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Technical Presentations

Melissa Marshall on technical presentations

If you follow TED talks on instructional design, you likely have watched or heard Melissa Marshall’s TED talk “Talk Nerdy to Me.” During her compelling talk (with over 2.6 million views!), she discusses making technical presentations accessible to anyone in the audience without compromising the integrity or talking down to the more technical audience members.

Melissa took some time this week, with the Train Like You Listen podcast, to elaborate on her technical presentation approach. During this short conversation, she dives a bit deeper into some thoughts she has about good instruction when working with technical content. If podcasts aren’t your jam or you prefer to read instead of listen, you can read the transcript of this entire conversation below the podcast link.

Transcript of the Conversation with Melissa Marshall

Brian Washburn:  Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast of all things learning & development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, co-founder and CEO of a company called Endurance Learning. And I’m here today with Melissa Marshall, who is a TED speaker and founder of the training company Present Your Science. Hello, Melissa. How are you today?

Melissa Marshall:  Great, Brian. Thanks so much for having me.

Brian Washburn:  I’m very excited to have you.

6-Word Introduction

Brian Washburn:  And before we jump into some questions here we always introduce our guests, or let our guest introduce themselves, using a 6-word biography. And today we’re really going to be talking about technical presentations and my 6-word biography for this particular topic is “I’m actually scared of technical presentations.” If you, Melissa, had to introduce yourself in exactly 6 words, how would you do that?

Melissa Marshall: “I help scientists present their work.”

Brian Washburn: That is perfect because the way that I first found out that you even existed was I was sitting at my desk one day, I was kind of trying to find some inspiration. And I saw that there was a series of shorter TED Talks and so I was like “oh, what’s this?…’Talk Nerdy To Me’…let me check this one out.”

Why Is It So Hard For People To Present Their Work In a Way That the Average Person Can Digest?

Brian Washburn: So I came across it and you were just giving very straightforward thoughts and advice in terms of how to actually deliver a technical presentation to a normal audience without having to dumb it down. Why do you think it’s so hard for really smart people who have come up with world-changing solutions to actually present their work in a way that the average person can digest?

Melissa Marshall: You know, I think this is something that I thought about for a long time and then you know when you have that sort of “epiphany moment” when you’re reading a really good book? And this was quite a while ago. I was reading a book called Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath and they have the perfect terminology in there. And what they call it is “the curse of knowledge”. And the “curse of knowledge” is the idea that as we become more and more expert in any domain – not just science – but as we become more and more expert we forget what it was like to not know. Because everybody learns something for the first time at some point. And so I find that’s a piece that sometimes can get forgotten by any expert and when they’re reminded to think about it in that way – “what was it like to not know?” – and how can you envision how your audience views this subject, that can help us to have more productive conversations. But I think that’s the gap that often exists between the amazing, smart people that are developing our world-changing solutions and the rest of us that need that information.

Brian Washburn: That is such a really good point. And that’s a great concept. That’s a great book for anybody who is looking for a book. It’s not the newest book out there but it’s really well-written, by the Heath brothers. They’re very entertaining. And I know that I fall into that trap when I’m doing a “Train the Trainer” session. I want to “get Nerdy” about adult learning principles and this and that. And it’s really — people don’t need that, thought, right? So they don’t need to go into the finer points. Yeah, big picture overview, but they don’t need to go into all the finer points.

What Should I Keep In Mind To Make Sure My Presentation Is Understood?

Brian Washburn: So if you think of a presentation and you break it down into 2 parts. You have the visual experience and then you have what people actually say. Let’s take that second part first, in terms of what people actually say. What should people be keeping in mind when it comes to what or how they’re saying things so that everybody can understand it?

Melissa Marshall: So I think that something that’s really important to keep in mind when I’m teaching and talking about this. I like to think about, in your area of expertise – whatever is your subject matter that you’re talking about – ask yourself “am I at the scuba level?” Alright, so the scuba level is the deep dive. Or “am I at the snorkel level?” And the snorkel level is head is above surface and we’re getting air. And I think that so often when we really lose our audiences when we’re training, in any subject really, is when we spend too much time at the scuba level. And the rest of us aren’t wearing scuba gear and we’re taking in water.

And so I like to think of it as one of the strongest things that you can do to really keep people with you – and I teach this to my technical professionals all the time – is to really think about the way to break that surface, and to get that breath of fresh air, is to really talk about relevance. Relevance is the most important thing. Keep answering the question “so what?”. So if you’ve got something really important to say that you really want people to understand. The way to get people involved is to make it relevant and answer the question “so what?”. Interpret the key information, instead of just giving the key information.

How to Make Presentations Visually Effective?

Brian Washburn: Yeah, and so I think that’s a great rule of thumb for how or what to say. Oftentimes presentations are accompanied by visual pieces, usually PowerPoint. And so when we’re talking with people who have a lot to say technically and they need that visual piece to it, what should they be keeping in mind to help others digest that information, visually?

