Building Better Technical Talks
Scientific presentations are an important but sometimes difficult part of a high tech company's technical content marketing strategy. A bad presentation can not only leave your audience confused but also reflect badly on your company. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
Good technical talks have recognizable traits that anyone can emulate. In this two-part series we will highlight common elements shared by effective technical talks, beginning with advice on building the presentation itself. These observations will help you prepare technical presentations and technical marketing content that holds your audience’s attention without feeling “dumbed down.”
Tell your audience WHY they should care.
The “why” is essential. Simon Sinek’s brilliant TEDx talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” explores the importance of “why” in detail, but the core point is that your message must resonate with your audience, or you will lose them. Creating that resonance requires prior research to determine your audience’s background, education, and interests. Once you understand your audience’s perspective, articulate why your message matters to them personally. State this reason at the beginning of your presentation, and reiterate it throughout your talk.
Tell a good story.
Human brains are built for stories, and nothing better engages our attention. If you structure your presentation as a story, people cannot help but pay attention. It is best to keep things simple: “We saw a problem; we had an idea; we tried something; this is what happened; and this is what we’re going to do next.” As much as possible, explain how individuals and organizations contributed to the effort. Incorporating people into the story engages the audience’s empathy and makes the presentation memorable.
To learn how to create a winning whitepaper or article, download our Technical Content Development Guide.
Use compelling visual aids.
Creating good slides is a science, and we encourage everyone to read Michael Alley’s research on the “assertion-evidence” (AE) approach to presentations. Trimmed to essentials, though, a good slide makes a single, clear assertion and then supports that assertion with visual evidence. Good visual choices include easy-to-read and well-labeled graphs, illustrations, and photographs. Avoid bullet points or cramped tables—the act of reading will distract your audience from listening to you.
Minimize the math.
Too much math will derail your audience’s attention even more than too much text. When numbers are involved, the audience must make the switch from verbal to mathematical thinking. Whenever possible, replace equations with graphs and figures. An exception is when an equation or derivation is, itself, the topic of the slide. Even then, use the assertion/evidence structure, treating the equation as the supporting figure. Furthermore, use graphics and color to emphasize how the mathematics relates to the assertion.
Nail your landing.
A strong presentation can be undone by a weak conclusion. The conclusion doesn’t need to be dramatic—in fact it is best if it does not introduce any new information. Succinctly run through the “story” of your work, making it clear how all the steps and pieces fit. Emphasize the two or three most important things that you want the audience to take away from your presentation. Finally, one last time, reiterate why your audience should care.
By following these rules, your presentations will engage your audience and leave a lasting impression. Preparing the presentation is only half of the work, though. The other half is preparing yourself. We will address self-preparation in the next article in this series.