Wednesday, September 7, 2011

From the vault: Balancing technical & non-technical for mixed audiences

(Editor's note: I've updated this post, one of the most popular ever on the blog, because this question just keeps coming up. Here, your balanced formula for presentations.)


A young executive in a special training program at a multinational corporation wrote in because she's riding a see-saw on a particular presentation issue. Here's how she puts it: "Technical people want details that execs don't. How do we balance this?"
She's got a lot of company. Scientists and non-scientists tell me they have trouble presenting when there will be both scientists and non-scientists in the group.  My clients tell me they want to show what they know, and they anticipate the technical experts in the audience will criticize them for leaving out details. At the same time, they know the decision-makers' eyes will glaze over if too much detail is presented. It's a special dilemma for the presenter who's a scientist or technical expert--and the non-expert presenting before an audience full of smart folks.

This happens a lot in corporate cultures, but not exclusively: Government officials and even nonprofits will find occasions when a technical expert's knowledge is needed to help a group of important decision-makers get informed on key issues.  At some point, technical folks need to work with fundraisers, marketers, policymakers, decision-makers of all kinds. 

My recommendations?
  • Know the purpose of the presentation.  If it's to help non-technical executives make a decision, that should guide your path. If it's to show your technical expertise and eye for detail, that's another thing entirely.
  • Most important: Who's the decision-maker in the room?  If the room is packed with Nobel laureates, but the decision-maker is not, peg your remarks to the leader. And since that person is likely highly intelligent to begin with, don't dumb it down, but remember...
  • Even an audience of experts appreciates a clear, compelling presentation. Secretly, technical folks admire short and sweet presentations--despite the flow of questions that may follow--and the non-technical folks will thank you, again and again.
  • Define your territory.  State at the outset--and throughout your presentation--how far you will and will not be diving into detail. Both groups will appreciate that, and you'll head off some questions as well as subtly demonstrate that you do have the data, even if you're not showing it. 
  • Structure your presentation with a 3-point message:  Developing a three-point message helps you add focus and boil down the technical details into three themes, results or decision-making points. A message also can help you stick to simple, clear terms that any listener can follow, a must in this type of presentation. You can also work to make it more memorable by dressing it up with analogies, alliteration and other rhetorical tools.  In this type of presentation, use the three points strategically: to summarize findings (the three most surprising points), what will appeal to key audiences (the points you think donors or venture capitalists will appreciate), or decision opportunities (the points that suggest a change of course).
  • Head off some questions with advance information.  Can you post more detailed charts, data sets and analyses on an intranet or website sent to participants in advance? Then do it, and refer to that summary in the presentation.  "The data sets are all available at this URL, but for this morning, I want to focus on this..."
  • Leave something for the Q&A.  Don't underestimate the value of leaving some detail for the question-and-answer session.  You can even allude to your willingness to present it later: "We can go into this in more depth later if you like, but the main takeaway from our research is...." will go a long way to signaling to both groups your ability to ride that see-saw: You've got the details, but are passing over them to get to the results.
  • Speak to both groups when answering questions:  When you do get a high-tech question, be sure to answer in a way that both groups can appreciate. ("You're quite right, Fred--that does look like an anomaly. But the bottom line is that it should not affect a 'go' decision....")
Chemist Carolyn Bertozzi does a great job with that approach in this public lecture on "why sugars are good for you," below.  Note that she mentions a few items that her technically savvy colleagues will want to know, but keeps her general message at a level anyone can follow:



Share your additional questions, tips or challenges in the comments. What kinds of presentations are you making to audiences of technical and non-technical experts?

Related post:  What's the difference between when scientists present to other scientists, and to the public?

This post and the "what's the difference?" post noted above were included in the weekly roundup of the best public speaking articles in the blogosphere on Andrew Dlugan's great Six Minutes blog. Thanks, Andrew!

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