Soft Skills

Persuasive Technical Presentations

Tracy Volz and Janice L. Hewitt

It happens many times in the oil industry. It may even have happened to you. Someone from R&D has just finished an oral report to management about an exciting, important project. But the managers don’t appear to grasp the importance or understand the concept presented. The result is no managerial enthusiasm with little or no support.

What went wrong? Assuming that the R&D findings were potentially valuable to the company, perhaps the presentation was ineffective. What follows are practical suggestions for improving your presentations to management so that your research contributions are more likely to be supported.

Know Your Audience to Effectively Deliver Content

If your audience is middle management, define whether or not they already know the technical details of your work. Then change your frame of reference from, “This is what I want to tell them” to “What do they need to know to understand and make decisions about my research?” In other words, think what you will need to explain to help them understand the seven keys of the presentation content:

SEVEN KEYS TO CONTENT:

  1. Research area
  2. Business importance
  3. Potential company benefits/risks
  4. Alignment with the business strategy
  5. Cost analysis
  6. Implementation timeline
  7. Recommendation(s)

Get Off to a Strong Start

Your audience is likely to be most attentive at the beginning and the end of your presentation. Therefore, you need to capitalize on these opportunities by starting strong and ending strong. An effective introduction 1) engages the audience’s interest, 2) states the key points early, 3) previews the topics to be covered, and 4) establishes credibility and rapport with the audience.

Start by explaining the motivation for analyzing a specific problem. Why is it important? What are potential benefits for the company?

The first few sentences of your talk need to perform the same function as an executive summary in written reports by providing the gist of what will follow. In contrast, poor speakers withhold their key points or recommendations until the conclusion, keeping the audience in suspense. This inductive approach to organization places a huge burden on the audience by making them hold a lot of information in their heads without understanding why they are important or how the pieces fit together.  Managers want to know up front what your key points are.  Remember to explain your contribution in the body of your presentation including the what, why, and how of your research.

Make Complex, Technical Material More Comprehensible

Managers may well not be experts in your area of research, so you need to decide how much detail is essential and what terms, including acronyms, need explanation. To clarify meaning:

Define Terms. To help diverse, nontechnical audiences understand what you are talking about, you will need to define important concepts using terms they already know.

Minimize Technical Acronyms. Unless you are speaking to technical experts in your research area, you should use simple, precise phrases for technical terms. If you are using an acronym, be sure to introduce it in its expanded form first. Provide a quick definition if your audience is not familiar with the subject.

Move From General to Specific. Explain the concept in general before focusing on the specifics. For example, if you are introducing a new model using a flow diagram, begin by displaying a high-level abstract to orient your audience to the primary components of the model and then show a more detailed version of the overall model, or use excerpt diagrams to focus the audience’s attention on specific features.

Give Visual Examples. To help the audience understand complex concepts, compare such concepts to objects or actions they can easily understand. For example, “The experience of using an electronic voting machine is a lot like using an ATM machine. However, there is a fundamental difference. Voting machines need to preserve your anonymity to prevent election fraud whereas ATM machines require personal verification because banks are accountable for transactions that affect your account.”

Explain Your Data

Many people with technical backgrounds falsely assume that they do not need to explain data because “data speak for themselves.” Two individuals can look at the same graph and arrive at different interpretations. In fact, managers are likely to have difficulty following the data-analysis portion of your talk. Therefore, you must explain your data. Point out what to notice.

FOLLOW THIS FIVE-STEP PROCESS TO EXPLAIN YOUR DATA:

  1. State the question that the graph or chart answers.
  2. Explain what the graph or chart depicts.
  3. Point out the key features.
  4. Summarize the results.
  5. Interpret the results—What does it mean? What are the implications of the results, specifically with respect to your manager’s or your organization’s goals, strategies, or priorities?

Use Transitions to Keep the Audience With You

Clear transitions provide logical coherence. When you make the effort to craft transitions you basically take the implicit logic that guided your decisions about how to sequence the material in your slides and make it explicit for the audience. It helps the audience to follow your argument more easily.

Crafting transitions is difficult to do on the fly, which is why many speakers use weak transitions that merely announce the subject of the slide. Instead of providing weak transitional links, use strong transitions to signal sequence, causality, or contrast. For example, “In contrast to the tool X that is used in only conventional reservoirs, tool Y targets unconventional oil like oil sands.”

