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Giving technical presentations to non-technical audiences; Part 5: a fail-safe structure for your ideas.

An effective structure is driven not by logic but by listener psychology, especially people's natural attention curve.

Last time (June 2004 issue), you saw how to develop strong, audience-focused material. Now you must mold your points into a well-structured talk. Fortunately, this is not something that demands a lot of complex decisions. That is because there is basically only one structure that works well: (1) a four-part introduction, followed by (2) a simple body containing only a few key points backed up in varied ways, followed by (3) a brief summary.

In a technical presentation to technical peers, there might be some excuse for deviating from this structure, because everybody (you hope!) is in a working mood and will give your points full attention no matter how garbled your organization. But even there, the discussion will show much greater quality if you guide it with an effective structure. Let's consider this structure in more detail, beginning with the Introduction. We will discuss Body and Summary next time.


We mentioned an important difference between presentations to technical peers and those to non-technical audiences: when you talk to peers, you can often count on an atmosphere of common challenge or shared commitment, even before you open your mouth. With non-technical audiences, you have to create this shared commitment. That is the job of your introduction.

A good introduction achieves this goal in four parts. Think of it as a commitment-creating RAMP leading up to your body:

R= Rapport. Establish a friendly, positive, problem-solving connection with the audience through a brief greeting.

A= Attention. Involve the audience in an attention getter that spells out a problem, benefit, or challenge that matters to them. This attention getter must relate directly to your main message. For instance, if you are proposing a piece of equipment, the attention getter might be a severe problem that will be solved by it.

M= Message. Preview your main message in the briefest possible form.

P= Plan. Spell out the "contract" for your talk--the main sections of the presentation and the manner in which you propose to handle questions (throughout, intermittently, or at the end).

The whole introduction should take no more than two minutes; otherwise, the audience will begin to assume that you have moved into the body and that they have just missed the transition.

Notice how much this optimal introduction differs from the typical lame preamble, such as: This morning, I'd like to update you on our quality improvement initiative. [What about it?] First, I'll review our objectives. Then, I'll discuss progress [what about it?] over the last six months. This is basically just a plan, in no way designed to generate commitment. Perhaps even worse are longwinded introductions that ramble on pleasantly but without point, putting listeners to sleep before the speaker even gets to the body.


People often ask us certain questions about the kind of introduction we suggest. We'll address two of them here.

Question 1: "Why must the Introduction contain a message preview rather than just an announcement of the topic? Don't I lose suspense by giving away my conclusion at the beginning?" Answer: The audience's natural attention is highest at the beginning of your talk. To make sure everybody hears your message clearly, you must take advantage of that. Also, stating your conclusion up front puts the audience in a position to evaluate your arguments as they come along. Otherwise, they'll have to guess all the time what you're driving at as you are building your "suspense story."

Question 2: "Can't I omit the attention getter? Doesn't it smack too much of salesmanship for a technical presentation?" Answer: There is nothing wrong with salesmanship, provided it is honest. The attention getter is needed to spell out why your main message should matter to the audience. Just two or three sentences may be enough to focus the audience so they can receive your message and get ready to evaluate it.


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:Aug 1, 2004
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