Melissa Marshall:  So I think maybe a couple of things on this point. Number one, the most important thing you said, Brian, is that it’s visual. And I think that’s really, really important. I know that you and I are birds of a feather on this, but to really think about visual aspects, as opposed to having a ton of text on the slide. And the reason, I think, the visual aspect is so important is that when you’re trying to convey complex ideas the best way to do that is to show relationships between ideas. And so when we are just laying things out, let’s say, in a bulleted-list, we don’t really notice or see any of those relationships.

Make a Diagram to Show Relationships Between Ideas

Melissa Marshall: You know, a quick thing that people can do even if you’re struggling to find that really amazing graphic or something like that. One of the quickest, easiest things you can think about is use something like a diagram. I’m not sure if the listeners are familiar but one of my favorite tools called Duarte Diagrammer, out of Nancy Duarte’s design house is an absolutely incredible free tool that has all of these amazing diagrams. It’s kind of like PowerPoint SmartArt, but with tons of options that are super editable. And the reason I really love that when I’m helping people to create visuals is that it’s a great way to show relationships between pieces of information. So I think that’s number one, make sure it’s a visual. And when you’re struggling before you capitulate and go to a bulleted list, ask yourself “hey, maybe a diagram would be a great way that I could at least show the visual relationships.” I think that’s something that’s really important.

A Technique for Keeping The Attention of Your Virtual Audience

Melissa Marshall: And then the other one is something that I’ve just started to talk about more during the pandemic, which is the shift now that we’re all presenting virtually, of course, and so now you have to think about “what are your listeners experiencing while they’re experiencing something on the screen and then probably listening to you?” And I think that the concept of being a tour guide for the slide is even more important than it’s ever been, which is to very methodically walk people through what they should be noticing, what’s important about it. I’m a big fan of Slide Builds, not the crazy ones where things are zooming in and out and all of that…

Brian Washburn: Twirling. 

Melissa Marshall: (CHUCKLING) Yeah. No, but appear or disappear and having the — controlling the flow of the information, I think, is really helpful for your audience.

And something that I think is a really cool technique that I might encourage people to think about – because I know for me, and I know for you, we’re doing a ton of virtual training and I know a lot of your listeners are as well – and it’s really challenging when you feel like you’re losing people, right? You’re trying so hard and maybe you’re losing your audiences. A great technique that I found that’s working well for people I’m teaching that are presenting, and even for my own work, is this idea of what I call “verbal pointing”. Which is that you specifically call out, say “as you’ll clearly notice on the upper right-hand corner of the slide you’re seeing the following…” So you kind of say, like, “you should be noticing this” or “as you can see” and it’s interesting because that piques people’s curiosity. So even if someone has clicked off to another tab and they’re multi-tasking, it brings them back a little bit. So that’s another really actionable tip that has worked well for the presenters I’m coaching and might work well for the listeners too.

Brian Washburn: I love that because a lot of times people rely on that visual piece to lead what it is they’re going to say. And so to make it simple, to find those relationships, to find those tools to help you build those relationships and to slide build, right? You don’t throw everything on the — even if you have a lot to say, don’t throw everything onto your slide at once. Animate things, you know, one bullet point at a time. Have things disappear so you’re just focusing things. And being that tour guide I think that’s fantastic advice for people.

Advice For Working With Technical Experts to Build Presentations

Brian Washburn: Now a lot of people who listen may not necessarily be the technical experts themselves. But they do need to design presentations using information that only resides in these really smart people’s heads. So what advice might you give to a training designer who has to design training by talking with experts who may be really passionate about the topic. They can have that cursive knowledge and they feel like the audience should know everything there ever was to know about this technical topic. What advice would you have to people who have to try to work with people to create presentations that people can understand, even though they’re not the technical experts themselves?

Melissa Marshall: First of all, I would say that “don’t be afraid of that situation”. I have found across the board, nearly without fail, that every technical expert wants others to understand and benefit from their hard-earned knowledge. And as soon as I really started to figure that out another thing I got really comfortable with – because I’m in this situation all the time, as what you’ve described – I got really comfortable with asking “why?” all the time. So when they say “I did this” or “you should do that” or “this piece is important”. Why? Why? You know, I always tell myself you kind of get in touch with your inner two-year-old, you know, where you’re just continuing to ask “why” over and over and over.

And there’s even something that I’ve done when I’ve been working with or been coaching people who are presenting extremely complex research. I’ll actually set them up for this and I’ll say “look, we’re going to do a little game, alright? And what’s going to happen is I’m going to ask you ‘why?’. Every time you say something I’m going to ask you ‘why?’ about that and then you’re going to explain that and then we’re going to keep going almost to where it’s ridiculous.” And usually it ends up it’s somewhere that we all just want to stay alive. That’s usually the final — (LAUGHING)

Brian Washburn: (LAUGHING)

Melissa Marshall: For just about everything, that’s eventually where it ends up. But I have to say that that’s a silly game, but it’s also a little bit fun. It kind of relaxes people. And what you’ll find is that usually – now this is a non-scientific observation, but hard-earned anecdotal evidence – which is that usually about the third or fourth “why?” for me that’s when I start to get it.  Right? So I think that once you start to arrive at that level, then you can start to say “ok here is what I –”, then start to paraphrase it back. “Here is what I understand, is that correct?” So I have found that that conversational pattern has helped me to understand nuclear physics, cancer treatment (CHUCKLING), greenhouse energy solutions, I mean. Mostly, though, the biggest thing is that I’m not afraid to not know. And I’m really happy to ask “why?” because I think that we all benefit when good science is conveyed in a way that someone, like me, that doesn’t have a scientific background, can understand and actually talk to someone about.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, it’s fascinating. So, I mean, these presentations can change the world if people can understand what you’re presenting, which is the key piece to it. Melissa, thank you so much for — I mean, there’s just a ton of pointers that are in here, just basic nuggets of good design, I think, that people can really use today or tomorrow.

