The Hazards of Technical Presentations

By Susan de la Vergne

Technical presentations are fabulous examples of public speaking! Engineering and tech presenters are funny, concise, and engaging. Most of them can’t wait to grab a microphone, fire up their succinct, well-designed PowerPoint slides and launch into an hour or two of riveting information transfer!


Perhaps the experience is more like this: “Ho-hum. I’m going to a technical presentation. Wake me up when it’s over. If there’s anything I need to know from the over-packed slides and the dry list of data points, somebody let me know, okay? Otherwise, I’ll be checking email in the back row.”

What are people in the audience at your presentations thinking? Are they looking forward to an engaging, organized, clear, confident presentation they’ll remember? Or are they expecting a flat, hesitant, wandering, drab presentation, one they’ll have to work hard to pay attention to?

When technical presentations fall flat, it’s often because the presenter isn’t particularly aware of his (or her) audience. He’s talking at them, not with them. He’s got a stack of slides to get through and a list of points to cover. When that’s done, he’s done. Whether the audience gets it, remembers it, is transformed by it, or ready to take some kind of action, that’s not the presenter’s problem. He got to the last slide. He’s done. He gets to sit down, leave the room, or make way for the next presentation.

If that sounds like a problem you’ve seen, or a problem you have, here are a couple of things you can do to be more effective in front of a group:

1) Think in advance of what you want your presentation to accomplish, what you want the outcome to be—for your audience. In other words, when you’re all done with your presentation, how will you know you’ve been successful? It’s not just because it’s over, but it’s because something happens to/for your audience. For example—

They’re prepared to do something they couldn’t do before.
They’re inspired.
They stop worrying about something.
They start worrying about something.

What outcome do you want? That’s how you know you’ve been successful.

2) Remember that your audience is part of the presentation. Talk to and with the audience. Not at them, around them or over them. Ask them questions. Allow time for them to answer. Build a “pop quiz” into your material—a good technique to use to gauge whether they’re getting it or not. Encourage their questions, and be patient. You may be worried that taking time to ask questions and take questions means you won’t get to your last slides. But think about it this way: Would you rather skip your last slides so you can make sure everyone is onboard with what you’ve gone through so far? Or would you rather just go through all the slides and to heck with whether everyone gets it?

Making a successful (engaging, memorable, well-organized) presentation is tough no matter what the subject matter is. When the material is technical, the challenge is even greater. Let the audience be your guide. What do they need? What do they understand? How well are they getting it? Keep your focus on them, and you’re more likely to reach, teach, and persuade—which are the outcomes you want.

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