Why we need to reconsider how we do technical presentations


Cover_PresentingForGeeks_400Technical presentations aren’t TED talks. With all the facts and figures that you have to present, it’s impossible to make them exciting. Besides, the audience expects to see all those technical details and will frown upon slides that only show photos.


No, of course not. The perceived lack of actual content is a common misunderstanding of how modern and more visual presentations really work and what they can accomplish. Presentation Zen, probably the most influential modern presentation style, is not really about showing pretty pictures – it’s about giving the audience what they need, but in a way that helps them remember the content and that encourages them to act on the message of the presentation.

In the tech world especially, presentations are used to transfer knowledge and information. So we have this urge to put all the information that we have about a topic up on our slides, to make it available to our audience.

However, there’s scientific evidence that this approach doesn’t work; people simply can’t read and listen at the same time. So your audience will have to decide what to do – which usually means that they’re going to read. It’s up there on the screen, so it must be important, right?

Also, if all the information you want to pass on with your talk is on your slides – why are you standing in front of them? It would be more effective to send the information by email and save the audience the travel cost.

In other words, trying to transfer information this way is rather inefficient.

There’s another aspect to consider: People will soon forget the majority of what you told them. 30 days after your presentation, they will have forgotten about 90% of the content. These numbers actually date back to research published by the German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus in 1885. So it’s not a problem of our modern age; it’s how the human memory works.

All this bad news should make it clear that we need to reconsider our approach to technical presentations. Your talk should still include all the information, but it should be presented in such a way that your audience listens to you, the speaker, instead of trying to read your slides. In order to help them remember, you can provide them with visual hooks, since our brains are better at remembering visuals – and the emotions they evoke.

In these days of the omnipresent internet search, it’s easy to find the information you need with only a few keywords; that’s all your audience needs to remember.

Mind you, your talk should still make a strong case for your topic. You still need to research it and prepare it in a way that convinces your audience that the topic is relevant. But you don’t need to put all that information up on your slides.

The tradition for tech talks is to make the slides available after the talk. Slides of the more visual kind obviously aren’t going to help the audience much then. But that’s okay. As we’ve seen, the traditional bullet point-laden slide isn’t good as a slide during a presentation. It turns out it isn’t good at helping people look up things afterwards either.

The typical slide from a typical tech talk is what Garr Reynolds refers to as a “slideument”: A strange hybrid of a slide and a document, that doesn’t really work as either of them. So it only makes sense to separate them entirely: Have visually oriented slides that support you during your presentation; and if the audience is of the sort that insists on having the hard facts being made available to them, provide a handout; i.e. a proper document. Or you could post a write-up of the talk on your company’s website (which has all sorts of other benefits, including more traffic to your website). Or you could simply record your presentation and make the video available online.

To summarise, it’s time to say goodbye to the old bullet point-laden slides in tech talks. If you really want to make an impact with your audience, your slides need to take a step back, into a supporting role. Free them from all the clutter that could just as easily be found with a simple web search. Instead, focus on preparing your topic for your target audience: What do they already know about the topic? What do they expect from you?

Yes, it’s more work doing presentations this way. The presentation is important to you, isn’t it? Then it should (and will!) be worth the effort.

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