Presenting technical information to a non-technical audience
17 May 2016
How can we present a message that non-technical audiences understand? Dave Linehan outlines five simple rules for delivering technical presentations that are clear, convincing and memorable
In today’s world, people with technical backgrounds, including engineers and scientists, are being challenged more and more frequently to give technical presentations to others. Giving a presentation to the bunch of techies who have already bought into a project is one thing, but often we are being asked to speak to people with little or no technical expertise, or indeed no background to a project.
Translating the results of our project to the language of a layperson rather than other technical colleagues requires a different mind-set. Connecting with an audience to push them to action or to a decision requires a very different approach than simply doling out technical information on a set of PowerPoint slides.
Nothing will bore an audience more than if we jump into a jargon-filled and overly-technical presentation. On the other hand, we cannot simply decide to remove all the technical details and assume that our audience will be able to make sense of it all.
How can we present a message that our non-technical audience understands? How can we present the results of our project in the form of a confident and engaging pitch? This article outlines five simple rules for delivering technical presentations that are clear, convincing and memorable.
Five rules for technical presentations
Rule 1: Audience research makes it easier
The first rule for success in ANY presentation is to understand the needs of your audience. As you are preparing for a presentation, it is your job to figure out WHY the audience cares about the information you’re presenting.
The audience’s knowledge level, experience, learning style and attitudes should affect how you shape and present the material. For example, if you are explaining an emerging technology to our company’s Board of Directors, they are probably more interested in how it can be applied and what that means to the bottom line, not the ins and outs of how the technology actually works.
Knowing who you’re talking to is as important as knowing what you’re talking about. Here are some questions to ask yourself when researching the audience:
• What does the audience already know about the topic?
• How much knowledge can I take for granted?
• How much background will I have to explain?
• Will the audience understand basic jargon?
• What is their learning style?
• What is their stake in the project?
• How will my presentation affect their work?
Rule 2: A clear objective goes a long way
Once you have identified what interests the audience, the next step is to clearly define what you want your presentation to accomplish. What do you want your audience to do as a result of the presentation? What is your objective? Do you want them to:
• Challenge assumptions or confirm them?
• Implement a procedure or approve a proposal?
• Give the go ahead for the next step of research?
While non-technical speakers are often ‘light’ on content, presenters with a technical background more commonly fall into the trap of trying to present too much material. The distinction between what to say, and what not to say, will become obvious once you have clearly defined the objective of your speech.
Rule 3: Keep it simple, stupid
Now that you know what you want the audience to do, you can get to work on creating content. As presenters, we need to crack the code on how to present our technical information in a way that appeals to the audience. It is important to avoid going into extensive detail on your project, particularly technical detail. This will be a major turn-off for the audience and will ruin your chances of being remembered.
Often the best approach is to start with a summary of the most important things the audience should know. Then back this information up with a couple of appealing props, pictures or stories that drive the message home in a persuasive way. Simple graphics are a great way to explain technical concepts. The main point here is to choose simple ways to engage the audience while sticking to your objective. Don’t be afraid to be unique!
Rule 4: Real-world examples bring it to life
Using real-world examples is definitely one of the most effective ways to make your presentation stand out to a non-technical audience. If you are talking about a technical concept, try to ‘translate’ it into something that a layperson can understand. Strong examples are more persuasive than piles of numbers. Take advantage of that.
Switch between example or anecdote, and lecture and interaction. For example, beginning with a clear, simple chart on a slide will show the trend of the data and give notice that your evidence is solid. Then turn off the PowerPoint slide and tell a story using a real-world example that makes the data come to life.
Rule 5: Less is more
Finally, it can be tempting to want to give the audience all the information, but you need to focus on only your key message. Sure some of the audience may want more information than what you’ve presented, perhaps some of the technical details. That’s no problem! At the end of your presentation, you can include a slide that tells them where to go to get this extra information, perhaps the full technical document, the scientific report, or specifications. Add your contact details for any detailed follow-ups.
Here are five simple takeaways to help you with delivering better technical presentations to non technical people:
1. Audience research makes it easier;
2. A clear objective goes a long way;
3. Keep it simple, stupid;
4. Real-world examples bring it to life;
5. Less is more.
Effectively presenting technical messages to non-technical audiences poses a challenge for even the most seasoned speaker. Do it well and your audience will leave the presentation feeling informed, and grateful for your time.
What steps do you take when preparing a technical presentation? If you have any feedback on this post, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck with your presentations!
Dave Linehan is an energy (electrical) engineer working at EirGrid. He is a member of Engineers Toastmasters, where he was recently awarded the distinction of Competent Communicator. Dave is the current vice chairman of the Young Engineers Society. Since March 2015 he has been busy developing CommunicateYouBlog.com as a go-to resource for all the tools and techniques needed to master effective and impactful public speaking.http://www.engineersjournal.ie/2016/05/17/technical-presentations-skills/http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/1111.pnghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/1111-300x300.pngJobscareer,Communications