By Nigel Oseland, Toastmasters International.
However great and unique your new product or service, if you need to explain the tech in front of an audience, this can be very challenging. There’s important information to get across that may not actually be very ‘sexy’ and yet the audience needs to hear it and absorb it – without falling asleep part-way through!
Having attending hundreds of conferences over the years I’ve concluded that, generally, there are two types of technical speaker: 1. those with fantastic content but poor delivery, and 2. those that present well but have poor content.
Speakers with good content who can also communicate it in an interesting and engaging manner are rare indeed.
Based on my experience, here are my top tips for a terrific technical talk.
- Prepare yourself – Too often speakers turn up minutes before their presentation. Consequently, they may not know how to use the audio-visual technology and they spend their all-important opening asking the chair or the AV technician how to advance slides. You can also miss out on being fitted with a lapel mic and so be tethered to the lectern.
Arrive a little early and speak to the technician and the chair. Ideally, you’ll have confirmed the timing in advance of the conference but double-check with the chair as programmes change/slip. Remember to leave time for questions and establish whether that is within or outside your time allowance. It’s always worthwhile giving the chair, in advance, a question to ask you; audiences usually require a question before warming up. Also provide the chair with some interesting information they can use in an introduction, not just your official bio.
- Reel them in at the start – Hook your audience from the beginning and grab their attention; make them want to listen.
Try opening your presentation with a provocative statement, perhaps pose a question to the audience or offer an amusing anecdote. Above all, be confident, be bold, be passionate and be audible – project your voice to attract attention, don’t mumble.
Don’t forget to introduce yourself, your credentials, and your interests/purpose. Often the audience doesn’t catch the introduction by the chair or, at larger conferences, they confuse speakers and their subject, so display your contact details on screen (at the start and end of your speech).
Also, briefly introduce your fellow researchers and department, without overtly boasting or making it a sales pitch. Use the first minute to share your passion and personality to gain the audience’s trust. Also introduce your presentation and tell the audience what you will be speaking on.
Psychologists have demonstrated the “serial position effect” in which people tend to recall better the first and last things they hear. So, also end on a high. Let the audience know you have finished by summing up, finishing with a poignant quote or leaving them with a call to action. Practice your speech and specifically practice your opening and closing.
- Engage your audience – The opening to your speech will attract attention but to maintain it you’ll need to be engaging and possibly entertaining.
Inject energy through your passion for the subject, consider your vocal variety; changing volume and pitch. Humour will also help keep your audience engaged – but only offer amusing anecdotes or observations relevant to your topic, not random jokes. Likewise, offer strong opinions and the occasional provocative comment, rather than sitting on the fence.
Don’t hide behind the lectern but come forward and use the stage area. Consider your body language, eye contact and movement across the stage, which can all help with audience engagement. If you’re confident, and have time, ask questions of the audience or perhaps ask them to discuss an issue in pairs.
- Know your audience – This will enable you to pitch the right level of technical detail and understanding – not too little that you lose credibility but not too much so that you lose the audience or appear arrogant.
When presenting data, don’t get too bogged down by all the details and caveats – you can offer more details in the question and answer period or refer people to your papers, website or blog.
Offer your personal insights and experience. Try and say something new that’s not already in the public domain.
- Avoid the pitfalls – There are two main speaker crimes at technical conferences, in my opinion:
- Don’t turn your back to audience and read off the projection. Ideally, there’ll be a monitor in front of you which you can refer to if needed, or even better, practice and know your presentation off by heart.
- Don’t over-use tables and charts. Often the charts are complicated but, due to lack of time, the speaker doesn’t explain and the information is lost. Similarly, avoid slides and slides of bullet points. Try to simplify your slides, just present the relevant material to your point, and always leave the audience wanting more.
The worst crime is presenters reading their speeches or, worse, reading their research. This is no fun for anyone, and certainly not interesting or engaging. Audiences don’t like being read to and would prefer to read the research by themselves. It also indicates lack of practice which may be interpreted as lack of respect for the conference participants.
Likewise, don’t read your slides, especially bullet points. Some find it insulting as people can usually read quicker than someone can speak and if we read the slides then what’s the point of the presenter being there! If you do use bullet points, attempt to make each one a memorable phrase or a soundbite.
“It’s not what you say but what the audience remembers that counts”, according to an old speakers’ adage. Practice the above pointers to gain confidence in speaking and ensure your audience enjoys and remembers you, your presentation, your research and your product or service.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nigel Oseland is a member of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. There are more than 400 clubs and 10,000 members in the UK and Ireland. Members follow a structured educational programme to gain skills and confidence in public and impromptu speaking, chairing meetings and time management. To find your nearest club, visit www.toastmasters.org