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Giving a technical briefing.

"Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit...I will be brief."

-William Shakespeare, Hamlet

One of the most common phobias is the fear of speaking in front of an audience. This fear is compounded when someone is asked to give a technical briefing.

Resource managers often must give to decision makers technical briefings that summarize the results of a management study, manpower survey, or intricate budget information. Some believe that a technical briefing should be a just-the-facts type of presentation.

I submit, however, that this is not the case. A technical presentation has to include all the necessary ingredients of a standard briefing: eye contact, proper voice and tone, appropriate gestures to drive home an important point, and other characteristics that are thoroughly addressed in the authoritative briefing guides (such as the Army Management Staff College's Sustaining Base Leadership Management Course).

Remember, the operative word in the word briefing is brief. The "soul of wit" in giving a technical briefing is to reduce complicated data to a concise, easily understandable format that enlightens the decision maker so that he or she can make an informed decision. Too often, presenters of technical information parade an endless stream of poorly prepared charts and graphs that distort the facts, offer voluminous statistical data and figures that boggle the mind, and employ meaningless jargon and acronyms that would make even the most jaded careerist cower in horror.

In this article, I discuss ways to make a technical briefing less intimidating and much friendlier to both the presenter and the audience. A good place to start our discussion is with the unspoken message that a presenter conveys to an audience before he or she starts to speak.

The Unspoken Message

A funny thing happens when you stand in front of a room full of people to give a presentation. Even before you sound out the first syllable, you have communicated a message to the audience.

Imagine yourself sitting in the audience about to hear from a technical "expert" on a comptroller program. How would you respond if this "expert" apathetically dragged his feet to the podium, had a phony-looking smile painted across his face, and sweated heavily in a well-ventilated, air-conditioned room? So far, this person has yet to utter a single word.

However, wouldn't you agree that the unspoken message he has conveyed to the audience is quite clear? Since his body language implies that he would rather be someplace else, you are likely to wish that you too were elsewhere--no matter how good or valuable the information might be.

Presenters have to be there--at the briefing--in mind, body, and spirit. Physically standing at the lectern with your slides and notes, but mentally sitting in one of the upper boxes behind home plate at Yankee Stadium (you know, the spot where all the foul balls go) and cheering on the Bronx Bombers in game seven of the World Series isn't going to cut it. Just like our "expert" in my earlier example, audiences will read you like a comic book and totally shut you out. Your message will fall on deaf ears.

To be effective, a person giving technical briefings needs to know the material and the audience. Failure to master these two points could lead to some shoe-gazing, red-faced embarrassment. Conversely, knowing both the subject matter and the audience will help you avoid the "body-language blues."

Confidence breeds competence! Once you know the material and the audience, you will be more comfortable giving a technical briefing. Don't get me wrong! You want the "butterflies" to remain in your stomach. Their presence helps to keep you on your toes so that you give a good, solid presentation. However, you want those darned butterflies to fly in formation, instead of bouncing off the walls of your stomach.

Know Your Material

"This is really so easy that I can't explain it." How many times have you heard this? The person saying this is telling you half the truth: "I can't explain it." However, he can't explain it because he doesn't know it.

Audiences are savvy. They have a keen sixth sense that alerts them whenever a presenter is spoon-feeding them a hefty helping of hogwash. When this happens, credibility is ruined. A presenter has to do his or her homework; there's simply no short-cut substitute for it. So carefully review the material to make sure you understand it before briefing the topic to a room full of people.

Take advantage of the automation age. Use the Internet to find out as much information as you can about the topic you are going to present. Why not e-mail your counterparts at another military facility? Maybe your buddies in private industry have a spin on the subject. Give them a call! The more information you have, the more confident you will be. And, as I have already mentioned, confidence nurtures competence. It logically follows, then, that the more competent you are, the better will be your mastery of the material. Once you get to this level, you have the basics to putting together a succinct, worthwhile, and informative briefing.

One additional thing...never assume that no one will ever ask that. We all know what happens once you make this assumption, don't we? A good rule of thumb is this: If you thought about the question, chances are someone will ask it. Make sure you have the answer.

