non-technical audiences

Sandra Lawes

It’s taken years of effort, training and experience for you to become an expert in your field. But now, you have to condense your extensive knowledge into an impossibly short timeslot and get your message across to an audience with little or no understanding of your subject.

So here are some ideas that will help.

Why are you giving the presentation?

This is the heart of the matter. Once you are crystal clear about your purpose, everything will start to fall into place.  Sometimes my coaching clients answer this question by saying “The Board asked me to” or “It’s something we always do at the sales conference”. But that doesn’t really help.

You need to dig deeper and find out whether you are speaking to inform, persuade, reassure or ‘galvanise into action’. In the words of Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People you must “Begin with the end in mind”.

Ask yourself the key question:

“What (EXACTLY) do I want my audience to think, know or do when I have given my presentation?”

You are not looking for high level, generic statements. You need to be as precise as possible about your objective for this presentation. Make sure you write or type the answer you decide on at the top of the page or screen you are using to prepare your presentation in the format “When I have done my presentation the audience will…………………………...” And keep referring back to those words as you work.

Perhaps you are pitching to the Board of Directors to secure funding for a critical project. Or maybe you want the sales team to understand the technical aspects of their products so they can beat the competition.  Or you could be speaking to members of a community who are worried about the impact of a proposed new road or airport on their homes and quality of life. There are hundreds of possible scenarios, and each one will have a different context and a different purpose.

Who are you talking to?

This is crucial. You are the technical expert but this does not mean that the members of your audience are either dim or disinterested. They are giving you their attention and they deserve your consideration and respect. They have their own levels of knowledge, skills and education – so it’s up to you to pitch your message accordingly.

Make sure you know the size of your audience, the age and gender mix and any relevant cultural background. If possible, visit the room where you will be speaking and see how it will be set out.

But most importantly, focus on why those people are attending. They will be asking themselves the age-old question “WIFM – What’s in it for me?” - somewhat clichéd but vital nonetheless. Each member of your audience is there for their own reasons - not for yours. What do they know about the subject? What have they been told you are going to speak about? And what are their expectations – consider what you need to tell them not only to meet - but exceed - those expectations.

So what about the presentation itself?

  1. Because there are so many different types of technical presentation, there is no definitive ‘right’ way to deliver it.  But here are some guidelines to give you the best chance of success:
  2. People can’t absorb information as fast as you can speak, especially as you know the subject and they don’t. When time is limited, the temptation is to speak faster and faster to get it all in.  PLEASE DON’T! Better to get a few facts out clearly than gabble your way through everything you could say. Even 150 words a minute will be a challenge for some people to understand.  So be ruthless in pruning your material and make every word count. Resist the temptation to cram in all the detail – focus on the main facts
  3. Structure and signpost your presentation clearly and logically. Give ‘the big picture’ first, then zoom in to an appropriate level of detail
  4. Tell people upfront how you want to handle their questions – as they arise or at the end? If you decide that it’s better to take questions at the end, make sure you allow enough time or you will leave your audience feeling irritated, even angry and certainly dissatisfied!
  5. Have a strong opening, some clearly defined main points with appropriate supporting evidence and a memorable conclusion. The amount of information you can include will depend on the time available, your objectives and who you are speaking to. Keep asking yourself “So what?” as you think about each point. This will make sure that you focus on what the information means for your listeners
  6. It’s fine to show enthusiasm and some passion with your voice and gestures, but don’t get carried away. Pause at key points - allow your audience to take in what you are saying and its implications
  7. Avoid using jargon, abbreviations and three letter acronyms. Some speakers feel using these make them look knowledgeable, but they usually distract your audience and can even lead to misunderstandings and possibly annoyance
  8. Find examples and metaphors to illustrate your key points in a way that is relevant to your audience. Helpful phrases are “which means that…………..” and “put simply……………….”
  9. Think hard about your visual aids. MUST you use PowerPoint or is there a better way? If you do use slides, use BIG fonts. Clear, simple and relevant graphics work best. How many times have you heard speakers say “You probably won’t be able to read this at the back”?  Why do they bother using those slides? A slide should be an outline showing only key points, not detail. You can fill in the gaps as you speak, translating the information and giving it meaning for your audience.
  10. People can’t read and listen at the same time, so don’t make the mistake of reading out the points on your slides. Reading from your slides will also mean you have your back to the audience. This is not only rude, but you will lose eye contact with your audience and this causes instant disengagement
  11. When you move, everyone looks at you. Stand still if you want them to look at the screen
    • Technology can be either your friend or a deadly enemy. If you are using it, make sure:
    • You have enough time to set up (nothing ruins the effectiveness of your presentation more than having to fiddle with a computer while your audience looks on with increasing frustration)
    • You know how to set up the equipment

      You can get technical support if there are problems

    • You can move around the speaking area and still manage to change the slides (use a hand held slide changer) or start the video clips

    • You rehearse out loud – over and over again.

  12. Rehearse and keep to the time you have been allocated. Speakers who over-run appear unprofessional and lose the respect of their audience (and their attention, as you may be making them late for appointments etc.)
  13. Prepare hand-outs re-stating your main points and giving more detail than is possible during the presentation. But don’t give anything out until the end of your session or your audience will be busy reading and will not be listening to you
  14. Leave your audience with a powerful reminder of your purpose without referring to the minutiae of the technical detail.

And afterwards?

Your work does not finish when you speak the last line of your presentation. Quite often, technical issues require considerable follow-up.  People may want to ask more questions, hold further meetings to review key aspects, cascade the details to other interested parties or discuss the implications of the complex information you have given them.

Assuming the presentation has gone well, you will be in a strong position to manage this – by communicating the presentation to other major influencers online or in person, offering further briefings or providing additional information.

Keeping your original purpose firmly in mind, you can make these ongoing communication opportunities work fully to your advantage, ensuring you achieve your objectives – and more!