Archives For Technical Presentations

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.

Simplify Technical Presentations“Our lives are frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify.” -Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau’s quotation applies equally well to most technical presentations.  They waste an audience’s attention—they fritter it away—by delving into too much detail. And simplifying them almost always improves them.

Because you are the expert in the topic you’re addressing, you probably know way too much information to present in the time you have available.

Knowing so much is a good thing. It gives you confidence as a presenter. And it makes you credible to the audience.

Trying to present everything you know is a bad thing. Doing so confuses, bores, and turns off your audience.

How do you know which details to present and which to eliminate?

After identifying and validating all the details that are relevant to your topic, follow these…

Three Steps to Simplifying the Amount of Detail in a Technical Presentation

Step 1: Categorize

Sort the information you’ve assembled, placing similar items into a particular category. The kinds of categories will vary depending on the topic, your audience, and your objective.

If I were an expert in wine (I’m not) and I were speaking about wine to a group of enthusiasts, I might group wines by type: red, white, blush, sparkling, and fortified. Or I might categorize them by price: cheap, moderate, expensive. I could sort them by country or region.

If I were making a proposal about adopting a new software system for my company, I might group my information into 1) the problems with the current system, 2) what has already been done to remedy those problems, 3) users’ complaints, 4) alternative systems, 5) their pluses and minuses, 6) transition risks, 7) implementation schedule, and 8) total cost of ownership.

Step 2: Prioritize

Rank the categories you’ve created in terms of importance.

All of the categories might be important, mind you. But given the audience’s needs and the time available, it’s your job as the expert to determine which are the most important.

Step 3: Eliminate entire categories

Begin by cutting the big stuff. Prune off whole limbs before snipping away at the leaves.

I recommend focusing on three to five categories.

So to the wine enthusiasts, I might speak about moderately priced red wines. Given more time, I might speak about cheap, moderately priced, or expensive red wines. Or I might speak about expensive red and white wines.

To the company seeking a new software system, I might speak about 1) the problems with the current system (including users’ complaints), 2) alternative systems, and 3) their pluses and minuses (including risks, implementation schedules, and total cost of ownership).

Don’t fritter away your time or the audience’s attention by presenting too much detail. Simplify. Simplify.

Don't Give Dumb PresentationsI work with smart people. With people who run businesses or lead universities. With engineers and with senior researchers who have doctorates in subjects I’ve never heard of. With authors and small business owners.

And I frequently (several times a month) observe other smart people giving presentations.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that smart people give dumb presentations…frequently.

I define a dumb presentation as one that is disjointed and confusing. It lacks a central theme. It leaves people wondering, “What was that about?” or “What am I supposed to do now?”

A dumb presentation is a wasted opportunity both for the audience and for the speaker.

Why do otherwise smart people give dumb presentations?

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Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, offer advice about storytelling that can help anyone creating a PowerPoint presentation.

Many Most PowerPoint presentations are ineffective, confusing, and/or boring because they lack cohesiveness and flow.

You know how it goes.

Presenters show a slide and discusses it. (You hope they don’t simply read it to you.) When they finish with that slide they say, “next slide.” Then they discuss it and say — you guessed it — “next slide.”

Entire presentations can be are a series of disconnected information and ideas: “There’s this and this and this and this and this…”

The unanswered question is: How does all of this hold together? How does one idea lead to another? Is there a logical connection?

The most important words in PowerPoint presentations aren’t on the slides: they’re between the slides.

The segues — the transition sentences — from one slide to another are what turn a series of disconnected information and ideas into an insight audiences can understand and use.

That’s where Parker and Stone come in.

In a lecture at NYU they describe how they create stories for South Park. On a large whiteboard they outline a series of “beats.” (A beat is the smallest unit of a story, a piece in which something happens.)

If the beats are linked by the words “and then,” Parker and Stone insist “You’ve got something pretty boring.”

They suggest eliminating every “and then” and replacing it with either “therefore” or “but.”

Not “this happened and then this happened,” but “this happened, therefore this happened” or “this happened, but then this happened.”

Try it the next time you prepare or practice a PowerPoint presentation. Every time you catch yourself saying “next slide,” substitute “therefore…” or “but…”

Figure out how the information or ideas on one slide lead into the information or ideas on the next. Do they build logically (“therefore…”)? Or do they logically raise an objection or another consideration (“but…”)?

As the expert you understand (I hope) how your material holds together. Don’t assume that your audience understands. Show them.

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