How to Make Technical Presentations Easy
Last week I gave a talk to post-graduate students of George Brown College. I was talking about managing analytics in ongoing business operations. It wasn't my first time presenting to students, but it was the first time that it actually felt less like a lecture and more like an exciting learning experience. And that's because I focused on the experience that the audience actually had, instead of just focusing on the audience.
Keeping the attention on
The talk was about an hour long. A whole hour! I had a lot of things to share; most of the material was new to the audience, and quite novel in general. It takes a lot of brain power to remember the content of an hour-long talk! I know this from my own experience.
I'm a big fan of audio books. My obsession with them has been with me for my entire life, since the time when I was too young to be able to read. Currently, I'm ‘reading’ (listening to) about 50 books a year on business topics alone. These are practical books, not novels. Reading this kind of book is a really effective way to learn. One thing that I’ve noticed is that a single audio book chapter is usually about 15-20 minutes long. And after listening to one chapter, my mind starts to wander and I won’t be listening any more, even if the audio continues to play. Attention and learning cannot continue for hours. Our minds need a break.
So I broke my talk into several parts, each about 10 minutes long. After each part I would tell a story, that wasn't particularly informative, but rather, entertaining. I used stories to give a break from learning, but also to prepare the minds of those in the audience for the next part of the presentation. My stories were like bridges to the next part of my talk.
Dealing with a diverse audience
Typically, when the topic of the conversation is very technical, a few people in the audience will be turned off from the start. They know that technical stuff (like writing code, or data analysis) isn't something they can readily do. As a result, under the stress of potentially being unable to process the information being presented, they simply don’t try. And my talk is just background noise to them.
To prevent this from happening, early on in the presentation, I tell a story or an anecdote from my own life. Family, children, daily life, something that everyone has experience of and can relate to. This gives me a chance to connect with the entire audience. It builds trust, and reduces the chances of coming across as a person they can't understand. Once I reach them on this level, I can then bring in the rest of the talk – so long as I can keep the technical jargon down.
The story has to be interesting, and personal, but also easy to relate to. It’s good if it can bring smiles to faces, but I never plan jokes because I still want it to sound professional.
Adding an element of surprise
A general outline of the talk is something like this: a deep dive into the topic (~10 min), followed by a personal story, another 10 minutes of learning, followed by another story (a business example),
I’ll switch between learning and stories to keep the attention. But at some point, I have to add an element of surprise to spice things up. Why? People are generally interested in learning, but if they don't have one thing to take away, they will forget the talk. How to make people remember? Surprise them!
Hollywood gets it right. Take almost any movie and you will find the following: things happening, people talking, things happening, people talking, a big surprising thing happening, people talking... What do people remember? They typically would be able to recall at least the surprising element of the movie.
And there is an extra perk to the surprise element too. If they are really surprised by what you have showed them, they are likely to share it with their friends. So your story will outlive the talk!
Yes, it is hard to surprise people with a technical talk. But if you make the story compelling, you may just manage it! For example, the talk I gave last week was about website analytics. I had a chart that showed that a particular segment of a website audience, about a quarter of visitors to the site, don't convert. There is nothing surprising about this.
I played with the chart for a little bit, and here is what I came up with: since 25% isn't a shocking number in itself, but is a number that I want them to think about, I put it into the context of the population of a city. I said: "If the number of people coming to the website was equal to the number of people living in our city, how many do you think we are unable to convert?"
I made a big chunk of the image of the city disappear off the screen. That raised eyebrows! People don't feel anything about the actual number -1/4 or 25%. But they do feel some emotion about their own city, and making a chunk of it disappear off the map surprised them! It changed their perception about number 25%.
It is almost always possible to engage an audience in conversation. The easiest way to engage people is to ask questions. Asking questions is a powerful tool in the hands of the presenter, and I like to use it.
I put considerable time into selecting my questions carefully, so that the conversation doesn't drive attention away from my presentation. I select my questions in a way that makes people guess what I am about to say or reveal: "What do you think happened next?” I ask.
People like to guess. It also keeps the attention on the topic and helps to bring back people whose attention I just lost.
Visual materials: illustrating vs displaying
Most presenters use slides. They help to engage with the audience on a visual level. But slides can also work against the presenter. If slides are distracting, boring, or ugly, they may give your audience the wrong idea about your talk.
I use slides to illustrate what I say. After I finish writing my script, I typically try to relate it as though I’m telling someone a story. As I'm doing it, if I feel like grabbing a marker and drawing a picture on the white board, it means my story needs a slide.
Speaking your presentation to someone, or even just a part of it, is a powerful way to test if people will understand what you say without looking at a slide. It is also an effective way to practice, and get some feedback. I almost never tell people that I'm about to ‘present’ to them. I blend parts on my presentation into the conversation and see if they resonate.
One last tip: when you do make your slides, don't try to fit them into existing templates. Start with a blank slide, and let your subconscious decide where to put the content, and how. Not only does this make your presentation unique, it forces you to focus on your message instead of just filling a template.
Also, don't limit yourself to Power Point. I design my presentations as web pages, simply because I know how to make a good web page. I've seen powerful presentations that contain only images. I've seen others that contain only text. You don't have to be an artist; use the medium you are most familiar with.