7 Elements of an Effective Technical Presentation

Christopher Witt —  November 20, 2012

A technical presentation — in the business arena, at least — is about communicating information so people can understand it and put it to use.

A technical presentation first has to be clear. And it has to be clear (understandable) to people who don’t necessarily have the same technical expertise that you do — to people in sales and marketing, in upper management, in finance, in legal affairs.

And a technical presentation has to be, for lack of a better word, actionable. The people listening to it have to be able to do something with the idea being presented — approve, adopt, apply, implement, refine, fund, or buy it.

If you combine those two elements — information that is clear and actionable — you begin to realize why a technical presentation (like every other business presentation) is a proposal of sorts. You’re saying, in effect, “Here’s what I’ve learned through research or experimentation, and this is what I think we should do about it.” (See How to Plan a Technical Presentation.)

An effective presentation is NOT one that presents everything that can be said about the topic, or that is perfect and complete in every detail, or that educates people simply for their own edification. An effective technical presentation is one that gains people’s understanding and support for the ideas you’re presenting. How do you do that?

You use in no particular order (but pretty close to most important to less important)…

The 7 Elements of an Effective Technical Presentation

  1. You
    You — your experience, knowledge, reputation, insight and understanding — are the heart and soul of the presentation. Without you, there is nothing. Hiding in the darkness, pretending your slides are the presentation, speaking in the the third person or the passive voice does not make your presentation more objective or authoritative. Doing so robs it of meaning and interest.
  2. Them
    “They” are the audience. They may be members of a cross-functional team gathered around a conference table, your boss sitting on the other side of the desk, investors listening in on a conference call, or prospective clients. Who they are — their knowledge, responsibilities, concerns, problems, goals — matters as much as who you are.
  3. Your Message
    Your message isn’t what you talk about. (That’s your content.) Your message is highly selective information that is logically and persuasively organized to answer three questions: 1) what do you want the audience to do? 2) why would they want to do it? and 3) how will they do it?
  4. Visual Aids
    Visual aids aren’t limited to PowerPoint slides. (Don’t forget the lowly flip chart or white board.) They are not your script. They are not your talking points. They are a visual representation of your information formatted in a way that illustrates or clarifies your point. (See 10 Tips for Using Visual Aids.)
  5. Delivery
    No one expects you to be a wildly demonstrative or entertaining speaker. (You’re a technical expert, after all, not a motivational speaker.) But you do owe it to your audience, to yourself, and to your material to be 1) somewhat energetic, 2) loud enough, and 3) not distractingly bad. My advice: speak the way you normally do, only bigger and louder than usual.
  6. Q&A
    The way you address questions from the audience determines, more than you think, the effectiveness of your technical presentation. Plan on spending roughly one quarter to one third of your presentation in Q&A. (See How to Handle Questions.)
  7. The Event
    The event encompasses everything from the room set-up to the schedule to agenda. The more you know about the gathering, the better. And you still need to plan on adapting your presentation at the last moment, due to unforeseen circumstances. If, for example, you’re the last speaker of the day and everyone is  already overwhelmed, you’d better know how to make your presentation focused, brief, and to the point.

Can you think of any other elements that are as important?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

3 responses to 7 Elements of an Effective Technical Presentation

  1. Dear Christopher,
    Thanks for the article and I agree with everything you have said (especially thinking about non-powerpoint visual aids). I would like to add a point if I may?
    Often technical presenters can dive down into deep technical areas and stay there for the whole presentation. This would be sheer geek bliss for a chunk of the audience but it would be lost on others. So, I think, its worth doing a series of dives down into deep tech and then re-surfacing to explain in more general language so that the rest of the audience understands where you are going to go next (and maybe what you have just said). When I work helping technical people re-think their presentations its often the simple explanations/analogies that are the most tricky to find but they bring a big reward in getting other people to accept the ideas.

    • John,

      Thanks for your insights. I quite agree. Your point about the reward of “simple explanations/analogies” is right on the mark.

      The question, quite often, is how to satisfy everyone — or most everyone — in your audience, when your audience is often made up of people with wildly different backgrounds. If you talk too technically, you’ll confuse, bore, and turn off the non-technical people. If you talk too generally, you’ll be dismissed by the technical experts for being ignorant and superficial. I agree with your advice, but recommend reversing the order. I suggest that technical presenters explain their concepts at a high level that everyone can understand, and then take the deep dive you’re talking about. But they can’t spend too much time in those deep waters or they’ll lose everyone else, and they can’t go there too often.

      Chris

  2. Nice and concise. I agree. I would add two things to your list: (1) practicing and (2) listening. Effective presenters listen to their audience–listen for actual questions and comments, as well as tuning in to the audience to gauge their reaction, comprehension, etc., and adjusting accordingly. And they can’t do any of that (listening / tuning in) if they’re winging it and under-prepared, which is why practice is a “must.” Practicing for an everyday tech presentation may simply be rehearsing the opening, closing and anything tricky in the middle. But when the stakes are high–presentations to clients or industry conferences–then practicing is a “must.”

    Thanks for reinforcing the important notion that Powerpoint slides aren’t the script or the talking points!