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Giving technical presentations to non-technical audiences; Part 2: pitfalls in preparation.

Avoiding the "Detail Trap" and the "Logic Trap" will help you find a message the audience cares about.

Last time, we discussed ways to overcome stage fright. One cause of stage fright is feeling disconnected from the audience--which can easily happen when you realize you have no useful message for them. The cure for this, of course, is simple. Always have a message about which both you and the audience care.

Unfortunately, simple does not mean easy. We all have instincts that pull us toward self-centered or thing-oriented messages. So, before we discuss solid principles of preparation, let's clear away some obstacles by examining major pitfalls.

As you read on, look back on your own presentations. Do you tend to stumble into these traps? And how could you have done it better?


In talking to non-technical audiences, many presenters seem to have an irresistible urge to educate, down to a level of excruciating detail. Often, the "educational" approach springs from an urge to impress: "Look how complex this stuff is I'm doing." Will it win you admiration? Try resentment instead--plus a warning from your boss to keep things simple next time!

Here is an example. Suppose you have been asked to present on the fancy new Super FX Microscope in your department. Immediately, the Detail Trap is waiting for you. It invites you to sit down and, without further ado, put together a murderous slide show: Slides 1-5: previous technology (pictures of equipment, tables of specs). Slides 6-11. Technical developments that made the new technology possible. Slides 12-20: Key components of the Super FX Microscope. Slides 21-40: Table of technical specifications and exactly what they mean. Slides 41-45: The incredibly fine skills needed to operate this equipment. Slide 46: The training you and others received in how to operate this equipment and its associated software. Slide 47: How you have been using this microscope and hope to use it in the future. Done!

However, does the audience care about any of this? To take the case of managers present, wouldn't they rather know what benefits the company has already reaped from this technology, what new business opportunities it may have opened up, and what savings it has generated (for instance, by avoiding expensive and slow outside laboratory analyses)?


Another fallacy is to assume that the "internal logic" of things must be honored and will fill the audience with satisfaction. For instance, presenting a process in complete time sequence, from origin to destination, seems almost inevitable to many presenters.

Suppose you are presenting on your investigation of a quality problem. The Logic Trap would lure you into a blow-by-blow description of what happened:

1. The mill had a customer complaint.

2. They sent us some samples.

3. The samples couldn't be analyzed with traditional methods.

4. We invented a new method.

5. The method was good, but the samples were insufficient and not quite from the right area of the product.

6. We requested new samples and analyzed these.

7. The results were very hard to interpret, but we searched the literature and came up with some powerful statistical methods.

8. The mill used the results to adjust production, but there were still some complaints.

9. We received new samples ...

Again, the question is: Does the audience care? Or are they more interested in a short description of the quality problem, directly followed by your ultimate findings and how they helped solve the problem? Once you've given them that, they might be receptive to some brief explanations of the methods applied on this project--just enough to satisfy them that the solution is based on a sound analysis.


Cheryl and Peter Reimold have been teaching communication skills to engineers, scientists, and businesspeople for 20 years. Their latest book, The Short Road to Great Presentations (Wiley, 2003), is available in bookstores and from Their consulting firm, PERC Communications (phone: 1 914 725-1024, e-mail:, offers businesses consulting and writing services, as well as customized in-house courses on writing, presentation skills, and on-the-job communication skills. Visit their web site at

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Title Annotation:Language of Business
Author:Reimold, Peter
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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