While planning transitions, rearrange the material on a particular slide or reorder your slides if it will make your explanations flow more logically. Transitions are so important that you ought to write them out and memorize them.

Wrap Up Well 

Recall that your audience is most likely to pay more attention to you at the beginning and end of your presentation. Therefore, it’s crucial to take advantage of this final opportunity to summarize key points and make specific recommendations. To conclude, pause momentarily and use phrases like: “In summary” or “To wrap up” to signal that you are about to finish. Then, summarize key points and spell out the implications of your analysis. After this, state your recommendations. It is good practice to memorize your final sentences so that you don’t end with a meaningless, “That’s it” or “Thank you.” Put up a conclusions slide that is not overloaded with text. Such slides distract the audience from paying attention to you right when you need to heighten it.

If you plan to answer questions after presenting, continue to display your conclusions slide or replace it with a relevant visual that facilitates the discussion. Do not replace your conclusions slide with a slide that says “Questions?”

Project Confidence

Finally, you need to lead by example to keep your audience interested and enthusiastic about your ideas. You must project a positive, professional demeanor from the outset to establish your credibility and to enhance your rapport with the audience. This is accomplished through a combination of stance, eye contact, gestures, and voice quality.

Stance.  An effective stance not only exudes confidence, it also provides breath support. It is the foundation of your message and your voice.

This stance may feel slightly awkward at first, but keep practicing it until you feel comfortable and at ease. Make sure to position your body so that it is directly facing the audience at all times, even when you gesture toward the projection screen. Do not turn your body sideways or away from the audience.

YOU WANT TO STRIVE FOR AN OPEN, STABLE STANCE THAT IS FREE OF DISTRACTION.

  1. Position your feet under your hips.
  2. Distribute your weight equally between your feet.
  3. Hold your chin level and relax shoulders without slouching.
  4. No hands in pockets, keep them comfortable at your sides!

Eye Contact. You should make direct eye contact with the audience because it contributes to the impression that you are trustworthy and confident. Be sure to distribute your eye contact. In other words, look at individuals seated in different parts of the room so that no one feels ignored. Making direct eye contact may be difficult if you come from a culture that discourages that.  But in some cultures, making eye contact is important because you may seem untruthful if you don’t.

Hand Gestures. Hand gestures work especially well to illustrate a concept or to emphasize a point. For example, you can use a hand gesture to help the audience visualize the shape or size of an object to which you refer: “It’s about the size of a baseball.

When you incorporate gestures, make sure you position your hands at chest level to form the gesture and then rest your hands at your sides. Avoid fidgeting or placing your hands in your pockets, behind your back, on your hips, or clutching them together.

Voice Quality. Voice quality refers to many vocal characteristics such as volume, articulation, inflection, and pace. You should speak in a natural, authoritative tone at a volume that is loud enough to be heard by people seated in the most distant part of the room. Use variation in your voice to emphasize important phrases by altering your pitch and controlling the pace at which you are speaking. As a general rule, you should slow down to state key points and speed up through the details. If you detect signs that your audience is either confused or bored, you need to adjust the pace appropriately. Knowing how to prepare and knowing how to deliver an effective technical presentation are two different tasks. You must practice aloud to become comfortable explaining your research and to finish within the time limit. Remember that you can practice with colleagues to get useful feedback.

Summary

Many people, including managers, feel intimidated by dense, technical information. As a speaker, it is your job to help them feel smart rather than stupid. To achieve this, answer the seven keys to complete content, define key terms and incorporate examples to clarify explanations, design slides that are easy to understand, and deliver with confidence.


‚ÄčTracy Volz is a senior lecturer in Professional Communication in the School of Engineering at Rice University.  She joined the Dean of Engineering’s Office in 2008 after spending 9 years with the Cain Project in Professional Communication.  Volz has coached executives and conducted seminars on oral communication for professional societies and corporations in the Rice faculty.  Her interests include oral presentations, technical poster design, and pedagogical innovation.  Volz earned a BA in English from the University of Iowa and a PhD in English from Rice University.
Janice L. Hewitt is a senior lecturer in Professional Communication, Office of the Dean of Engineering, Rice University.  She conducts workshops and seminars on writing for engineering graduate students writing postgraduate dissertations, frequently incorporating training in oral presentations and persuasive writing.  Hewitt has been a consultant for several major corporations.  She holds an MA in English from the University of Michigan and an MA in History and PhD in English from Rice University.