Archives For Technical Presentations

Master the art of small talkSmall talk is the foundation on which every other type of conversation builds.

It requires skill, especially—but not solely—for introverts.

Small talk is what most of us do most of the time. We simply talk to each other without an agenda. We chat. We converse. We shoot the breeze.

Here are seven guidelines to help you become better at small talk

1. Be Prepared

Just because there’s no agenda doesn’t mean you can’t prepare yourself for small talk.

Before going to dinner with friends or to a networking event or to drinks after work with colleagues, think of things you might talk about.

Who’s going to be there? What do you know about them, their interests, and their recent activities? What would you like to know about them? What would you be interested in talking to them about?

2. Start with a Greeting

Sounds simple, right? Because it is.

Say “hello” and shake hands. If you’re with other people, make room for the person who’s joining you and introduce them.

3. Remember Names

Calling someone by name is a great way to acknowledge them and make them feel important.

4. Know What to Talk About

Small talk deals with issues and concerns that are safe and easy for everyone to talk about. So steer away from topics that might be controversial, embarrassing, painful, or personally invasive.

At social gatherings, you can talk about what brought them there or if they know anyone.

In a business setting (but generally not in a social situation), you can talk about their jobs or your job, and what they or you are currently working on.

You can always talk about the weather, future or past travel, drink and food (if you’re sharing a meal), interests, and entertainment (sports, movies, books)

You can ask about any issue they raise first. For example, if they mention a daughter, you can ask about her. And you can ask them the same question they first asked you.

5. Maintain the Flow

Small talk—like any good conversation—has an easy give and take to it. You talk some. I talk. You talk. I talk. It requires everyone involved to contribute something (to have something to say) and to listen (to allow the other person or people to say something).

6. Keep it Light

Small talk is about enjoying your time with another person for a moment. It may or may not lead to anything more—to a deeper conversation, to shared intimacies, to an ongoing relationship. And that’s okay. Having a pleasant time with others is a worthy goal in and by itself.

7. End it Gracefully

All you need to do is look the other person in the eye and say something like, “It’s been a pleasure” or “Nice talking with you” or “Have a great day.

In this world where everyone seems stressed and in a hurry, where conversations all too often turn combative, where personal interactions are judged by how useful or productive they are, small talk is an overlooked kindness. Try it.

using acronyms in a presentationIt’s almost impossible to give a technical presentation without using acronyms.

It’s often difficult, ineffective, and unnecessary to eliminate acronyms when you’re giving a presentation as a technical expert to other technical experts in your own field.

But how about when you’re giving a technical presentation to a non-technical audience? Or to an audience that’s mixed: some technical experts in your field, some people who are experts in other technical fields, and some people who aren’t technical in a strict sense (sales and marketing, HR, finance, legal)?

Two general principles govern the use of acronyms in any technical presentation: 1) Clarity, and 2) Credibility.

First, you have to be clear.

If you confuse your audience, you lose them.

When you use an acronym that your audience doesn’t understand, they’ll try to figure it out. The problem is, while they’re parsing what you said, they stop listening to what you’re currently saying. Which is a bad thing.

If they can’t figure out what you mean and if you confuse them often enough, they’ll stop listening to you altogether. They may even resent you.

So, above all else, be clear.

Second, you have to be credible.

There are, of course, many ways to establish credibility in a technical presentation: being personally credible (shown by your experience, education, and reputation), an abundance of evidence, and well-reasoned logic.

(See my piece on How to Establish Credibility in a Speech or Presentation.)

A subtle, but effective way to sound credible as an expert in your technical field is to speak the language of that field.

And that’s where acronyms come into play.

Acronyms are the shorthand that technical experts use when speaking to each other.

A familiarity and ease with acronyms communicate to people in the field that “you’re one of us.”

Two rules govern using acronyms in a technical presentation: 1) Use acronyms everyone understands, and/or 2) Explain them as you use them.

If you’re sure that everyone in your audience knows an acronym, use it. Don’t pause. Don’t explain it. Simply use it as you’d use any other commonly understood word.

The trick here, of course, is being sure that everyone knows what the acronym means.

Explaining the acronym is more effective than spelling it out.

