Presentation Tips for Technical Communicators

By Lion's Way

A former student asked Philip to offer some tips on teaching to a technical audience. Philip has about 10 years experience delivering Microsoft training courses to a variety of audiences, mostly groups of 8 to 15 adult learners. He collected some thoughts, sent it off to the former student, and decided to share those tips here as well. This is not an exhaustive list, but below are some recommendations for delivering effective technical training to medium-size groups.

Handling the classroom

When students don’t know each other

I don’t try to force students to socialize with each other, but when asking questions I try to provide opportunities for interaction. Labs are also a good time for interaction. I’ll sometimes walk out from the “instructor bullpen” into the room and engage students with questions and that often sparks student-to-student interaction. This can “warm up” the room and help folks relax, which I regard as a good thing.

When students do know each other

This scenario is usually fine, but sometimes students who do know each other can be overly social in a way that distracts from learning, so I encourage you to not be afraid to be the loudest person in the room. By speaking with a loud, strong tone of voice you can often create a psychological dominance that you use to manage the classroom and direct attention to yourself when needed.

Problem students

I try to never call anybody out in front of the class, even if their behavior is awful. I try to have a 1-on-1 interaction, tell them how their behavior is affecting the rest of the class, and respectfully ask for the specific change in behavior that I want to see. In over 10 years of working with adult learners, I have had very, very few such cases so it’s nothing to lose sleep over. Most of the times where I have specifically asked problem students to change their behavior, they have, and they have been civil to me afterwards.

Overly-eager students

Some students are especially eager to answer questions that are directed at the whole class, and if this dynamic repeats itself often enough, the more reticent students can get left behind. In this case it’s best to direct questions to specific students to balance things out. I’m always careful about putting students on the spot, and try to avoid this by asking sufficiently open-ended questions, but each mix of students will require a different blend of questions to the room vs. questions to specific people.

Try to be proactive by giving eager students an outlet to share their knowledge/experience in a way that complements the learning objectives. In other words, use their presence to benefit the class. Don’t let them hijack the class though, and don’t be afraid to interrup them and explain (in a diplomatic way) that you need to keep moving forward in order to cover important material and maybe they can share the rest of their story during a break or after class or during some other downtime.

Being approachable yet authoritative.

I think it is best to make sure students understand 2 things about me: I have significant, valuable experience but I also don’t know it all.

  • 95% of students understand that the field of IT is vast and broad and that means no one person can know it all. The other 5% can’t be pleased no matter what you do, so they’re going to find something to criticize no matter what. Depending on the audience, this split may be more like 80/20.

  • Skill in researching answers to difficult questions is a great asset to any trainer.

If I don’t know the answer to a question, I will usually say: “I don’t know, but here’s my best guess: (insert speculative response here). Would you like me to look into this further and get back to you?” Also, you can ask the other students if anyone else knows the answer.

This approach satisfies 75% of the questions where I don’t know the answer but also leaves the door open for further exploration if the student is genuinely interested. This avoids me spending research time on questions that don’t really matter to the student. If the question matters to me, I’ll do the research anyway!

I try to make sure I understand the material in the class handbook 100%. The first time through a course, however, expect to discover things you didn’t know about the material. I believe I don’t fully understand anything until I’ve tried to explain it to another person. This seems natural to me so if I stumble a bit on the first time through an explanation I’m unphased. However, if I want the first attempt at explaining something to be pitch perfect, then I’ll either write out my own version of how I understand the concept, or I’ll find someone to explain it to for practice.

Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Everybody is wrong, some of the time. For my personality type, it is best to speak with a sense of implied authority and offer a simple apology and correction if what I say turns out to be wrong. For me, this works out better than being timid in my presentation of what I believe to be accurate facts by qualifying everything I say with “as far as I know” or “to the best of my knowledge,” etc.

Voice tone

Generally you will be the loudest person in the room. Get used to that if is uncomfortable for you (drink lots of water and have snacks available to keep up your energy. It can be exhausting!).

Even though you will generally be speaking very loudly, you can actually soften your voice and reduce its volume when you want to emphasize certain things. Softening your voice is a useful (and often necessary) contrast to the normal loud, clear tone of voice I recommend. For example, notice how easy it is to tune out talk radio, even though it is loud and punchy sounding almost all of the time. Loud and punchy can also be monotonous! Variations in your tone of voice are helpful to keep students attention focused on the information you are presenting, especially if it is a night class after a full day of work.

