Brief and Brilliant: The Technical Presenter’s Holy Grail

“But why would I leave anything out? It’s all important!” At first, I thought the chemical engineer was kidding. I even laughed at what I thought was an attempt to make fun of the prevailing stereotypes of engineers and other technical professionals. But this engineer was not joking. He was serious in objecting to my guidance that his presentation on bio-diesel be cut down to 8 slides from the 21 he had prepared. Well, so much for fighting stereotypes.

Why is it so difficult for technical types from engineers to scientists to economists, to share their insights with non-specialists? After all, people achieve success in such fields partly because of their mastery of the smallest of details and the ability to break problems down to a granular level. But many struggle to go in the opposite direction: to share the big picture perspective while knowing all the details.

Yet, some highly specialized professionals are able to do exactly this. Medical doctors with good bedside manners and client-facing finance professionals, for example, often possess this ability. And herein lies the crux of the situation. Most technical people interact with other technical people and tend to have intermediaries such as their managers to communicate with non-technical audiences. But doctors and certain finance professionals successfully move back and forth between technical peers and lay people because there is no intermediary. They have consciously, or unconsciously, learned the secret to effective communications: focusing on meeting their audience&’s needs first and foremost. This transforms their communications into clear, concise, and compelling messages.

Most engineers have been able sidestep communicating effectively with lay people because it has not impacted their technical careers…until now. Our world has become so complex and specialized that when an engineer speaks to another engineer outside her team, she may as well be speaking to a sophisticated lay person. This is because knowledge has become so compartmentalized. For instance, will the materials engineer who designs the mouse casing and the optical engineer who designs the sensor for the same mouse really understand all the details each likely wants to share? Probably not.

Hence, the first step for any technical presenter is to analyze his audience and, especially, their technical proficiency. This analysis should drive the presentation and not the desires of the presenter to deliver “all the important details.”

As a technical presenter, the first questions to ask about your audience are:

Who are they?
You must determine who makes up the audience you are addressing. For instance, they may be senior management, marketing professionals or finance professionals. They may be an internal or external audience.

What are their needs?
Your focus must be on identifying and meeting their needs, not your own.

What are their priorities at this moment?
Priorities shift depending on many factors. For instance, the senior leadership team that invites the R & D managers to present will have different expectations if the company’s market share is growing than if the market share is rapidly shrinking.

Once you have answered these questions, you then determine the technical proficiency of your audience so you can calibrate the focus and level of detail of the presentation. The accompanying chart summarizes four levels of technical proficiency and suggested approaches for each. The four levels are:

Neophyte
Acquainted
Proficient
Expert

Level Characteristics Your Approach
Neophyte
  • Sees big-picture only
  • Has little appreciation for technical obstacles
  • Easily confuses terms
  • May become frustrated with granular details
  • Avoid all jargon
  • Describe forest not trees
  • Discuss benefits not features
  • Use analogies
  • Answer questions briefly
Acquainted
  • Comprehends technology at system level
  • Appreciates basic technical issues
  • Familiar with general jargon
  • Minimize and define jargon
  • Describe big picture
  • Provide details only when asked
  • Avoid too much granularity
  • Stress benefits not features
Proficient
  • Comprehends most technical issues
  • Familiar with most jargon
  • Requires more thorough explanation
  • Needs more extensive answers to technical concerns
  • Use jargon when necessary
  • Prepare to provide greater details
  • Explain features and tie directly to benefits
Expert
  • Matches or exceeds your own technical proficiency
  • Understands technical obstacles on granular level
  • May not be satisfied with superficial explanations
  • Use appropriate jargon
  • Stress collaboration; defer when appropriate
  • Give overview; let them drive which details to deliver
  • Explain how features lead to benefits

So what happened to the chemical engineer with the bio-diesel presentation? Once he understood that his main objective was to convince potential investors to back the project and not to demonstrate how smart he was, the rest was easy. He cut down to 10 slides, made the benefits much clearer and in a simple graphic, demonstrated the entire cycle from waste vegetable oil to viable alternative fuel. The final result: he secured the financing to make the project a reality.

By: Luis De Los Santos

Luis De Los Santos is a former engineer and presently teaches communications skills with Exec|Comm, LLC in New York City. Contact Exec|Comm at exec-comm.com/contact-us.

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