Technically Speaking…Don’t be too Technical

Rules for creating captivating technical presentations

I once attended a presentation given by one of the Ottawa area's newest success stories. I was sitting in the audience with over 100 people. Half of them were corporate decision-makers, with a few techies thrown in for good measure.

By the first break, almost half the audience had left. (Most notably the half containing the decision makers), and the best part of the show was still to come. Far too much detail was introduced too early. Additionally the audience had a difficult time relating what they already knew about the technology to what was being presented.

To avoid these problems, learn to explain what you do in one clear concise sentence, and then apply the same technique to explaining the key points of your next topic. When preparing your presentation, strip through details. Instead, paint pictures with big blocks and broad strokes.

By comparing the technical concepts to objects and circumstances with which the audience is already familiar, the message is absorbed much more easily. For example, I recently spoke on E-mail security and introduced private key/public key encryption. Sounds complicated and very technical right? Well, put simply, an E-mail public signing key is like your signature on file with the bank. It is used to verify your identity. To help illustrate a secure E-mail message I passed a lock box and an unsealed envelope through the audience. The lock box arrived intact. Everyone understood the benefits of security and the process itself without the need for a complicated explanation.

Find out about the attendee's hot buttons. By attending your presentation will they save time, money, reduce risk? Are they even concerned about the risk from which you are trying to protect them? As an example, ten years ago no one cared about the year 2000 bug, and even fewer care about it now.

Your audience should not have to make a "paradigm shift" to understand the key points of your presentation. Your message should be as easy to understand as learning to use a hammer--no instructions necessary. Your presentations should be like showing someone how to hit a nail--simple and straightforward. If they are interested in the physics behind the process they will ask.

As technical people we all tend to take for granted just how much we know. Consider your product, service or solution from the perspective of someone outside of your world. Remember that computers are not the only technical subjects. Accounting, Manufacturing, management and medicine are also very technical.

When planning a presentation:

  • Discover the attendees' hot buttons.
  • Keep your presentation at a high level. Tell a story.
  • Offer a breakout session for more technical details.
  • Don't introduce details too early.
  • If you find yourself painting pictures in the air with your hands, you need a picture.
  • Finally, make the event lively and fun. Get the audience involved.

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