Posted by: thebylog | November 4, 2008

Theory about technical presentations

I have a theory about technical talks, one which will sound like a no-brainer.  Yet, this principle is ignored again and again by well-meaning presenters who glory in the minutiae of their talks and spectacularly lose their audience as soon as they get past the introduction which includes pretty pictures and descriptions of the context in which their methods can be applied. 

The theory: People will like your talks more if they understand them. 

If you agree that more difficult work is generally harder to understand (though this does not account for the skill of the presenter), a corollary of the theory is that a significant predictor of how much people enjoy your talk is how difficult it is.  The more complicated, the less they will understand and the less they will like it.

Presenters don’t lose people on purpose, but they fail to realize that almost everyone in their audience is not familiar with the type of work that they are doing.  This is so easy to do, because a talk is really an unfair way to present technical material.  You flash up slides for a minute, and then go on to the next.  If there’s any sort of tricky reasoning or background knowledge required, the audience has little chance of absorbing it unless they happen to be familiar with the background or type of reasoning involved.  Thus, a talk should emphasize concepts over technicalities, but this is hard to do when your concepts depend upon an understanding of technicalities.  This is the presenter’s challenge.



  1. I agree. This week in the horticulture department seminar we had a good example of a presenter (Dr. Carl Jordan from UGA) remembering this fact and giving a solid presentation that everyone could follow.

    He was talking about evaluating sustainability and stability in agricultural production. I’ve heard many people talk about this type of research before, yet his was the first presentation I could follow start to finish.

    Hooray for good communication skills.

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