People who become Engineers or enter any number of technical fields usually have a specific type of brain. In other words, they simply “get it” when it comes to an understanding of how certain things work, whatever that one exact “thing” maybe for them. You know who you are, the one who was asked to help your friends with their Math homework.
However, like most people (yes, Engineers are people too), they are not and cannot be good at everything. Almost universally, one of the areas where many (most) “Techies” struggle and could use improvement, is in communicating, especially to those who are outside of the sphere of their particular niche.
When presenting to “Non-Techies,” you must remember that we are explaining what we inherently grasp. What we often fail to comprehend when presenting the information is that others do not always have the same understanding of the subject matter as we do. Additionally, we quite often rely on specialized vocabulary and certain concepts that are uncommon outside our field. Fresh out of college, I landed a job with a Loudspeaker Manufacturer in Southern California. Where my Father “Just” happened to be the Director of Engineering. Funny how that worked out. One of the first items I was tasked with was to come up with a presentation for a new Sales Team that had just been brought on board on how our products worked. The theory (at least in principle) was that by having a better understanding of how a Speaker worked, they would be better able to sell them and point out to their client’s, the various features and benefits that made our products superior to those of our competitors.
I prepped like a man possessed to be able to sufficiently impress my Boss (AKA, my Father – no pressure there) with my presentation. After several days and armed with a rather impressive set of detailed, comprehensive flip charts, I was ready for my talk. I opened with the following introduction: “A Loudspeaker operates on the same basic principle as a microphone, just in reverse to produce sound derived from an electrical signal. When the A/C electrical signal is applied to the voice coil, the mag wire which is suspended in the gap between the poles of the magnet, the coil is forced to move back and forth due to Faraday’s law of induction, which causes the diaphragm attached to the coil to move back and forth, pushing on the air to create sound waves.” After, about thirty minutes of in-depth, detailed explanation of each one of the principles noted above and armed with the knowledge that sales would now be radically increasing as a result of my thorough presentation. I confidently asked if there were any questions. The first one asked was: “So, does that mean if I yell into the speakers at the Karaoke Bar, my words will come out backward?”
The seconds had something to do with:
“Does that Farrell guy had anything do with the Ice Cream Place down the street. “Both questions were met with hysterical laughter from just about everyone in the audience, including my Boss, who, as I mentioned, was named Dad. A few days later, we tried again with my Boss giving the presentation; there were no detailed flip charts, just a couple of simple ones. In half the time I had taken, he stated in his excellent, educated English accent: “No matter their specific purpose, a speaker makes a noise that can be heard by converting electricity into sound. Our speakers are better because they produce a wider range of sounds, louder for less money. Think of it like getting a BMW for the price of a Ford.” He then explained only the principles and concepts that needed to be, indirect, real everyday speech, using metaphors and analogies that were easily relatable to everyone in the room.
To my surprise and extreme irritation, they were easily able to digest the information, and during their sales calls and as a result, sales increased.
I could not believe that they had not understood something that had always seemed to be so easy for me to grasp and that I had explained to them in such great and excruciating detail. I could not understand for the life of me how THEY did not get it.
It was at that juncture where I learned several important lessons, one of which was that people often have difficulty digesting information when it is masked by words that are unfamiliar or unknown to them. If they are not used to technical jargon, using that jargon in my presentation was just like speaking Spanish to an English-speaking audience. They just didn’t get it. That presentation started me down the path that has led me to where I am today. I have refined those lessons learned and added many others along the way, some of which I would like to share with you.
Know Your Audience
When presenting or speaking to a group of non-technical people, it is essential to know your audience and remember that you are NOT your audience. I cannot stress this enough; they are not fellow Engineers and are looking for you to clarify and explain things in a manner they will understand. You must also stop and ask yourself what is your specific audience, and why are they there? What does the layman need to know? The answers to these questions will help you frame and focus your conversation. Think of these as the design parameters required before beginning a project. Just like you would not start to design a widget, without knowing what the device needed to do, you do not want to start creating your presentation without understanding who you are speaking to, what do they need to know.“Think as little as possible about yourself and as much as possible about other people.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Know Your Sequence and Share What They Need to Know
You must approach your presentation with the understanding that clear and concise always wins over complex and technical. All presentations, no matter their purpose, have a sequence in that they have a beginning, middle, and an end. It is important to note that the first thing presented in the series is best remembered. Information presented toward the end of a talk is also reasonably well placed (though not as well as what you gave at the beginning). The middle of your speech is least well remembered. That means that you need to get the most important thing you want to tell people out right away.
