Technical topic, lay audience: How to make a good presentation
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26 I F F F T R A N S A C T I O N S ON FROl F S S I O N A L C O M M U N I C A T I O N , VOL. PC-23 , NO. 1, MARCH 1,980
Technical Topic, Lay Audience: How to Make A Good Presentation
JOHN L. COX
Abstract-Steps can be taken by a speaker t o improve his presentat ion
o f a technical topic t o a lay audience and m a k e the subject m o r e under-
standable t o the l istener. - These steps stress the use o f ( 1 ) much ad-
vance eparat ion, ( 2 ) informative exerc i ses , enterta ining s tor ies , and
s imple drawings, ( 3 ) e x a m p l e s p icked t o fit the aud ience , and ( 4 ) a*
changing s ty le depending on audience react ion . Giving a t tent ion t o
these po ints will he lp to make the presentat ion successful for b o t h the
speaker'and the l istener.
IT can be a frustrating and demoralizing experience to at-tempt to comprehend new and different material, to try to get an explanation from an expert in the field, and to be
told "1 can't explain it to you-; you don't have enough training
in that a rea ." . While the statement may not be so blunt, the
same effect can be achieved unintentionally by a technically
trained speaker presenting a technical topic to a lay (non-
technically trained) audience. To the audience, the speaker is
the expert and the listeners are there to hear a clear explana-
tion of unfamiliar material.
Whether deliberately conveyed or not, the image the speaker
presents is a total picture made up of such items as voice, per-
sonal appearance, content, and illustrative examples. If the
presenter speaks in a monotone, rambles, rushes through or
takes much extra time, uses few or no explanatory examples,
and so on, the picture conveyed is analogous to the quote in
the preceding paragraph.
Frorn the audience's viewpoint there is inherent in the pre-
senter's picture one or both of the following assumptions:
The listener is dense, or at least a little slow, or
The person speaking is so busy and important that he or she
can't be bothered to take the time to do a good job.
Whether conveyed by actual word or by impression, and whether conveyed to a large audience or a "group" of one, the effect is the same not good. Any possibility of learning is minimized and the listener may then be unwilling to. attack the subject again.
I believe that any person unable to explain a concept or
subject in rm field to a lay audience doesn't know the field
well. The technically trained person explaining a subject to a
lay audience should recognize, however, that golden words of
clear explanation do not come forth without effort, even for
Manuscript received Sep . 2 5 , 1 9 7 9 ; revised Nov . 2 7 , 1 9 7 9 T h e author is an Associate Professor o f Management in the College o f
Business at the University o f West Florida, Pensacola , FL 3 2 5 0 4 , ( 9 0 4 ) 476-9500 x 4 1 6 .
experts. Four hints that will help in preparing any explan-
atory presentation are
Don't try to "wing i t ,"
Spice it up a little,
fylake frequent *use of "for instance." "for example,"
and "such as," and
"Read" your audience and change your explanation ac-
Don't Try to "WingIt"
Some studies indicate that the fear of public speaking ranks
first among all fears. It is assumed that this is as true of scien-
tists and engineers as of anyone else.* A normal reaction when
faced with an upcoming oral presentation is to ignore the
commitment, perhaps hoping that it will somehow go away.
On about the last day prior t o the commitment, it usually
becomes clear that such will not be the case. A state of panic
may set tn, resultingMn ah all-night preparation effort and en-
suring that the presenter will show up still partially unprepared
and tired. Both of these will be evident to the audience.
It is the kiss of death to try to make an oral presentation in
this manner, particularly in presenting a technical-subject to a
lay audience. Remember that these people are probably al-
ready uneasy about the subject. Always prepare! Any hope
that great inspiration will come after the presenter is behind
the lectern is, in general, wishful thinking unless the ground-
work for such inspiration has been laid much earlier.