Loud should not be strident. Just a punched up, louder version of your normal speaking voice.

When students ask questions, they often will have a softer (and uncertain-sounding) tone of voice. Repeat the question so that the entire class hears the question before you respond to the question.

Personally, I try to avoid using contractions when teaching. My boyhood Southeastern USA accent comes through a bit too much when I use contractions, so in support of clarity I try to never use contractions when speaking to a class.

Space between things is often important. Do not be afraid to say something important and then just stand there and say nothing for a moment while students absorb/think about/synthesize the new information. This feels uncomfortable at first, but it is vital (IMO) to effective in-class learning.

Try to reduce nervous habits. “Umms”, “Ahhhs”, and excessively repeated connecting words detract from clear public speaking. The classic tip for helping yourself with this is to record yourself speaking and listen to the recording, taking note of how many times you say things that are really just nervous speaking habits.

Breathe enough. Take a deep breath between sentences to help regulate your tone, especially if public speaking makes you nervous.

Make eye contact with students from time to time.

Presentation

Present the concept first, then fill in the details

I believe that you can approach this differently, but in my experience it is important to first present the concept, then fill in the details.

Here’s an example:

Concept

A SQL Server table is a lot like a spreadsheet. The columns are known as fields, and the rows are known as records. All of the records in a table have the same fields, but fields can be left blank if you set up the table that way. When you create the fields, each field has a specific type of information that it can hold, and you get to decide this when you create the table. You can modify tables after creating them.

Details

You create a table in SQL Server with the create table command.

Tables in SQL Server can have up to XX fields

Tables in SQL Server can have up to XX rows

Pacing

Try to keep things on track AND offer downtime for students to make connection with each other, discuss “war stories”, etc and rest their brains before getting new information.

The right amount of repetition

Repeat things but using different teaching modalities each time

Example:

Explain something using words. Then show how it is used by giving a quick demo. Then have students practice using it. Then ask a question about how to apply it in a specific situation.

Knowledge of learning styles

There are different psychological theories on this subject, but basically be aware that some students won’t “get it” until they’ve gone through it hands on, others have to see it, others have to hear about it or read about it. Try to target all learning styles in your presentation.

Find a book on the subject of learning styles that works for you, and read it. Here’s one possibility: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_gw?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=learning+styles+adult&x=0&y=0

Try to connect concepts to the real world

If you have stories from your personal experience, share them, but try to find the generally-applicable lesson in them and make that the emphasis of the story.

Checking frequently for understanding.

When presenting a concept that builds on previously presented concepts, it is important to not have any missing links in the chain, so checking frequently for understanding is vital.

Ask questions to the students as a way to help them synthesize information. Ask a LOT of questions. Next to being clear in your presentation of the information, one of the most important things you can do is ask good questions of the students. A good question helps them synthesize new information. Recall of information is not enough. Synthesizing information means the new information can be used in a way that is relevant to that student, and it is a part of their understanding of the subject. Asking good questions creates connections to what students already know, and this is vital.

Here is an example:

You are discussing SQL data types.

Good questions:

  • Describe a scenario where you would use the XYZ datatype.

  • Describe a scenario wherer the XYZ datatype would not be a good choice.

  • List two or three ways the XYZ datatype address the limitations of the ABC datatype?

  • What on-the-job scenarios can you think of where the XYZ datatype would be useful?

Poor questions:

  • Have you ever used the XYZ datatype?

  • Can you use the XYZ datatype to store first names? Answer yes or no.

Hopefully you can see, from these examples, that you want to avoid yes/no questions (unless they lead to discussion or reinforce a broad concept that is important to understand) or simplistic questions that only involve simple recall. Questions that invite discussion tend to be the best way to help students synthesize new information.

Find a way to keep your presentation on track if you have any tendency whatsoever to wander. Realize that you cannot talk about everything in full detail. Consider making an outline of important concepts to cover during the class. Periodically re-check your outline to make sure you are on track. Consider having a mid-term assessment to see if students are pleased with how things are going. Actaully, checking-in more frequently than this is a good idea. Remind students that you are unable to read minds, and encourage their feedback through any method they are comfortable with.