Good preparation pays back huge dividends. If you are thoroughly prepared, you won't fall into the that's-so-simple-I-can't-explain-it trap.

Know Your Audience

A briefing should be tailored to the audience. It is up to the individual giving the briefing to know the audience. Failure to do so often results in achieving less-than-desired results, and it frequently leads to some rather unpleasant moments.

This especially is true when presenting technical material. It might be acceptable to use technical terminology when briefing knowledgeable colleagues. However, you'd better stick to common, layperson's terms and expressions when presenting technical information to those outside your realm of expertise.

Briefing senior leaders in command positions offers an excellent example. Most likely, senior commanders and executives have a general knowledge of the topic being briefed. But if you venture into the unforgiving weeds of technical language, acronyms, jargon, and symbols in front of an audience consisting of top-level managers, you're just looking for trouble.

Imagine having charts full of strange-looking Greek (statistical) symbols--such as [SIGMA], [sigma], or [alpha]--thrown at you. How would you react? Remember, senior executives are decision makers. They expect you to reduce the technical jargon and symbols to meaningful information for them so that they can make informed decisions. Giving them a helping of Greek alphabet soup interferes with the message you are trying to communicate. This condition even has its own name: ground noise.

Ground Noise and Data Presentation

In the Signal Corps, ground noise refers to the interference radio operators frequently encounter when transmitting or receiving a message. Too much information being transmitted over a limited frequency bandwidth creates ground noise. The same holds true when someone is giving a briefing. Slides that are too busy have the same effect--they cloud the message.

A technical presenter's reputation can be either built or shattered by the quality of his graphical presentation. Unfortunately, speakers giving technical presentations often make the mistake of giving the audience too much data to absorb or presenting poorly prepared charts, tables, and graphs. Poorly designed, charts, tables, and graphs confuse rather than elucidate, misinform instead of enlighten, and nurture an environment of apprehension instead of building trust and confidence. When decision makers become suspicious--no matter how valid the conclusions and recommendations--the presenter loses their interest, and the message fades from the powerful executive radar screen.

Speakers should present summary information on their slides. Showing a myriad of slides containing columns of raw data, intimidating equations that would make Einstein cringe, and complicated graphs that resemble a New York City subway map adds absolutely no value to the presentation. Rather, they detract from the message being delivered. You want the audience to focus on the methodology, conclusions, and recommendations, nor on the raw data.

Briefing the raw data is like putting a red cape in front of a raging bull. Instead of informing the audience, presenting the raw data produces only frustration. And, like bulls, once listeners are frustrated and annoyed, they will charge--right for the nearest exit.

Automation definitely makes our lives easier. However, it can also cause us to be lazy. A product generated by a computer doesn't mean that it is suitable for a presentation. The following story illustrates this point.

A budget analyst was directed to brief the command's base operation and support accounts. In an effort to conserve time, she decided to make a briefing slide from the printout of the electronic spreadsheet. Unfortunately, the software's default was set on scientific notation. Imagine the puzzled looks on the audience's faces when they saw hideous oddities such as $1.03E+07 and $2.63E+07! Wouldn't it have been much simpler to brief $10.3 million and $26.3 million?

When giving a technical briefing, make sure that graphical displays have the following characteristics:

* A title that succinctly describes the information being presented

* Values properly labeled on the vertical and horizontal axes, within a matrix, and on other types of graphical presentations

* The scales, fonts, and formats set to present an understandable and unbiased picture of the data

There are those professionals who firmly believe that precision is next to godliness. For example, a branch chief once directed her budget analysts to program "to the penny." Precision is not cheap. The more precise the information, the greater the cost. Statistically speaking (unless one is making calculations for a space flight where one degree translates to millions of miles), there is very little difference between 3.7968795897 and 3.8. This especially is true in programming. Yet, these ridiculous, multi-digit monsters regularly accost executive decision makers in conference rooms throughout every command.

Presenters of technical information should make sure that those who eventually receive the information will easily understand it. When briefing technical data, less is more. That is, use fewer slides that condense complicated data into meaningful information that the average person can readily understand. Limit numeric values to three significant digits, such as $10.3 million and $26.3 million. This practice will make data easier to read and will be more user-friendly, understandable, and less suspicious. It also will help avoid the detrimental effects that ground noise can impose on technical briefings.