While it may-be difficult, the speaker should force himself
to sit down weeks in advance of the engagement and set down
the major items or topics to be discussed on paper or note
cards. A small supply of 3" X 5" cards can be regularly carried in a pocket for this use. Inspiration will gradually come, at
odd hours and in odd locations. Such inspiration may be in
the form of a topical joke, a point that needs* extra empha-
sizing, or a clarifying example. At such times the presenter
can jot a few notes for later reference. Time should be regu-
larly set aside to take the material on the note cards," expand
on it, and insert it into the budding presentation. Perhaps the
greatest key here is forcing oneself to set aside time to work
on the presentation on a regular basis.
In the week prior to the "drop dead" date there should be
at least one dry run completely through the material, with an
audience (perhaps of size one) having the degree of knowledge
expected in the actual audience. This sample audience will
O361-1434/80/030O-0026$00.75 1980 IEEE
C O X : ( l"R 1 SI 1 1 ION
The speaker can always help a presentation by showing some animation, without trying so hard that the presentation looks faked or ridiculous. Tljc presenter should not expect to hold a group's attention with a monolog and a monotone. An audi-ence quickly senses whether or not the speaker is glad to be there and responds accordingly. Here. too. a key point is preparation. The more a speaker prepares, the more he or she will appear to be relaxed, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about the subject and the more naturally animation will creep in. In addition, adequate preparation will allow the presenter to be untied from his notes and able to maintain good eye contact with the audience. This preparation affords a better opportunity to "read" the audience and make adjustments in the presentation as it proceeds.
A person behind the lectern can make a presentation more interesting and effective by not confining himself to a straight lecture approach. This, too. comes partially under the heading of preparation. There should be available some group exer-cises or examples that will enable the listeners to (a) get more comfortable with the material and with each other and (b) allow the presenter to get a reading on whether the points explained are actually understood.
Uncomplicated line drawings can help in a technical explana-tion to a lay audience by allowing the audience to concentrate
help make evident any unclear explanations and will allow the presenter to be sine he is within the time constraint.
'Spice If l a Li tile
This doesn't mean the presentei needs to don a tunny hat. a fake nose with mustache, or do an impromptu song and dance. It is the presenter's responsibility, however, to make the presentation as interesting and' as effective as possible while realizing that a number of the listeners are likely afraid of, or at least leery of, the.subject matter.
There are several methods by which a speaker can put a little life into his offering while at the same time help the listener become more comfortable with the material and the presenter. For instance, a humorous story can often help TO put an audi-ence at ease. It is recognized" that not everyone can be funny but even a story that flops can help if the teller knows it has flopped and plays it up instead of showing embarrassment. I have worked with one speaker who has absolutely no talent for telling funny stories but who somehow always manages to get more mileage out of this fact than good storytellers get from a well-told joke. . '
on the explanation rather than having to rely on a mental pic-ture, which may be totally wrong. -The speaker can save a great deal of. time and confusion, by having these drawings made up as transparencies instead of trying to draw them as needed on a chalkboard or pad. The transparencies may then have additional lines or words written or drawn otUhcm to be washed off later. The presenter should not, however, rely completely on visual aids made up in advance because he can never anticipate all questions that may arise. A chalkboard, pad, or blank transparencies should be available for making extra drawings on the spot if needed to.clarify some point.
Make Frequent Use of "For Instance, " ~
"For Example,"and "Such As"
for every riiajor point in tfie presentation, the speaker should try to present at least one example to tie the technical point into 'something analogous in the listener's background. Main people, for instance, arc scared of computer system-sand the magical way they store.and retrieve data. Yet, who is un-comfortable with the idea of storing words and music on a cas-sette or.ehilu-track tape'.' A good analogy might be drawn be-tween the two.
A simple demonstration can also make a point quickly and clearly . For example, I was giving a presentation on the sub-ject of ergonomics and. was making the point that designers of equipment for offices or production areas cannot design for the mythical average person. The "why' ' of this point was made quickly by selecting two people from the audience (a man (V2" and a woman 5 1 ") and chalking their height and arm spread on the wall. The obvious great differences between the two people in these measurements made the point effec-tively.
