How to Captivate Your Audience With Your Technical Presentation

Pointers from communication coach Melissa Marshall help you explain your work more clearly

11 April 2017

To avoid yawns and eyes glazing over the next time you give a technical talk, consider the following simple pointers from Melissa Marshall [above]. And if you’re speaking to top management or potential funders for your project, the communication coach points out that a strong presentation can make the difference between getting people to invest in your technical advance or research, or not.

Marshall offered advice on giving an effective presentation during the 2016 IEEE N3XT conference in Toronto (which helps engineers launch and grow their ventures), as well as in her “Talk Nerdy to Me” TED talk. Mastering communication skills, Marshall says, also could help you grow in your career. Techies who know how to speak to any audience often end up in a leadership role, either within their organization or industry.

Even the most timid people can become good public speakers, Marshall adds, and she offers strategies for doing so.

THINK OF YOUR AUDIENCE

Many speakers often hide behind a lectern instead of moving around the stage. And they’ll read every talking point on their slides as a way to help them stay on track. But things that make the speaker more comfortable can prove boring to his listeners, Marshall says. Instead, become an “audience-centered speaker,” as she puts it.

First, get rid of the bulleted list. People can’t really listen and read at the same time, she points out. They certainly won’t care to do so for most of a talk. That can lead to cognitive overload, which can feel overwhelming, she says. Ultimately they’ll stop paying attention or simply walk out of the room. Accordingly, she challenges speakers to produce slides that complement what is being said instead of repeating it. Add images to the slides and you’ll help your audience understand and retain information, she says.

Marshall, who has a master’s degree in communication arts and sciences from Pennsylvania State University, in State College, has run her own communication coaching business for the past seven years. She focuses on technical professionals after having taught presentation skills to engineering students as a senior lecturer at her alma mater.

Another key point to consider is how much your audience knows about your topic. If you’re talk is for people outside your field, it’s important to avoid jargon. She recommends forming a focus group made up of friends, family, and others to tell you which words or concepts they don’t understand.

“The curse of knowledge is we forget what it’s like to not know what we now know,” Marshall says. She suggests reflecting on how complex concepts were first explained to you, and then working that description into your presentation.

Consider how your listeners might respond to your presentation, and anticipate the questions they’ll have, she recommends, adding, “This will give you a fresh perspective that will help you rework your talk, if need be.”

FOCUS ON WHAT’S MOST IMPORTANT

Marshall’s rule of thumb is no more than one slide per minute. The more technical the talk, the fewer the slides. “If you have 15 minutes, use 10 to 12 slides, but never more than 15,” she says.

Because research projects are detailed and nuanced, it can be difficult to determine what to include and what to leave out. Presentations suffer when speakers try to include every detail without prioritizing what the audience needs to know, Marshall says. “If you feel confident you’ve put everything in, that’s a giant red flag,” she says. “When you share everything, you often share nothing.”

Be sure to tailor the presentation to your audience. A client of Marshall’s, a well-regarded medical researcher, presented his cancer treatment for the first time to a venture capitalist. “My client assumed the funder would see how critical his research was, and would fall all over himself to give money,” she says. But by the third slide, the VC picked up his cellphone and stopped paying attention.

Marshall quickly realized her client had not geared his presentation to someone outside his field. She helped him get to the main points quickly and had him focus on just the information a funder would care about. After pitching his research to a different VC, he received the funds he needed.

“A lot of breakthroughs die in the first presentation because they’re not understood and, therefore, not funded,” Marshall says.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

What may feel like a spontaneous and conversational presentation is the result of lots of preparation, Marshall notes.

Rehearse your introduction as much as possible, she suggests, because the first few minutes is when a speaker feels the most nervous. A strong start can get you off on the right foot.

But be careful not to memorize a script, “because the delivery will suffer. You’ll lose that conversational quality,” she says. “And become comfortable with the idea that your talk is going to be slightly different each time.” Also, practice out loud and not in your head, she adds.

It’s normal to be nervous in front of an audience. The goal is not to get rid of the nervousness altogether—which is hard to do. Rather, you should learn to manage it so doesn’t affect your presentation negatively. When speakers are too nervous, they often freeze or rush through their talk. Practice can help them feel more confident.

Try turning your attention away from being nervous and instead focus on the importance of the work itself, Marshall suggests. And don’t be afraid to show your passion for the work. Passion is the best way to connect with an audience, she says.

“Even if they think they’re not interested in your topic, people become naturally curious when they see your enthusiasm,” she says. “If you seem dispassionate about your work, how can you expect others to become engaged?”

With a little time and effort, she says, the payoff for improving your presentation skills can be significant.

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