Simply spelling out an acronym doesn’t necessarily make it any clearer. Not to those who aren’t already in the know.

For example, saying a POA&M is a Plan of Actions and Milestones may not help someone unfamiliar with the term. It’s better to say something like, “A POA&M is a management tool for outlining and tracking a complex development or remediation project through its various steps.”

That short explanation may be enough, depending on the audience and the reason you’re using the acronym in the first place.

It’s up to you to know your audience and your presentation’s objective to determine how best to use acronyms. Don’t avoid using them. But don’t assume that everyone will understand them.

Above all else, be clear and be credible.

Transitions are the bridgeThe beginnings and endings of a speech are, of course, essential. But the transitions — how you get from one section or one idea to another — are equally important. And they are frequently overlooked.

Your speech’s opening — the first minute or few minutes (depending on the length of your speech) — has to accomplish several goals:

  • To gain your audience’s attention and interest
  • To introduce your main idea
  • To give an overview of your speech — what you’ll be addressing and how you’ll handle Q&A

If you lose your audience at the start, you’re in trouble. So you’ve got to make good use of your opening words.

Check out How to Start a Speech.

Your speech’s conclusion also has several goals:

  • To recap and drive home your main points
  • To motivate the audience to put your ideas into action
  • To give the audience a satisfying sense of completion

The last few moments of your speech are, often, what your audience will remember most. So you don’t want to end with a whimper.

Check out How to End a Speech.

That said, transitions are equally important. And they are often overlooked.

In some ways, I blame the misuse of PowerPoint for this lack of attention to transitions.

PowerPoint allows you to create slides that are totally unrelated to each other.

You can project one slide, talk about it, and say “next slide.” Nothing requires you to tell the audience how you got from the idea on one slide to the next idea.

When I coach people who are preparing a PowerPoint presentation, I ask them not to use a laser pointer and not to say, “next slide.”

If you have to use a laser pointer, your slides are too complex. If you say, “next slide,” you’re not connecting your ideas; you’re presenting unorganized information, not a coherent idea.

When you’re giving a more formal speech without using PowerPoint, you still need to tie things together.

It’s fine to outline your speech and to present your speech from that outline, if and only if you explicitly explain how the points of your outline are connected.

Transitions are the connective tissue of a speech. They are the bridge that leads your audience from one part of your speech to the next.

Transitions show how you get from the introduction to the main body of your speech

Transitions show how the three to five main points of the speech’s body are connected.

And transitions show how those main points lead inevitably to the speech’s conclusion.

Transitions are one of the most important elements of any speech.

Photo used by permission of RYAN MCGUIRE OF BELLS DESIGN at gratisography.com.

 

How to Rehearse a Team PresentationOne way to make sure that your team makes a coherent and winning presentation is to rehearse them using what is sometimes called a wall walk.

Team presentations are tricky things, with advantages and disadvantages.

In the plus column, team presentations can draw on the expertise of different individuals, each person speaking about what he or she knows best.

In the minus column, team presentations can be disjointed.

To make the best use of a rehearsal, of course, you need to pull your presentation together — to develop your overall strategy, your message, and your PowerPoint slides.

Check out How To Plan a Technical Presentation.

Once you’ve created, edited, and revised your team presentation, you’re ready to go.

To Rehearse a Team Presentation

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Making the Best of Q&A

When handled well, Q&A–questions and answers–becomes the most important element of a presentation.

A presentation is not an information dump. It’s not the opportunity for presenters to say everything they know about the topic at hand. It’s not a one-way transfer of knowledge.

That’s not how adults learn. Adults want to be involved in what they’re learning.

A presentation is like a focused conversation. They build on what the audience already knows. And they keep adding to it.

And presenters–effective ones, at least–give their audiences time to absorb and think about what they’ve said.

Q&A allow the audience to engage with the presenter and the content of the presentation. The more the engagement, the better the presentation.

Here’s how to make the most of Q&A

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aconym hellAcronyms have their place and usefulness  in a technical presentation as long as–and only if–your audience understands them.

An acronym is formed from the first letters of other words and is treated and pronounced as if it were a word. Like NATO (North American Treaty Organization) or WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant).

