Delivering Effective Technical Presentations

Delivering a presentation, let alone a technical presentation, can be an arduous and often scary feat. Making sure you get your point across without boring or under-stimulating the audience is something that takes a great deal of practice and understanding. Keys to success are understanding your audience, developing the right presentation strategy, assessing and accommodating your audience, using graphics properly, and effectively delivering a concise message. Further, a key element of presentation success is the ability to combine verbal and visual content in a clear, concise and compelling manner.

Introduction and Objectives

To deliver an effective presentation, you must first understand that the subject matter presents a unique challenge in itself. Your goal is to transfer ideas and information to the audience. Technical information and data is something that can be very easily lost on a person if not “gift-wrapped” properly. People being presented large amounts of data and facts have a tendency to disengage and lose interest. It is up to the presenter to strategize and create interesting ways to communicate that information. Pictures, graphics and even sounds help keep senses and minds from wondering to other thoughts, while also effectively communicating your message.

One of the most common mistakes when preparing for a speech or large presentation is not thinking about the audience. For example, you want to steer away from using jargon if you are speaking to a group of people who are not familiar with your topic. A person would become very frustrated and lost with the “special” terms and eventually stop paying attention. Therefore, researching and understanding your audience and presenting on their level are very important to your success. What does the audience have in common with each other? Why has this particular audience been brought together? Why did they ask me to make a presentation? Do they want me to talk about a specific subject? Understanding why you have been brought to speak will help when it comes to outlining the content of your presentation.

In addition to keeping your audience’s attention span and characteristics in mind, you must also establish a process in which your presentation will flow. Outlining and knowing how one subject matter will flow to the next will not only help with how comfortable you will be, but also help keep the audience on target. Begin by understanding the audience — what language will you use when addressing them? Outline the content, the aesthetics and the material flow. Also, what other things can contribute to the success besides the content of your message? For example, are there visuals or something other than words that will help relay or reinforce your message?

Further, be sure to review the necessary preparation needed. How much time should you spend practicing and how does that fit into your schedule? Finally, it is important to anticipate what kinds of questions the audience might ask. Having a good understanding and game plan about your presentation will help eliminate the nervousness that comes with being unprepared.

Developing Your Presentation Message

Developing the content can sometimes get a little daunting and at times overwhelming. That is why breaking it down into sections and how you want to come across to your audience is very important. Not only will it give you a starting point, but it will also make you more comfortable with the material.

First, identify the topic about which you feel most comfortable speaking. A successful topic is one for which you have unique expertise or experience and is timely. Also, pick a topic that can be supported with relevant case study examples, research, testing and practical applicable tips. The more comfortable you are with your topic, the easier it will be to make the presentation, which will in turn enable a rapport to be developed with the audience. Also, be sure that your message is perceived as high-level in terms of expertise, otherwise it may appear to be a gimmicky commercial and you will lose credibility.

Building the Presentation

Now it’s time to outline your presentation: Knowing how one point will lead to the next in a logical and coherent flow is key. Start by writing down the main points you wish to discuss. If you are describing a process, write down the steps to the process in order. From there, you will flesh out the subject matter with details, keeping in mind that this is a presentation and not a manual. Be sure to use transferable concepts as they engage the audience. Remember, your goal is to communicate ideas and information. Further, ensure that every minute counts and that there are no wasted opportunities. For example, the first 60 seconds with the audience are critical. It is in those moments that the audience ascertains whether or not this is worth their interest.

While writing, keep in mind the visuals you think of, and see if you can incorporate any of those images into your presentation. Your slides must be engaging, not distracting. The use of pictures, graphics, color and graphs all help in terms of audience comprehension. In certain cases, videos and animated graphics are effective means of communicating with the audience. Use formulas, graphs and charts prudently. Further, since everyone learns differently, having different means of delivering the message through a balance of graphics and words will help convey your message. Graphics should be used to reinforce a verbal point, not the other way around. Graphics and slides can divert attention, but if used effectively, they can give you credibility and authenticity. Do not, however, leave the delivery of information solely to graphics; it is to be used in combination with your narrative.