Once the briefing is assembled, you have to work on your presentation delivery. The presentation is where the rubber hits the road. It can either make you or break you. It all boils down to using a style that sells the message to the executive decision makers.

Delivery

Audiences at a technical briefing expect to be presented facts in a logical, comprehensible format. No amount of PowerPoint bells and whistles can save a presentation that has been inadequately prepared, haphazardly assembled, and poorly briefed in a long-winded, dull, ho-hum manner.

Technical presenters often make the mistake of letting the data do the talking, thereby distancing themselves from the presentation. When this occurs, audiences quickly lose interest. After all, why should they be interested in the message being presented if the person giving it doesn't care?

To hold the audience's attention, the presenter should talk to each listener about the data being presented. As with any other effective briefing, the technical speaker should master the elements of a good presentation:

* Introduce the topic, give the presentation (the body), and summarize the message in a conclusion.

* Maintain eye contact with the audience.

* Use proper voice, tone, and pace.

* Speak in conventional English.

* Adhere to rime limits.

* Use gestures effectively to drive home important points.

Avoid pacing and other nervous habits that could detract from the briefing. For example, speakers should not fuss with their attire or jingle keys or coins in their pockets.

A presentation should sell the message. Therefore, I recommend plenty of practice and rehearsals before the "big day." Practice makes perfect! Do a dress rehearsal in front of a mirror to see whether you have any nervous habits that could detract from the briefing. Use a tape recorder to hear how you sound. Does the presentation sound natural or canned? Are you comfortable using some of the words and terms? Set up mock sessions with colleagues and have them honestly critique your presentation.

Finally, on the day of the briefing, dress for success. Have the briefing area set up to suit your needs. Make sure you know how to work all the audiovisual gadgets and controls--and ensure that they work and are properly focused. It also is helpful to have a glass of water readily available. During the briefing, if you should stumble or lose your train of thought, relax! Don't panic! Walk over and take a sip of water. This will help you to get back on track.

Conclusion

Most people are uneasy when it comes to briefing a room full of people. This is even more so when giving a technical presentation. However, with enough practice, anyone can master the skill of being an effective technical presenter.

Robust preparation is the key: Know the material and know the audience. Avoid knee-jerk responses; audiences know when they are getting a snow job. Be aware that body language can be a distraction. Remember, even before the first word is uttered, a message has already been transmitted to the audience.

In William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Casca, a Roman who didn't understand Greek, listened to a speech delivered in that language. He later characterized the speech by saying, "[B]ur for mine own part, it was Greek to me." A person giving a technical briefing has to reduce complicated material to an easily understandable, logical, and to-the-point presentation in order to enlighten the decision maker so that he or she can make an informed decision. These briefings should encourage an atmosphere of confidence and trust instead of skepticism and apprehension.

If someone briefs a boring, long-drawn-our presentation; presents an endless stream of inaccurate, biased, and indecipherable graphical displays; or uses meaningless jargon, overly precise or fathomable numeric values, and impenetrable acronyms, he or she severely clouds the message (ground noise), makes decision makers suspicious, and potentially could ruin his or her credibility as a presenter of technical information.

A technical briefing has to have all the elements of a standard presentation:

* An introduction, the briefing (body), and a conclusion

* Eye contact with the audience, proper voice, tone, and pace

* Adherence to time limitations and constraints

* Effective use of gestures to emphasis important points

And practice, practice, practice is only way to master briefing skills.

By following the suggestions presented in this article, you won't need to hand out Greek dictionaries when you give a technical presentation!

John Di Genio is a management analyst with the Assistant Chief of Staff, Resource Management, Eighth United States Army, Yongsan Garrison, Seoul, Korea. Vice President of Publicity of the Korea Chapter of ASMC, he is a frequent contributor to Armed Forces Comptroller.
COPYRIGHT 2002 American Society of Military Comptrollers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Genio, John Di
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
Words:2526
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