Technical ≠ Dull

POSTED: Aug. 23, 2016

Often when presenting technical information, people believe that some topics are just inherently dull and nothing can be done to change that fact. This belief is not fact. Detail can be presented in a way that motivates people to listen because the relevance of this detail is made clear to them. Statistics can be described so that people can picture their significance and magnitude. Processes can be described in ways that make the information easy to follow. A good example of these adaptations is the methods that many science teachers use to make science fun. In fact, if you Google the words “make science fun,” you will find numerous TED talks and YouTube videos demonstrating various techniques for turning complex scientific principles into interesting and understandable concepts.

So, why is it then that people continue to show an infinite number of PowerPoint slides filled with so much technical data that you can’t even see any one statistic clearly? Most often the presenter is concerned that “dumbing down” technical information will insult the listener’s intelligence or diminish the importance of the topic itself. They fail to realize that listeners will not agree to any idea that they cannot visualize clearly. How comfortable would you be if someone tried to convince you to walk into an unfamiliar room in complete darkness? Also, people can’t implement a process they don’t understand. There is a difference in being condescending (“dumbing it down”) toward listeners and adapting the message to their level of experience with the topic. Condescension is created by remarks like, “You won’t understand this anyway, so trust me on this.” Adaptation is accomplished by utilizing clear and descriptive examples relating to listeners’ experiences.

Frequently it is the presenter’s expertise that can be the problem in adapting the message. Certainly pat yourself on the back for what you know and what you have accomplished! Understand, however, that the most difficult subject to teach someone else is a subject you no longer remember learning. That subject has become instinctive knowledge. Have you ever taught a child how to tie shoes? You must first remember what the steps are, then find a way to help the child follow those steps (bunny ears for example). The problem is that we have failed to consider the lack of dexterity in those tiny hands, making following the instructions difficult for them and frustrating for us. Perhaps improving dexterity would be the best first step. Then we can talk about tying shoelaces.

Therefore, the most important adaptation to make is to start at the level of your listeners’ experience. This does not mean providing detailed background or historical information to help them catch up. Instead, think about why this topic should be of interest to people. How does this subject affect them? Your first step should be to motivate them to listen by showing a direct connection between them and the topic. Taking the time to establish this motivation may mean that you don’t have time to go into great detail about the subject. Good! Your goal is to create a clear new picture of this subject in the minds of these listeners, not to create the same detailed picture filled with nuances that you have in your head. Information overload does not teach; it only confuses.

Secondly, be sure your word choice is understandable. Have you ever witnessed a presentation in which the speaker knew that the audience would not understand technical jargon, but used it anyway? Or perhaps worse yet, a handout of technical terms was distributed, expecting that you would have enough time to find the term on the paper, interpret its meaning and not miss anything else that was said after the word was used. Vocabulary only impresses people if they picture its meaning. Listeners aren’t impressed if word choice requires too much effort to comprehend.

The same advice applies to utilizing unfamiliar symbols or formulas. If you are the only one who will recognize the symbol for an element on the Periodic Table, then use its common name like iron or aluminum instead of Fe or Al. When listeners struggle with understanding, they tune out!

Statistics are another element of technical presentations that require some creativity so that their significance can be visualized. And, no, sorry, bar graphs and pie charts don’t always help. For example, you are leading a safety meeting and are giving statistics about how many people have hearing loss because of a failure to wear hearing protection. The statistic states that 1 out of every 3 people will suffer from hearing loss. To avoid the that’s- people-somewhere-else excuse, state: “There are 24 people in the room and that means 8 of us will have hearing loss.” Make the statistic have personal impact. If the numbers are in a technical formula, use an analogy to something familiar to everyone. Let’s say you have been computing the time your team loses every week by having to correct mistakes or engage in do-overs. Instead of merely showing the numbers and the computation, tell them that the amount of time wasted could be spent playing an 18-hole round of golf. And then perhaps, if they improve efficiency, take them out for an 18-hole round of golf!

Perhaps the most important advice to enliven a dry, technical subject is to personalize the message. Tell people about your “aha” moments in working on the project for example. These comments break up the monotony of a list of facts presented on endless slides. This technique allows you to be your conversational self, not a monotone robot. In presentation skills programs I have facilitated over the years, though, I have heard many technically oriented speakers balk at this suggestion. “This isn’t story time,” they said. I say “Why not?” People remember stories better than a series of facts and figures. I remember a history professor who almost defied us to learn. He would talk as fast as he could, presenting very detailed information that was not in the textbook, and would not allow recording of his lecture. What was his purpose as a presenter if we didn’t grasp anything he was saying? We had to guess which aspect of the topic he believed was important because all of the information ran together. We were never certain if the research we had done on our own would be the right information to pass his tests. However, early in the semester he had an unfortunate health problem and a substitute teacher was brought in. The substitute walked into class that first night, looked at the detailed syllabus and outline of topics we were to research, threw that handout on the desk, sat down on the edge of that desk and said: “Let me tell you a story about the French Revolution.” For the next hour and a half all attention was on him. We were enthralled! And we were motivated to research the topic further. But now we were researching because of interest, not because we feared failing the class. He made a litany of names and dates and conflicts come to life. I still remember much of that information, even though it’s been a few (that was sarcasm) years since I heard that presentation.

There are many ways a technical topic can be made interesting. Believing “it is what it is” communicates to listeners that they are not worth the effort of adapting your message to their needs. Yes, this effort takes time that many people feel they just don’t have. Think of it this way, without these adaptations a lack of understanding could occur. How much time do you have to straighten out these misunderstandings with each person who heard the original message? Get proactive and creative. Make information easy and memorable for your listeners. Then watch how much more respect for your expertise you will receive!

Check out Kent State’s “Proven Techniques for Captivating Listeners” to learn how you and your team can enhance their presentation skills.