The ancient philosopher Aristotle and the self-improvement guru Dale Carnegie have both been credited with the quote, “tell people what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” You can apply this to your presentation by providing an overview of the critical points in your presentation. Then placing the most critical points in the two positions in which the audience is most likely to remember them.
“Your value will not be what you know; it will be what you share.” – Ginni Rometty
Don’t Data Dump
Engineers love details and all too often are under the mistaken assumption that for their audience to be able to understand anything, they must be told everything. To understand what your widget does, they need to know not only how the device was built but also the design parameters that is was designed to. As a result, your presentations end up with your audience, becoming the victims of an unwanted Data Dump. Think of too much data in your presentation as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic: It looks like you’re doing something helpful and necessary, but it will make no difference in the end. As the theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, once said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” When designing our presentations, one of the ways we trick ourselves is that we use overly complicated vocabulary and technical jargon to mask our inability to explain the concepts only to the audience. In other words, we may have a lot of knowledge about a particular widget. Still, if we can’t simplify it from a communication standpoint, it is unlikely that we will be able to convey anything of importance about the widget to the audience unless they have the same knowledge base and are familiar with the complicated vocabulary and technical jargon being used. “If your experiment needs statistics, you ought to have done a better experiment.” – Earnest Rutherford
Metaphors, Analogies, and Stories
Metaphors and analogies are a powerful way to simplify a complex idea or concepts in your presentation and are significant because they give the audience a familiar point of reference to make sense of the unfamiliar, in this case, your widget. Whenever possible, draw parallels that make it straightforward for the audience to understand and offer comparisons that are relevant and easy to recognize.
Complex ideas don’t have to be challenging to deliver or challenging to understand. By knowing your audience, simplifying the information you present, and drawing parallels to things that are known, you can explain difficult concepts with clarity and ease. For example, you are tasked with giving a presentation to a group of entry-level salespeople for a Resistor Manufacturer that has no background in Electronics. As part of that presentation, you will need to explain Ohm’s law to them. You could say that Ohm’s law states that the voltage across a resistor is directly proportional to the current flowing through the resistance, which none of them will understand. However, you could also use the analogy that is given in every Introduction to Electronics course, which uses the size of the water pipes and faucets to explain the concept. By only using this analogy of a larger tube and faucet (less resistance), the more water comes out—the smaller the pipe and faucet (more resistance), the less water that comes out. The concept then is easily relatable to just about everyone in the room, which has indoor plumbing.”I can think of nothing that an audience won’t understand. The only problem is to interest them; once they are interested, they understand anything in the world.” — Orson Welles
Focus on the Benefits
Focus on benefits, not technicalities in your presentation, because they answer the question that is important to the audience, “why does this matter to me?” So, even though you or someone else may have spent months or even years designing the widget that everyone is incredibly proud of, always follow your points about each feature with the sentence “the benefit of this is….” If you ask yourself the question “what are they concerned about?” as it relates to your audience, you find that the answer to that is themselves. To put it plainly, they care about their specific issues and what they want to know the widget can solve them or how it benefits them. For example, Uber has never positioned itself as just being an alternative to taxis; they focused on the benefits of offering you, in this example the audience, an entirely new experience for traveling and someday replacing your car with a cheaper, more convenient alternative. When you look at your widget as a solution and can easily articulate the benefits of your answer to your audience, you’re speaking your audience’s language.”The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” – Sydney J. Harris
Communicating detailed technical is not as hard and intimidating as it may seem. As any teacher will tell you, the simple act of being able to explain concepts in exact, concise verbiage without having to rely on technical jargon and terms, forces you as the presenter to understand them better yourself. Simply taking the time know your audience, sharing the needed information, and how your audience will benefit from it can and will yield immediate, confident, and significant results to your presentations. Remember this, with a little effort, and you too can learn to stop worrying and love the presentation. I’ll cover the topics here in much deeper dives, along with many others in future blogs.
Keep in mind that people at all levels from Hourly Workers to C-Level Executives, really appreciate technical people who can communicate with non-tech people clearly and effectively. It is a rare skill that translates into promotions and bigger paychecks almost every time.
If you value your career, get better at it.