Most things we call acronyms are, to be technical, initialisms: abbreviations formed by the first letters of each word in a phrase. Like FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)  or ATM (Automated Teller Machine).

I’m not that technical so, like most people, I’m going to lump initialisms together with acronyms and treat them the same.

The common advice for people giving technical presentations is to spell out acronyms if your audience doesn’t know them.

There’s no need to spell out an acronym if you’re sure your audience knows what it means. When you’re addressing other technical experts, spelling out a commonly understood acronym only makes you sound silly or condescending.

And don’t spell out an acronym that is more commonly known as an acronym than the series of words it’s made up of. People know what an ATM is. They may have to think twice if you call it an automated teller machine.

Instead of spelling out an acronym, define it.

Spelling out an acronym doesn’t always make it any clearer.

For example, if you simply say that GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems, you haven’t clarified matters much.

It’s better to say something like, “GIS, a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface…” (from http://nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/geographic-information-system-gis/)

Explanations make acronyms clearer, but sometimes–depending on your audience’s knowledge (or lack of it)–you need to go one step further.

After explaining an acronym, give an example.

After defining GIS you might say, “It’s because of GIS that you can see where the nearest Starbucks is on Google Maps and you can monitor a hurricane making its way toward land.”

If you really need the audience to understand the acronym–if it’s an important part of what you’re talking about–first spell it out, then define it, and finally give an example of it.

 

Photo courtesy of Xavier  Verges at Flick https://www.flickr.com/photos/xverges/

Once again I was asked to help someone deliver a presentation using a PowerPoint slide deck prepared by another person.

And once again I found it a thankless, futile, frustrating task.

And I’ve come to this conclusion:

Don’t give a presentation using PowerPoint slides that you didn’t have a role in creating yourself.

It doesn’t work for any number of reasons.

First, most PowerPoint slide decks are a mess that need to be revised.

Individual slides are frequently poorly designed. Each slide on its own is usually crammed full of too much information and too many words. Individual slides don’t present, explain, and illustrate one central idea.

And individual slides frequently fail to build a coherent story. They are simply tacked on one after another, as if they are free-standing ideas.

PowerPoint slide decks often–almost always–need to be clarified, simplified, and rearranged. And you often only know how to do so when you’re rehearing your presentation.

When you’re presenting a slide deck that you’ve created on your own, you are free to clean up your slides or to rearrange them so they make more sense. But when you’re given a slide deck and told to present it as best you can, you’re left trying to make sense of a mess.

It’s okay for someone to create slides for you, as long as you are given the time, knowledge, and authority to change them.

Second, presenting someone else’s slides puts you in a subordinate role.

There is–or there should be–an intimate connection between you and the message you’re delivering.

Presenting someone else’s material makes you a mouthpiece, a marionette, nothing more.

If you can’t own the slides, you can’t own the message. Which is never a good thing.

Third, presenting someone else’s slides makes you focus more on the message than on the audience.

PowerPoint slides are not, nor should they be, a script. The words and images on the screen should be a prompt for what you are going to say. They should enable a conversation between you and your audience.

But when you’re given a slide deck that is created by someone else and that is a mess (see above), you have to figure out how to make sense of what you yourself don’t understand. (Sometimes you’re given a script in the notes page, which doesn’t clarify a thing.)

So you go over your script again and again to make sure you say what you think you’re meant to say. Your focus, too often, is on being true to the message created by someone else, when you should be trying to help the audience understand and accept your ideas.

Don’t give a presentation based entirely on slides created by someone else without your input. And don’t create slides for someone else to present without involving them in a meaningful way.

 

See also When Not to Use PowerPoint.

Ttalk fastechnical experts complain that the people in charge don’t listen to them.

The people in charge complain that technical experts go into too much detail and take too long to get to the point, if they even have one.

Because the people in charge have the final say — that’s what being in charge means — it’s up to the technical experts to change.

If you’re a technical expert and you want your ideas to get a hearing or, better yet, to be understood, accepted, and implemented, you have to change the way you make presentations.

The best way to win support for your idea is to think long and slow (which you’re good at) and to speak fast (which isn’t your typical style).

