A Road Map for Preparing Your Next Tech Talk

Three steps from WE18 and TED Talk speaker Melissa Marshall on how to create a compelling and engaging tech talk that will wow your audience.
Melissa Marshall

By Melissa Marshall, Technical Presentations Expert and Founder of Present Your Science

We’ve all been there…staring at the blank computer screen (with PowerPoint open!) and trying to figure out just how to get started on that next presentation that is due. Sometimes the task feels daunting and getting started is often the hardest part!  In this post, I would like to offer a few strategies to help you reach success as you plan and prepare for your next technical presentation.

A Road Map for Preparing Your Next Tech Talk

Step 1: Who are you speaking to?

It is so easy to get immediately focused on the what YOU need to accomplish. What are the ideas YOU want to get across?  How are YOU most comfortable talking about them? What could go on the slides that would help YOU to remember what to cover?  This is an easy trap that most presenters fall into and it leads to what I call speaker-centered speaking. This is the default setting for most of us…it is much easier and more intuitive to prepare a talk that suits our needs. But it isn’t a successful strategy.

Ultimately, talks are ALWAYS for an audience.  As a speaker, you don’t get to assign success to yourself (“Wow! My talk was awesome!”).  The success of every talk is determined by how it is received by the audience.  Your ability to be successful as a presenter depends upon your ability to make your audience successful.  This approach is called audience-centered speaking and it changes the whole game!  The audience-centered approach means that you prioritize the needs of your audience at each stage in the development of your talk.  Why does my audience need this talk?  What level of technical content is appropriate for them? How can my slides best help them to understand and remember my content?  These are the questions that audience-centered speakers ask themselves when preparing their talks.

A Road Map for Preparing Your Next Tech Talk

ACTION ITEM: At every stage in your talk, prioritize the needs and interests of your audience and design your talk with that in mind.  Ask yourself: What makes sense for my audience here?

Step 2: What is your story?

Figuring out what details to cover can be a challenging part of any technical presentation. Audiences appreciate speakers who can filter and focus their ideas so that the most important parts of the story are clear. But how to do this?  I recommend a storyboarding approach.

A storyboarding approach asks you to consider the story lines that you want to convey to your audience.

One storyline = One sentence.

First consider what is the most important idea that you want your audience to walk away from your talk with. When I’m coaching others, I ask them to consider, “What do you want your audience to walk out of the room believing or understanding about your topic?”   Write this at the top of your paper.  This is your central message.  Then ask yourself “What would I need to cover for my audience in order for them to get there?”  This should lead to 2-4 connecting ideas (that you can flesh out during the talk) that support the central message.  With this simple exercise, you have immediately created a skeleton outline for the talk where each connecting idea leads to your central message. The result is a more filtered and focused talk.

A Road Map for Preparing Your Next Tech Talk

ACTION ITEM: Begin with a storyboarding approach where you identify the central message first and then the supporting ideas.  Once you have this basic structure, then you can add on additional details, but make sure those details all relate back to the central story structure.

Step 3: What role do slides play?

Notice that you have done a lot of thinking and preparation already before we’ve ever talked about slides.  This matters!  I think that too often, presenters start their thinking with an open PowerPoint file in front of them and this leads to lots of words and bullet points on slides and way too much detail.  These types of text-heavy, crowded slides are one of the biggest symptoms of speaker-centered speaking.  And they are very unsuccessful for an audience.

Slides are much more successful if you convey one key take-away message on each slide and then support that idea with visual evidence for that idea. Too often, we try to cram way too many messages onto a slide and the result is a disaster for both speaker and audience.

Many times, in trying to solve this problem, some leaders will create arbitrary limits on the number of slides for a talk in a meeting (for example: 5 slides for a 30-minute presentation) to try to solve the problem of speakers covering too much during a presentation.  I see this all the time in the companies that I work with to help improve their technical presentations. But this approach usually backfires, and the result is 5 slides that are crowded, unfocused and don’t convey a clear story.

Instead, I recommend the following: Each slide should have one claim or take-away message and that claim should be supported by visual evidence. This way, the slides are being built around focused messages and claims (which will lead to better content!), instead of arbitrary slide limits.

A Road Map for Preparing Your Next Tech Talk

ACTION ITEM:Think one take-away message per slide. Support that take-away with a visual.   No more than 1 slide per minute of talk time (and that number should go down the more technical your content is). A great question to ask yourself about every slide you design: Does my slide do something for me that words cannot?
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I’ll take a much deeper dive into how to design slides that capture your audience and achieve clarity of your technical content during my upcoming WE18 Mega Session “Present Your Science: Transforming Slide Design." Register for WE18, the Annual Conference of the Society of Women Engineers, today.  See you there!

About the Author

A Road Map for Preparing Your Next Tech Talk
Melissa Marshall, Technical Presentations Expert and Founder of Present Your Science

Melissa Marshall is on a mission: to transform how scientists and engineers present their work. That’s because she believes that even the best science is destined to remain undiscovered unless it’s presented in a clear and compelling way that sparks innovation and drives adoption.

Melissa is a sought-after speaker and coach and is the founder of Present Your Science. For a decade, she’s traveled around the world to work with Fortune 100 corporations, institutions and universities, teaching the proven strategies she’s mastered through her consulting work and during her tenure as a faculty member with the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences at Penn State University.

If your organization needs a powerful training on improving technical presentations, you’ll find that Melissa practices what she preaches—her talks are lively, practical and transformational. For a sneak peek, check out her TED talk, “Talk Nerdy to Me.” It’s been watched by more than 2 million people (and counting).

When you work with Melissa, you will get the practical skills and natural confidence to shift from“information dump”-style presentations into ones that are meaningful, engaging, and inspire people to take action.