Friday, 22 January 2010

Technical presentation for non-technical folks, oh no!

Making technical presentation is a challenge if you're like me: shy, and usually not knowing enough about the technology that's being presented. You might think that the latter would make things easier or at least wouldn't matter when facing non-technical audience, but unfortunately that's not the case. Technical presentation for non technical people is one of the challenges that engineers face very often and one that's rarely done well.
For what it's worth, practice can actually make a master in this case, and the more opportunities you have to face non technical audience the better. But as in every case you can look for a shortcut while googling your way through the Internet to try and find some tips and tricks from more experienced folks.
Based on my *vast* experience here's a list of tips I find useful when preparing to and performing technical presentations followed by list of links that might be the right places to visit when preparing your own presentation (much better than this blog entry anyway).

1. Know your audience.
This must be really common thing to be pointed out on every list like that but can't stress the importance of it enough. Not only the level of their technical knowledge should be important to you. It's useful to know why the audience is listening to your presentation (to use bespoken technology, to use something similar or build on the technology, to know the concept that will be advertised by them to the customers, to build the base of the knowledge that will be expanded later), whether they'll have a chance to learn more about the topic in future courses or presentations.

2. Be ready for new levels of abstraction.
When addressing non-technical audience you'll obviously try to avoid technical jargon to avoid confusing and boring your listeners. One very efficient technique is to use simple "everyday life" analogies when describing more complex issues. What is important to acknowledge is the fact that what you think is a simple analogy may not work that well for your audience. It's good practice to prepare different explanations of the same problem, so when you notice that the idea is not well understood you're not forced to let it that way and move on with the presentation but have coherent and new way of approaching the explanation.

3. Focus on the information - don't force the "fun".
You might have heard that telling jokes and anecdotes - "being funny", helps to keep the audience engaged and interested. Although it is true it's also pretty rare to find a technical geek easily entertaining non-technical audience. If you've never been a funny type, and your jokes (tested on your mum) never got anything but a blank stare, you're probably don't have it in you. Practicing memorized punch lines in front of the mirror might work, but you're busy with actual work on the informational aspect of presentation, and the effect might still land flat with the audience. And believe me, it's better to be boring than painful to watch. If you find your presentation dry and boring work a bit on your slides to make them attractive, add images and diagrams wherever you can, and focus on different ways of presenting the info like adding analogies, abstractions or real life examples (especially when talking about software solutions it's great to add screen-shots of applications that might be easily recognized by the audience)

Generally being prepared helps with fighting nerves, and less stress means better presentation. Try to talk slowly and don't rush till the end - if you don't want to seem like a weirdo, that is. Good luck :).

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