When I say “speak fast,” I don’t mean that you have to pick up the pace of your delivery, although that may be helpful.

You don’t have to talk like a New York taxi driver who has had one too many cups of coffee.

To speak fast means to get to your point as quickly as possible and to take as little time as necessary to make your case.

The higher leaders rise in an organization, the less time they have. The more impatient they become. The less willing they are to wade through long and overly detailed presentations.

So do your research, analysis, thinking, planning, and preparation — your long and slow thinking — before your presentation.

Then develop one idea that you can present quickly.

Depending on the leaders involved, on their needs, and on their schedule, I recommend preparing and practicing three fast versions of the same presentation:

  1. The Micro-Pitch — 30 Seconds or Less
    The micro-pitch is your presentation in a nutshell: the summary of your main idea. It may sound something like, “I propose adopting a new technology, which is faster and more accurate than what we currently have and will save us money.”
  2. The Mini-Pitch — 3 to 5 Minutes
    If you’re given the time, flesh out the information or ideas you presented in the micro-pitch. So you may explain (briefly) what the new technology is, and what makes it faster, more accurate, and cheaper.
  3. The Pitch-in-Full — Up to 15 minutes
    When speaking to upper management, you rarely have more than 15 minutes. (They’re busy, remember, and their time is limited.) If they give you 15 minutes on the agenda, plan on speaking for 8 to ten minutes. Leave the rest of time free for discussion.

The idea behind speaking fast is to address the most important matters first. And present the least amount of information — not the most — required to gain acceptance for your idea.

Give leaders what they want — information and ideas they can use to help the organization achieve its business objectives. Give it to them fast.

Think long and slow. Speak fast.

 

 

complex speechAll speeches have to be clear.

If you confuse an audience, they tune you out. They may even turn on you, angry at you for wasting their time or making them think harder than they want to.

One way to make a speech clear is to keep it simple. Reduce the scope or complexity of the idea you’re presenting, and focus on a single feature or aspect of it.

The problem is, although simplicity can facilitate clarity, it can also dumb down an otherwise smart idea.

Some ideas—some of the most insightful and incisive ideas—are by nature complex. And if you simplify their complexity in an effort to make them clear, you’re doing a disservice both to your ideas and to your audience.

Don’t confuse “complex” with “complicated.”

Something is complex if it is composed of many interconnected parts.

Complicated is something else altogether. Complicated means “difficult to analyze, understand, or explain.”

I’m in favor of complex speeches, not complicated ones.

If your idea is complicated, you’d be better off writing a research paper or a white paper or a formal proposal. Written pieces give people time to digest what they’re reading, to pause when needed, to refer back to a previous point, to look something up, to think about one point before moving on to the next. None of that is possible in a speech.

Complex speeches don’t have to be complicated. They can be quite clear, even elegantly clear. It’s a matter of identifying the various pieces of the idea and arranging them in a logical fashion.

If you are yourself simpleminded or if you think your audience is, then by all means eliminate all complexity.

That’s what most people running for political office are doing these days. They’re taking complex issues, involving problems that have stumped people for years, and proposing a simple, one-size-fits-all solution.

Here’s the real issue. The simplicity or complexity of your speech should be determined by the idea itself. If the idea is simple, make your speech simple. If it’s complex—yay for you!—make your speech complex.

Either way, make sure it’s clear.

Check out How to Plan a Speech.

 

How often do these little indignities repeat in your professional life?

  • You give a presentation about something important, but everyone ignores it.
  • You are asked to propose a solution, but shy away from doing it because you lack the skills or confidence.
  • You get overlooked by everybody — including your boss — because other people sound like they know more than you do.
  • You get passed over for a promotion, because people don’t understand what you’re talking about.
  • You watch a colleague get credit for an idea you proposed earlier but with less poise.

You may have great ideas. You may know more than other people. You may be an expert in your field.

But what good is your experience and knowledge if you can’t communicate it? If you can’t make people pay attention? If you can’t make them value what you’re talking about and want to do something with it?

Knowledge isn’t power.

Putting knowledge to use is power.

And communicating knowledge — in writing and in speaking — in a way that lets people understand and act on it is one of the most valued skills in business today.

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