Take that byte right out of your mouth

Better presentation skills, not the latest geekspeak, will get you ahead

presenters
Credit: Thinkstock

Geekspeak has taken over — far too much for its own good.

When articles mocking or berating tech jargon are commonplace, it's time to rethink why, exactly, we all love it so much. Sooner or later, your senior management, potential investors or customers will run out of patience with obscure, insider lingo and extraneous, overwhelming statistics.

Even the most brilliant tech professional risks losing out to a more articulate and persuasive competitor for a bigger budget, a promotion, a new job, a funding round or a new business.

To beat the odds, become a better presenter. Granted, it's a big commitment, but you're in control of the entire process, right down to the Q&A (as you'll see below). You can research a wide array of content, experiment with different approaches, practice and bolster your confidence.

(Part 2 of this series on communications will explore how you can better navigate the world of all those texts, emails, tweets and comments shooting back and forth between us 24/7.)

Here's a step-by-step plan for a digestible, compelling masterpiece that will impress decision-makers who matter most to your career:

1. Clearly Define Your Purpose and Outcome

Whether you're speaking words or writing them, start by letting your audience know the purpose and outcome. The purpose is what you want to accomplish in a speech or written document; the outcome is what you want the audience or readers to do with the information you provide.

Tell them what you're going to cover and why you've covering it, then build a bridge between your purpose and outcome.

2. Minimize the Noise that Weakens Your Signal

You don't need every last detail, the noise of your presentation, to convince listeners. Go easy on the “what if” extrapolations in an attempt to cover every possible argument against your plan. View “just in case” data dumps cautiously, too.

Instead, envision your “signal” — your main message — made exciting and credible by the right data in the right amount. Relevant data (especially if they're surprising and counterintuitive) in small doses will help virtually any audience grasp complex themes.

3. Write and Speak in Clear, Concise, Everyday Language

Use concrete, specific language and the active voice (it makes the subject the doer). Limit tech terms, explain the ones you must use, and avoid acronyms unless they're part of everyday dialog (e.g., NASA, IBM, USA).

Keep only those words that are absolutely necessary.

4. Use Simple, High-Impact Visuals

We love imagery's power, so make the most of it.

Like your presentation's text, this requires disciplined brainstorming, but you'll have fun choosing from a limitless selection on the internet alone. (Make sure you follow any copyright laws.)

Graphics you design can cleverly highlight alternative or converging issues and statistics. What you don't want is screen captures, spreadsheets, charts and graphs, multiple lines of text and heavy-looking technical listings.

5. Draft, Edit, Test and Rehearse Your Presentation

For every hour you spend writing the first draft, budget three hours for editing, rehearsing and rewriting. Here's a simple regimen to follow:

• Rewrite your first draft numerous times, with each succeeding version tighter, shorter and more informative than its predecessor.

• Put your work to the test by presenting it to a “non-tech” colleague and compare it to good writers' works and great speeches you admire.

• Rehearse. Read your article or presentation aloud and audiotape it to benchmark your progress. The flow should be smooth, and your delivery confident.

6. Provide a Brief and Compelling Summary

Recap your main points with short, emphatic sentences.

7. Conclude with an Enthusiastic Q&A

A Q&A session gives you the chance to clarify an issue some might have missed and reinforce a sense of urgency.

Here are some simple rules to guide you:

• Ask, “What questions do you have?” instead of “Do you have any questions?” It's a subtle telegraphing you want feedback and helps people feel comfortable about talking publicly. Then pause briefly to allow audience members to compose their thoughts and raise their hands.

• Repeat questions aloud and finish with a friendly “Is that right?” or “Do I get what you mean?” to confirm you understand them. This also ensures everyone hears your exchange and gives you an extra moment to shape your response.

• Neutralize challenging questions by tying them back to a key section of your presentation. Leave out any commentary, such as “That's a tough one” or “I'm glad you asked.” Staying resolutely nonjudgmental keeps you calm, and you leave no one miffed because you didn't praise their question.

• For formal written communications, consider including a frequently asked questions (FAQ) segment with your contact information in it. Close colleagues won't have to read things they already know and others have background information they may require.

Once the Q&A ends, display and distribute your phone numbers, email, your blog's title, Twitter username, etc.

8. Pin these words next to your desk:

"It is not about bits, bytes and protocols, but profits, losses and margins."

— Lou Gerstner, chairman and CEO of IBM, 1993-2002

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