Get to Know Melissa Marshall

Brian Washburn: We’re going to wrap up like we always do, with just a speed round, so people can get to our guests a little bit more. Are you ready for our speed round?

Melissa Marshall: Yes, I’m ready. (CHUCKLING) 

Brian Washburn: Ok, perfect. So I know that you do a ton of presentations. Is there a go-to food or snack that you have right before you go to jump into a presentation?

Melissa Marshall: Yeah, I pretty much always have a banana and a cup of tea. You know, banana just to keep my blood sugar going and a cup of tea to keep my voice going. (LAUGHING)

Brian Washburn: Nice. How about a piece of training tech that you can’t live without?

Melissa Marshall: Well I have a pre-pandemic and a post-pandemic, or a mid-pandemic I should say, answer. You know, pre-pandemic it was my Kensington slide-advancer. I mean, I just could not live without that and I think that that thing — I’ve had the same one for, I mean, years and it has been just beat around in all of my travel bags. So that one I could not live without. And now I think, since I don’t need that any more (LAUGHING), since I sit at my computer, my favorite piece of tech is my little lavalier microphone that is I think the best $22 that I spent in March 2020, from Amazon. It’s just a little microphone that clips to my lapel and then its a USB on the other side. Because I’m doing so much training and recording and, you know, i’m always telling people “if you haven’t — it’s so easy to upgrade your audio just a little bit if you haven’t done that”. This is my favorite piece of tech and I’ve been telling lots of people to get something like it because it can improve your audio right away and is easy to use.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, and you don’t have to have a headset on — 

Melissa Marshall: That’s right!

Brian Washburn:  –the whole time, which is great. And your sound is great. What should people be listening to or be reading these days when it comes to presentation skills?

Melissa Marshall: So one of my favorite books right now is called Shortcut by John Pollack and what I love about this particular book — the subtitle is “How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation and Sell Our Greatest Ideas”. I love this one because I think when we are trying to convey complexity analogies are like a verbal shortcut, which is really exactly the title of the book. So they’re a way to convey a lot of information in a short period of time. And what I love about the book is that it kind of demystifies the process of how analogies work and how to create them and it gives a lot of fun examples. So that’s one that I really, really like. A podcast that I absolutely love is called The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green and I know that’s a big mouthful, but essentially what it is is that it’s a podcast that talks about the human-centered age. And so what John Green will do is he will go through and he’ll pick just a part of the human experience, like recent ones were “The Qwerty Keyboard”, “Hotdog Eating Contests”, “Lawns”… and then he talks about all the history. Like you learn all of this — you wanna geek out? He’ll take this unbelievable deep dive into some random aspect of the human experience and you learn all of this great trivia and then at the end he rates all of these things on a five-star scale. It is a fantastic podcast, so I would really recommend that. Anybody can pick it up and listen any time and you learn some great, nerdy knowledge.

Brian Washburn: I love that and that is something that — I do a lot of driving and so I think that is going to be of the things that I start to tune into because just the idea of trivia, “where does the Qwerty keyboard come from”? And also “why?” Why do humans actually do engage in hotdog eating contests?

Melissa Marshall:  (CHUCKING) You got it — I mean, i’m telling you — it is unmissable stuff. It is so engrossing. You’re going to love it.

Brian Washburn:  Before we leave today do you have any shameless plugs for us?

Melissa Marshall: I do. So I would absolutely love for your listeners to check out my website and, in particular, keep an eye out, coming out early this year in 2021, I’m going to have some really cool new offerings. One of the things I’m really excited about is the ability for people to submit to me a short video recording of a presentation and get some feedback from me that will be time-stamped and really in-depth to get some feedback and assessment. So I’m pretty excited about that new offering. And I’m going to be offering tons of live virtual sessions that are open to the public. So keep an eye on my website for some of those new items that are coming soon. 

Brian Washburn: I think that that sounds really great. So, Melissa Marshall, who is the TED speaker of a TED Talk called “Talk Nerdy to Me”, also the founder of the training company Present Your Science. Melissa, thank you so much for joining us here today on Train Like you Listen.

Thank you to everybody else for listening to this episode of Train Like You Listen, which is a podcast that can be found on Spotify, on Apple, iHeartRadio, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear please go ahead and rate us somehow, and that is how other people will find out about us. Until next time, happy training, everyone.  

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox.  Sign up today for a free demo of Soapbox.

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