Why technical presentations fail

and how to make yours succeed

Have you ever sat through a technical presentation, felt confused and wondered how their points were relevant or where the presenter was going with it? Perhaps you couldn’t see the wood for the trees? How do you avoid falling into the trap of giving that presentation?


In a technical presentation, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees

Photo by Mathieu Perrier on Unsplash

You need more than clear facts

There was a lecturer on my degree course who I will never forget. He would start each session by walking in and placing a diagram onto the projector. One by one he would name each diagram and tell us how it worked. At the end of the lecture I knew what an OR gate and an AND gate was. I just didn’t know was what I was supposed to do with the information or what it was leading to. There was never an introduction; a title slide, a theme for the day, not even a check that we were at the right lecture. Each time a set of diagrams and a group of facts at lightning speed. After the last diagram, he would pick up his slides and leave us more informed but no wiser. Many years on I still remember him for all the wrong reasons.

Promote the value of your presentation

It surprises me how many amazingly talented people give some pretty awful technical presentations, most of them due to the same key problem; they didn’t seem clear about why they were speaking, and neither were we as their audience. Sometimes I think our guess was as good as theirs, mostly we all left still guessing.

It’s critical for you and your audience to know the purpose of your presentation, as I mentioned in Speaking on purpose. There’s a wisdom that you ‘tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, then tell them what you told them’. For an informative presentation that can really work, for some speeches, it may not be quite the thing. Imagine the Father of the bride: ‘Today I’m going to flatter my daughter, then I’ll move on to embarrassing her with a tale about when she was 2 before saying something nice about her new husband and wishing them well’! Regardless of the purpose, how you start a speech or presentation matters and I’ll come back to that in a later blog.

Remember that a technical presentation isn’t all about the technology

Technical presentations can include any presentation or speech which focuses on specific, detailed information. You need to be really clear about why you are speaking and the value to your audience; perhaps to explain the progress on a project or to prepare a team for supporting or selling a product. It might be that you are presenting to an external audience about something that you’ve been working on. Before you speak you really need to know, and when you start to speak so should your audience.

Discover the emotional value of your presentation.

It’s easy to be lulled into thinking that the value of a technical presentation is all in the facts delivered, after all, that’s what you are there for, isn’t it? Actually, the reality is more complex than that. Perhaps you are a developer presenting to your peers on a new framework that you’ve been investigating. You could just provide details on using the language by sharing a list of syntax references, websites and links and be done; but you wouldn’t match the audience’s expectations.

What those developers want to know is whether the framework may solve their current pain points, how much time will they need to learn it, and whether their current experience help or hinder. To be honest, many just want to know if its any fun. In other words, there are more emotions in a technical presentation than you might think. Relevant emotions can include confidence, hope and excitement; for example, you may need to provide confidence in a product, project or team, some excitement around the product to be sold or build hope for the possibilities ahead. Ultimately emotions do matter. Consider the emotion you want your audience to feel and focus on the details which support that outcome.

Beware information overload


Beware information overload

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

The difficulty with the technical presentation, as they say in the films, is that ‘you know too much’. Anything you know well enough to speak about will be something you have spent at least some hours learning. If you are an expert, according to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, you may have spent much longer, and there’s a great temptation to share all you know. You are not going to turn your audience into experts in a 40-minute presentation, and that’s rarely the expectation. You will achieve your purpose most effectively by choosing your content carefully and focusing on the best way to convey it. Even if you do need them to become experts you will achieve more by inspiring them to find out for themselves and explaining how to do so. Consider, what’s the bare minimum they need to know for their purpose?

Present clarity not confusion

Your audience also hasn’t had as much time to process the information as you’ve had. Be mindful that information overload can obscure the key facts they need and lead to them forgetting them altogether. This information overload often comes from a belief that you don’t have enough facts to fill your allotted time. Rather than adding more facts think about how you might illustrate your key facts with examples and anecdotes. Walking through diagrams and showing illustration can bring the information to light. Consider questions that might be asked and address those questions as part of your presentation. For example, “you might be wondering what the limits are, well I’ve done some investigation and believe that we can handle 2500 online members at any one time”

End with your purpose in mind

Going back to my lecturer, don’t forget to end on something which supports your purpose; which means that if you have a Q&A do that before your final statement. Simple things like the next step to take, a short summary, or a question to reflect on work well. For example “what projects can you see for this technology?”. Remember, if you’ve got something else to say, that’s really, really interesting but not relevant, save that for another time. It’s probably too much information anyway.

If your team would like help with focusing their presentations take a look at the Softly Inspired Workshops currently available

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