How to jazz up your technical presentation

Storytelling and sharing failures—with humor—can help you tap into your audience’s emotions, even when the subject matter seems a bit dry.

My first slide was labeled “The Crime Scene”—certainly not the norm for a technical paper on vortex-induced vibrations.

I saw confusion and surprise on the faces of the audience. This was going to be interesting.

A few years ago, I presented a technical paper at an international conference. The paper was about experiments that had been performed by our group, and the results had been surprising.

After months of work, our team had come up with a controversial explanation—one that most researchers would not have intuitively guessed. My paper that day was about those experiments and the unusual results.

I wanted to introduce a story into my presentation and, after some thought, decided to relate the presentation as a Sherlock Holmes mystery case. This controversial and hugely popular character seemed a good fit.

I planned my presentation like a Sherlock Holmes case; it began at the crime scene, which was our lab. The data we collected was the evidence. In my presentation, I shared our struggles to find a solution, which were eerily similar to what Holmes goes through in his cases.

Finally, the famous assertion associated with Sherlock Holmes, “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” provided the perfect setup to introduce the controversial and unexpected hypothesis proposed to explain the experimental data. As with all Sherlock Holmes cases, once the observations were explained, it seemed obvious.

Scientific presentations, especially those that involve data, are difficult to present in an interesting manner. Among the sea of good research and interesting ideas, only a few stand out.

Why do some technical presentations stand out? How do people bring a technical presentation to life?

Here are four suggestions that will help bring your data-rich presentation to life:

Focus on the story, not the agenda.

For thousands of years, stories have been used to make information memorable. Parents, grandparents, and village elders shared stories with children that captured their knowledge, experience, and traditions. They understood that the story will make the information memorable.

The same holds true of scientific presentations. The information that you provide is remembered mostly because of the story you tell.

The story could be about an actual incident related to the information being presented, but it might also be a clever connection to the presentation, as with my Sherlock Holmes story. It is much better to spend your time working on a good story than to put together the best agenda. (I did not even have an agenda slide in my Sherlock Holmes presentation.)

Surprise is a powerful tool; use it.

People commonly bring their approach to writing in the corporate environment to presentations. Corporate reports usually begin with an “executive summary,” in which the final results and conclusions are presented up front in a concise manner. These reports are distributed without much focus, and the “executive summary” allows busy executives to get to the key findings without wading through the details. Those interested can dig deeper into the document.

Unfortunately, the “executive summary” slide is all too common in scientific presentations. Speakers forget that those attending their presentation form a focus group of interested scientific minds who want to know more about the topic.

By presenting the key conclusions up front, presenters lose the ability to surprise their audience with their findings and provide profound “ah-ha” moments. These emotions are what will make their information memorable. Sharing unexpected but profound results at the end helps build anticipation during the presentation, and the surprising results make the information memorable.

Failures are valuable; share them.

Thomas Edison’s most famous quote, “I have not failed; I have just found 10,000 ways it won’t work,” shows how well failure captures our attention.

Sharing adversity forges a human connection among people. Scientists are no different. Sharing scientific failures says, “I’m human.” Not sharing them says, “I’m smarter than you are.”

Sharing failures also let you add humor to a story. Failures make it real; failures make it memorable. Every insightful data point has behind it tons of information that did not make sense and copious experiments that did not work.

The ability to laugh at these “crazy” ideas is a sure way of connecting with the audience. It should not surprise you that in my Sherlock Holmes talk, I shared my struggles to make sense of the experimental data.

People remember concepts, not content.

Have you see a presentation in which slides are used as documentation tools? Every conclusion is listed; every chart and data point is included.

When I come across such a presentation-unfortunately a frequent occurrence-I wonder why I am attending. I could have read a document containing this information.

Data and content by themselves do not make for a memorable presentation. People get excited about concepts, ideas, and passionate work. Those are the reasons I attend presentations.

Information and content can, and should be, shared in technical papers, corporate reports, and white papers. The concept and key insights are what face-to-face interaction is about. A presentation that covers too much information, fails to develop the key insights, and does not engage the emotions of the audience has missed the mark.

It would have been better if the presenter had prepared a detailed document and given the audience the rest of the presentation to read it and ask for clarifications. No presentation was required.

Use these ideas to tap into your audience’s emotions and make your next data-focused presentation an unforgettable experience for your audience.

Vikas Jhingran is a speaker, author, engineer, and author of “EMOTE: Using Emotions to Make Your Message Memorable.” A version of this article first appeared on the thoughtLEADERS blog.

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