Technical experts – scientists, engineers, and programmers – are being asked more and more frequently to give presentations. And not just to other technical experts. Often they are speaking to people with little or no technical expertise, to people from marketing, sales, and finance.

Here’s how to plan a technical presentation so it is clear and convincing.

1. Limit your Subject
If you’re like most technical experts, you probably spend too much time doing research. Then, because you haven’t allowed yourself enough time to pull it all together, you end up cramming everything you know about your subject into your presentation. You produce many more slides than you can possibly do justice to in the allotted time.

With most presentations, you won’t have the time you need to say everything you want to say. So you have to prioritize. It’s your job to know what to say and, just as importantly, what not to say.

While non-technical speakers are often “light” on content, technical presenters more commonly present — or try to present — too much material.

2. Understand your Audience
Knowing who you’re talking to – your audience – is as important as knowing what you’re talking about – your subject. Your audience’s knowledge level, experience, learning style, and attitudes will – or should – affect how you shape and present your material.

Find the answers to these questions:

  • What does you audience already know about your subject?
  • Are they experts like yourself or neophytes?
  • How much knowledge can you take for granted?
  • How much background will you have to explain?
  • Will they understand basic jargon?
  • What is their learning style?
  • Are they accustomed to sitting through lectures and holding their questions to the end? Or will they expect to interact with you, asking questions throughout your presentation?
  • Do they like lots of PowerPoint™ slides and handouts? Or are they expecting you to be more interactive?
  • What are their opinions, prejudices, preconceived notions, agendas?
  • What is their stake in the subject?
  • How will your presentation affect their research or work?

3. Determine your Objective
What do you want to accomplish? What do you want your audience to do as a result of your presentation?

Do you want them to

  • Challenge your assumptions or data or to confirm them?
  • Implement your procedure or technique?
  • Renew your grant?
  • Approve your proposal?
  • Give you the go ahead for the next step of your research?

Once you know what you want them to do, ask yourself what they need to know and to feel in order to do it.

4. Prepare your Outline
If possible, break your presentation into three basic sections. (You can divide each section into more, smaller units.)

Here are some 3-section outlines you might find helpful:

  • The problem, its causes, and the solution.
  • The illness, the symptoms, and the treatment
  • The current situation or standard operating procedure, the problems associated with it, and an alternative
  • The state of your research, questions raised by your research, and the next steps
  • A product, its composition, and its application

Once you’ve “clumped” the various elements of your talk into their major sections – I strongly recommend three sections, but you could have as many as five – add an introduction and conclusion.

5. Create your Slides
Now you can turn on PowerPoint™ and begin creating your slides.

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See also 10 Tips for Using Visual Aids and How to Improve a Technical Presentation.

Chris Witt, a coach based in San Diego, works with technical experts who want to give more effective presentations. If you’re interested in learning more about how you could benefit from his coaching, contact him for a complimentary call.