Author: Joe H., Inflow Engineer
If you spend enough time working in the modern technical sector, you have likely been called upon to present something from your field to an audience that doesn’t have the same technical background as you. You’ve almost certainly sat through such presentations as an audience member, while some poor technical expert tries to explain something using technical terms that are foreign to you. In both cases, the gap in knowledge bases can make the experience painful for everyone involved. In this post, we’ll take a look at some ways to bridge this gap and communicate technical ideas in a captivating, understandable manner.
Technical individuals typically work with other equally educated individuals. Doctors consult with other doctors, engineers work with other engineers, etc. As a result, they have a tendency to create highly technical presentations which assume a high level of working knowledge of the topic being discussed. When asked to present to a non-technical crowd, the typical technical worker will take one of these detailed presentations and instead of re-working it to bring the level of information down to that of the audience, they will add content to attempt to educate the audience up to the level of a technical expert. On the surface this makes sense because the purpose of a presentation is to educate the audience, but there’s simply not enough time in a presentation to convey an expert level of knowledge. A more effective approach is to ignore some of the technical details and focus on conveying the overall concept being presented.
When you step back and look at it, focusing on concepts instead of details makes more sense. As the expert giving the presentation, you don’t need to justify your technical decision to a non-technical crowd. It’s enough to say that you’ve done a detailed analysis on the topic and touch on the high points. For example, if you are being treated for cancer and the doctor presents you with treatment options and side effects, you are not interested in the medical research that created those treatments or the exact mechanisms by which the treatments work. For a presentation, this means that instead of spending three or more slides on terminology and basic concepts, you should be focusing on the impact of the topic. If there’s real interest in the details behind the topics, you can always follow up offline.
Perhaps the best example of this approach are the Feynman Lectures . Richard Feynman starts with three and a half chapters explaining the concept of physics in general before presenting a single equation. He then explains where the equations fit into this overall concept, instead of trying to teach the equations and then construct the concept of physics from those equations. As a result, the lecture content is accessible to technical and non-technical individuals alike. So, how do we achieve that same level of accessibility in your presentations?
The key is to change your approach to putting together presentations. Instead of building a presentation by translating your technical analysis into PowerPoint and then toning it down, start with the conclusion of your research. Spend the first two-thirds of your talk on the conclusion and its impact. Once you’ve written that part of the presentation, then you can add in some of the supporting technical details. If you find that the presentation is starting to contain more slides on technical details than on concepts, take some of those technical slides and put them into an appendix after the main presentation.
At first this will probably be difficult to do, since this exactly the opposite of the approach you would use to build a presentation for a technical audience. With a little bit of practice, you’ll find that it gets much easier and your presentations will be much more accessible to non-technical audiences. Good luck!
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