How to Compel a Non-Technical Audience to Engage in Your Technical Presentation
I recently traveled (digitally!) to New Delhi to discuss this topic with Aman Agarwal for a new episode of my CommunicationsCzar podcast. Agarwal is an AI and autonomous robotics engineer. He is also the founder of Sanpram Transnational, a global education company offering the world’s first technical fluency training program teaching people how to speak intelligently with engineers, hire and manage more effectively, and become technical strategists. Don’t let his impressive credentials scare you off. Agarwal’s approach to explaining technical information to non-technical people is based on empathy and humor.
Agarwal’s unique educational and professional background make him well suited to bridge the chasm that exists between the worlds of the technical and non-technical. In addition to training as an engineer in India, he traveled to China to study liberal arts. “Everything I learned about how to teach and how to explain things better came from my liberal arts background,” he told me. “I was a student of filmmaking and foreign languages and history; and these three disciplines, put together, whatever I know about teaching and explaining things, it comes from there.”
These experiences helped Agarwal form his unique perspective on how professionals in the tech sector, finance, pharmaceutical sales — or any situation where you need to present complex or detailed information or products to people to laypeople — can do so in a manner that will be easy for the audience to follow, engaging for them to listen to, and compelling for them to act upon.
Here are some of Aman’s Do’s & Don’t for presenting technical information to a non-technical audience:
Don’t get technical too soon.
Never start the audience off confused. You will never gain any traction with a group if you start out talking about something foreign to them. You will confuse them early on and, despite everyone’s best intentions, they simply won’t relate to you or what you are saying. By relating everything in terms of what your audience already understands, you will be able to lead them from their place to where you want them to go.
Do start by establishing a simple scene that your audience can relate to.
“Start with the audience being in a comfortable place, and you lead them through the story to where you want them to go” he explains. For example, Agarwal uses chess, or “any other two-person board game where one person is supposed to win,” to start explaining Artificial Intelligence to the lay audience. Once they feel comfortable with what you are talking about, you can lead to “the ah-ha moment where the concept just clicks.” Once they are engaged, then you can tell them where you are going to take them and why they should care.
Do take a page from Harry Potter and introduce new information slowly.
“When you start watching the Harry Potter movie, you start with the character in the small closet under the stairs, in a regular home, and slowly you discover that he can do magic and you are slowly introduced to the world of magic,” Agarwal explains. “If you start with scene number 57 in the 6th movie of Harry Potter, that’s a lot to take in because you don’t know who is Hagrid, what is magic,” he says. Too much detail too soon will overwhelm your audience.
Don’t make it about you.
The goal when you are explaining, selling, or teaching a technical concept is to tell a story that makes the listener, or audience, the protagonist. It’s about them, not about you.
Don’t show overly complex slides.
“In a PowerPoint presentation,” Agarwal relates, “if you start with a complicated flowchart, filling the whole screen and people don’t know which part of the flowchart to look at, you have lost the audience already because they are now out of your narrative. They have paused the film and they are trying to understand what is going in that scene, in that frame, while you are talking.” Avoid this by keeping your visuals simple and easy to follow.
Do consider the different perspectives of the various people in the group you are speaking to.
“If you have empathy and you are trying to understand where your audience is coming from, and that the CEO will have a different perspective than the junior marketing associate of the company,” Agarwal shared, “if you don’t have that empathy, you are trying to be ‘oh, I’m an engineer, and this is what I know, and this is what I am trying to teach…’ That’s not going to work. Instead, think about going backward from what the people you are talking about care about and relate everything to their concerns.”
Don’t include too many details or too much information.
“Sometimes the genius of putting together effective presentations is what you don’t say and what you don’t cover,” Agarwal mused. “As someone from a film background, it’s heartbreaking because every lecture, everything I write, is like a screenplay, some footage that I already made with a lot of love and care and on the final editing table, you’re like, ‘well, actually, it doesn’t fit with the story, so we have to throw it all out.’”
You can hear the complete interview and get more information on Aman Agarwal, the featured Guest Czar on my CommunicationsCzar podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher, or on the website, www.CommunicationsCzar.com.