Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Real 7 Rules for Making Great Technical Presentations, or Everyone else is stupid but me and thee (and I have some doubts about thee)

The DevX.Com site  recently posted an article called "7 Rules for Great Technical Presentations" by Bob Reselman (I know: but he's probably never heard of you, either). The article isn't without its merits (though it includes the usual cliche about how PowerPoint ruins presentations--a topic that I'll return to in a later blog). But most of the steps are wrong-headed and the article doesn't offer much in the way of advice that you could actually implement: lots of hand waving and modifiers but not much real practical advice.

The seven rules are:
  1. Know thy stuff 
  2. It's a show; you're an actor; get used to it
  3. Understand that it is really, really hard to look ridiculous
  4. Forget PowerPoint; tell a story
  5. Play Charades a lot
  6. Example, examples, examples
  7. It takes three shots to get it right
You know that you're in trouble when the first rule is "Know thy stuff" rather than "Know thy audience." The result of making "Know thy stuff" the first rule is that the poor defenseless audience is going to get inundated with a lot of technical information they are not interested in, that they will not be able to use, and that will make no difference in their lives. But then I'm worried about any list of rules that assumes that someone giving a technical presentation won't know their stuff--that's the part that I would have taken for granted.

The rest of the list seems to focus (with the exception of rule 6: "Example, examples, examples") on handling stage fright and giving a good performance. The author advises presenters to "entertain" and "engage" the audience but doesn't provide much in the way of practical advice on how you would achieve those goals (tell jokes? wear a funny nose?). He suggests that you find "the good story" in your presentation but provides no direction on how to find that story and--modifier alert!--what would qualify as a "good" story.

He then makes the biggest mistake of all by advising presenters to find the story that matters to the presenter--that this is the secret to stirring the imagination of your audience. After seeing many, many (many!) presentations where people talked about what mattered to them, I can assure you that this is not the way to stir anyone but yourself. Great presenters find out what matters to the audience and use that to stir their audience members.

The advice on playing charades, while it suggests that the author recognizes that presentations have a visual component, is particularly devoid of practical advice (except that you shouldn't use PowerPoint to provide that visual component, apparently).

The last two rules (about using examples and rehearsing) are so valuable, though, that they almost compensate for the windage in the rest of the set of rules. No advice on how to pick examples, though.

So what would a real set of seven useful rules look like? This is my list:
  1. Know your audience: Figure out what they value, what matters to them. Talk about that. If you want to talk about something else make sure that you draw a bright line between what the audience values and what you want to talk about. 
  2. Know your audience's vocabulary: Find out the terms that make sense to your audience and use them. If you're presenting to social workers refer to the "impact on the community"; if you're talking to business people refer to the "contribution to the bottom line." Don't make them learn your vocabulary; tie what you want to talk about to the words they already use.
  3. Use PowerPoint as your speaker notes. Your slides should have just enough text to remind you what to say next. That way you won't be reading your notes (or the screen). Your audience won't be reading the screen, either, because there's not much there.
  4. Use PowerPoint to provide the visual component of your presentation. People watch presentations. Use PowerPoint to show pictures of what you're talking about, graphs, diagrams, flowcharts, etc. If you think that you can provide some additional visual interest with body movement, knock yourself out. I know that I can't stand still on stage but that has much to do with nervousness as anything else.
  5. Figure out what your major topics are and put them in an order that means something to your audience. But--more importantly--right at the start bring up the topic list, explain what the order is and why the topics matter to the audience. At every topic change, show the topic list again and explain what the next topic is. If nothing else, your audience will be able to estimate how long it will be until you'll stop talking.
  6. Examples, examples, examples: Tie as many topics as you can to examples from the audience's world that they will recognize.
  7. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. You don't have to be perfect when you present but you won't get it right the first time, either. Don't let your audience see your first time.

And, as long as I have your attention:

Let me recommend a great article on structuring effective presentations. It was written by Martin Shinn (who is a wonderful human being)  for the Management Insights newsletter that I edit for Learning Tree International. I realize that I promoting one of my own projects here (and you'll have to register/provide your e-mail address to read it). But it's still a great article.

Reading or read

1 comment:

Russ Lewis said...

Good article Peter. You really are a terrific communicator, It doesnt seem fair that you're also a genuinely nice human being too!