Building the Presentation

Once the content is outlined, the next step is actually drafting the presentation. Start by thinking of the presentation as a performance. One tip is to think of the technical presentation as a three-act play: beginning (introduction), middle (body) and end (conclusion). Each part of the presentation must be clear and distinct, but the three parts must work as one with the theme or topic holding all three parts together. It is said that the best presentations can be summarized in a single sentence. Keeping this in mind, think of what you want the audience to carry away from your presentation.

Slides should contain bullet points and not a narrative description. People do not want to read a novel on a projection screen. Make clear and concise points and move on to the next. The audience will be too busy trying to figure out what is on the screen and won’t be paying any attention to what you are saying. Bullet points need to be the highlights of what you are going to say because it is your job to flesh that out when talking. To avoid confusion, a brief synopsis of what will take place will help clarify the audience’s expectations.

Ensuring Presentation Success

Thinking beyond the content and structure requires you to prepare for the big day. In order to make sure that you are as comfortable as possible with the content, it is absolutely necessary to practice with passion. It is a good idea to practice with a “rehearsal audience.” This can be made up of family, friends or peers and will aid in alleviating nerves. The will also help you establish the pace of your delivery and get a better feel for timing, transition and balance of your presentation. It is also important to rehearse with props and all equipment that will be used. Ideally, a dry-run in the venue that you will be presenting will help work out any kinks or possible malfunctions.

Being prepared is one of the most important things you can do to ensure success. Studies have shown that practice actually results in spontaneity because you are more comfortable with the information. Practicing with a wide variety of audiences that will constructively critique you afterwards will help you with that comfort level. The more prepared you are, the less nervous you will be.

It’s also a good idea to think about the presentation room logistics. For example, consider the location of the audience, where you will be situated and your equipment will reside, room temperature, and what opportunities you will have to interact with the audience. A connection is possibly one of the most important elements to the success of a presentation. Obviously, if you are in a large auditorium or theater, you are not going to be able to have one-on-one time or dialogue with all audience members. If you are unable to have that close interactive time with participants, it is prudent to make yourself available during breaks or after the session. Handouts can be effective tools for communicating information and reinforcing your messages, but they can also be a distraction. Consider distributing handouts at the end of the presentation.

Follow-up also is very important. It is smart to make your contact information easily accessible and clear to participants. The same goes for contacting the participants yourself. If the presentation host supplies audience contact information, it is best to contact participants within a week to offer additional information as appropriate.

The Presentation: Always be Prepared

Often times, some of the keys to success are overlooked. For example, it is important to know when the host wants you to arrive. Further, it is crucial to ensure you are dressed appropriately. You will not bestow very much confidence on your peers if you are late to your own presentation or show up in jeans and a t-shirt. But, if your audience is dressed casually, a suit may be overkill. Check with the host to find out what is appropriate, but it is always best to be overdressed than underdressed.

The delivery of the presentation is as important as the content itself. The first step is to build rapport with the audience so they can relate to you. You also want to build confidence, trust and credibility. If the audience is unable to understand what you are saying because of an accent or you are speaking too fast or have poor diction, everything you have worked for is a complete loss. Make sure that you speak slowly and concisely. Try to eliminate crutch words and vocalized pauses (uh, um, ah, etc.) or any other nervous habit (fidgiting, fumbling, gestures, etc.) that distracts the audience. And, while ice-breakers or jokes are good ways to alleviate nervousness, keep them clean and light. When used properly, humor can help you build a rapport and engage the audience. Do not target anyone specifically, including yourself. Self-deprecating humor can be funny, but don’t make yourself look stupid. Body language and non-verbal communication also has a tremendous impact on the audience. Be sure to stand up straight, lean forward and make direct contact with the audience by making eye contact with different people in the audience.

And, always try to avoid the unexpected. While it is impossible to account for everything that can go wrong, making sure that all computer programs are running correctly during a dry-run will help avoid kinks and malfunctions that might pop up. For example, making sure any instant messengers are closed, Outlook is closed (email notifications), sound checks (microphones and speaker system is working correctly), the projector is working properly and that you have a back-up cd or flash-drive in case something breaks or malfunctions.

Next Steps

By following the aforementioned steps, you’ll alleviate many of the stresses related to making a technical presentation. But, even more important, by making a successful technical presentation, you’ll benefit from the third-party credibility earned through such professional opportunities.