"Read" Your Audience and Change Your Fx plana ion Accordingly
This point is perhaps the most difficult to carry out in prac-tice. If the speaker notices stares like department store man-nequins and sees a, few listeners nodding off to sleep, it is time for a different approach or a change of pace in the approach being used. Now is the time to spice it up! The speaker should attempt to find some activities that fit in with the sub-ject matter, clarify difficult points, and get the members of the audience on their feet. for*a short time. If no such activity can be found, it may be worthwhile to simply declare a two-minute break and ask the audience to stand and get their circulation going again.
To determine whether an explanation is getting through,to the audience, the speaker can throw a tew strategic questions into his remarks. Hven if the auSience is so large, that no one feels comfortable enough to answer out loud, the speaker can tell by watching the listeners' lips, the expressions on faces, and the nodding or . shaking of heads whether a* new tack should be taken in the explanation. This is the point in the presentation where the inspiration based on adequate preparation comes into play. Based on the audience's reaction to the questions, the speaker can select one of his previously
2 8 II 1 I I K A N S M I I O N S ON I 'KOI I S S I O N A I ( O M M M N H I I O N . VOI l'< 2., NO. I . MA.KCH 1^80
made up examples or draw some explanatory diagrams, (lose
observation will then tell whether this is the new direction to
head in the presentation
When h e agrees t o make the presentation, t h e speaker should ask about t h e composition o l the audience. " I his knowledge will aid in selection ol t h e lanspaieney material, the exam-ples, and t h e acridities t o be used t o solidity the material in the minds o f the listeners
^ 1 MARY
Some people seem to be natmally good speakers. Most o f the rest of us aie not. We must work at it. In fact., most of the-naturally good speakers appear that way because they have put in a great deal of time-on some version ol the tour hints given above Overlying each o f the foui is preparation and more preparation. With preparation, the speaker will not have a night-"before panic, with prepatation, the speaker has time to think of enlightening examples, with preparation, tfiere will be a liveliness to the offering with preparation, the speaker will be relaxed enough to be able to read the audience and react accoi dingly
Three Basic Recipes for a Speech
F T H F l 1. ( T R T - I S . s i mi mmi , i
Absfract~ For the engineer in a hurry to acquire speaking skill, this
paper offers a tested route through preparation t o platform perfor-
m a n c e . It identif ies the role o f the speech in the t e c h n i c ^ c o n t e x t ,
provides plan-ahead n o t e s and a cho ice o f three sets o f simplif ied
guidel ines for speech organizat ion, and compares the needs and rewards
o f the self-contained speech , the technical soc ie ty talk, and the presen-
tation.- Finishing, pol ishing, and rehearsing are d iscussed, with emphasis
o n oral-versus-writtcn words and the use o f h u m o r . T h e reader is
directed to a friendly, support ive env ironment for speaking practice.
Final delivery is treated, with tips on establ ishing audience rapport.
WHAT is so rare as an engineer who can explain his work to the world at large! As a matter of fact, howjvell can we talk to each other? Our work, at its best, does WB\ speak for itself. Our voices must be raised over the hum of our hard-ware to amplify the message of our written words and carry the.signal for action. Every day we are called on to speak.
Manuscript received Aug. 1 3 . 1 9 7 9 ; r e v i s e d Dee . 3 , 1 9 7 9 . The author is a l icensed professional engineer and an Advanced
S y s t e m s Fngineering Specialist at Lockheed Missiles and Space C o . , Sunnyvale , CA 9 4 0 8 6 .
A good speech takes practice. It takes, a little confidence, a tew platform sk i l l s , and.a-lot or labor. But wake up the back row and the hand that you gel may sign your next contract oi promotion. A good speech is well worth the effort
Anyone who is willing to put forth that effort can master the art. In the past few years. I have seen-many do/ens of people (including myself) progress from a shaky start to polished platform performance. - I remember an engineer newly arrived in the United States who mumbled his first speech so that not one word came through. He turned up a year later leading a technical session with poise and eloquence.
Pi AN Am \i>
For the reader who asks "What am I going to do today if the call comes to -speak the best advice is start now before the call comes.
Plan your talk as you plan your technical project, using the s i n e careful logic.
;4sk the relevant questions and as the answers come, fit them together in an orderly sequence.
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