Monday, March 9, 2009

Ten Tips for Technical Presentations

Today I attended the morning session of Sun’s open source day in Malta. I was pretty disappointed by the quality of the sessions. These sorts of events cost time and money, doing them badly can do more harm than good. I don’t think Sun did themselves any favours today.

I thought I’d share some tips that I have picked up over the years that would have made today a better experience for the audience.

  1. Always introduce yourself and what you are presenting. I watched 4 presenters today where only one did this. I want to know who is talking and more importantly what the talk is about.

  2. Understand the single message you want to get across to your audience and make sure the presentation supports it. It’s very easy to try and include the kitchen sink when you have an hour with a captive audience. However, it’s better to use that time to get a single message across that trying to cover many different facets of the subject.

  3. Articulate the goals of the presentation and conclude with a recap. This seems obvious but a presentation should have an agenda. This clearly defines what you will cover and lets the audience know what to expect. The content should circle back on these goals and ultimately leave the audience feeling they learned something useful.

  4. Tailor your material to run in the time allotted. Two of the presenters apologized for having too many slides then proceeded to rush through the content. It renders the session pointless.

  5. Understand your audience. Most presentations I see the audience is usually curious but not an actual user. There is an art to presenting information to new users and I confess I haven’t quite figured this one out yet, but I am conscious of it and do seek other people’s opinions.

  6. Always provide the 'Why' in your material, all I heard today was the 'What'. Try and answer some fundamental audience questions such as-

    • Why should I give you an hour of my time?

    • Why should I use this project/approach/pattern?

    • Why is this method better than others?

    • Why will I remember this talk?

  7. It is almost inevitable in a technical presentation that you’ll want to look at code. Code and slides don’t usually work well together and IDE resolution is usually too small. Make sure that any code will be readable 30 feet away and ensure you don’t bombard the audience with reams of code that they cannot absorb.

  8. Always solicit feedback. You have a captive audience, use them to ask a few yes/no questions that will help you understand the level of knowledge of your audience. The feedback can be used when delivering the presentation right away and in future.

  9. Reduce technical jargon. You can only get across a couple concepts in an hour. Make sure you describe and reiterate these. Remember these should tie into the goals and overall message of the presentation.

  10. Learn from others. Use resources such as to watch other presentations. Note the ones you like and figure out why. Doing good presentations is a skill and like any other skill you need to practice and learn from others.

Also see: Giving effective product demonstrations.

UPDATE: Tadayoshi Sato has translated this post in Japanese. Thanks Tadayoshi!