Speaking: Explaining Technical Information to a Mixed Audience

It’s a challenge to present deeply technical material to a room of people with varying expertise levels. If you leave it out, you’re abandoning the substance of your presentation. If you focus on it exclusively, you will lose most of the room.

Instead, include the material, but plan to repeat it two (or even three!) times.

The first time you explain it, explain it for the expert audience.

The second time you explain it, walk through an example of what the system enables.

If you’re audience is on Twitter, throw in a third version — the concise and tweetable one!

Let’s say we were giving a talk about a machine learning system to classify puppies.

Slide one would have a technical diagram of the architecture of the system, and you might explain it as: “We use a naive bayesian classifier over two hundred features to discriminate between puppies and non-puppies in our data set. As you see, our system is 85% accurate and each analysis takes 300 milliseconds. We implemented the classifier in Python, using the scikits-learn toolkit…” Don’t skimp on the details, but don’t use more than one slide for this part if possible and the explanation shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.

Slide two would have images of puppies and non-puppies, and might be explained, “This means that we have an algorithm that can distinguish between the puppies you see on top and the other objects quite accurately and quickly using features like ear floppiness and nose size.”

Slide three would be the cutest puppy you can find, and you might say, “Yes, we’ve created the worlds fastest cuteness identifying machine!” Only include the third version if the audience is online anyway. They’re probably only paying half-attention to you as you speak and this gives them something concise to share and take away from your talk.

The technique of repeating the information at varying levels of intensity has the side effect of walking people through to understanding. They may still be puzzling through the technical material when you explain it non-technically, and this seems to help the meaning snap into focus.

Break up your technical material with layered explanations and you’ll keep the audience entertained while maximizing the amount of information that each person takes away. Win.