Terrible Technical Talks (and How to Avoid Giving Them) – Contributed by Ed Buhain
Ed Buhain here (Sharon invited me to author this blog post): Have you ever attended a presentation on the hottest bleeding-edge technology and the presentation turned out to be less exciting than watching the paint grow (or the grass dry)? So why do so many technical talks consist of reading slides or pasting code blocks, and that’s it?
I’m a Certified Trainer for Sharon’s “Training from the BACK of the Room!” class. Considering that I’m also a full-time software developer, I tend to be a practitioner more than a facilitator. When it comes to technology, I don’t learn by watching somebody else do it; I have to do it myself. Far too often, however, I’ve attended technical talks (and paid, expensive training programs) where my eyes have glazed over from watching someone else do everything possible to prevent learning. I think, oftentimes, we need a reminder of (or an introduction to) the six learning principles that are more effective at engaging our audiences than simply talking about our content.
Movement > Sitting
Cognitive neuroscience is the brain science about how the human brain thinks and learns, stores and remembers, retrieves and uses information. Brain scientists have made an inarguable case for the link between a person’s physical and mental states. Physical movement has a positive effect on mental activities like learning and memory.
In Brain Rules, author John Medina writes that we’re genetically designed to move. When we move, we increase our blood circulation and the flow of oxygen to the brain. That oxygen makes it easier to stay alert, pay attention, and to learn.
So why do so many technical talks leave the audience frozen in an uncomfortable chair all day? As a presenter, what could you do to increase movement? Mull these questions over while you take a quick stretch break or head to the kitchen for a refill.
Talking > Listening
In Informal Learning, author Jay Cross describes learning as a social activity. We learn by talking to each other, teaching each other, and learning from one another.
This idea also comes up whenever we attempt to do “active listening”: If we want to restate what someone just told us, we have to first hear it, then think about it, and then put it into our own words. Active listening helps us think about the information more than once.
So why do so many technical talks have the entire audience just listening to the presenter? If all audiences do is just listen to the presenter, they think about the content once. And that’s it. What can YOU do, as a presenter, to engage your audiences so that they hear, think about, and restate YOUR content? Type your answer to this question in the “Comments” section below this blog post.
Images > Words
According to John Medina, we’re primarily a visual species. That doesn’t mean we don’t use our other senses. It’s just that we’re more likely to see an image before we see words.
Reflecting on all of the technical talks we’ve attended, do we remember the words on the slides or the jaw-dropping demos? The jaw-dropping parts are the images that stick in our minds, the ones that evoke emotions, the ones that we remember.
So why do so many technical talks have words or code just printed on a slide? If we’re showing off how to write code for a new feature, why do we spend so much time typing in code for the old features we already know about? What kind of a mental image comes to your mind when you think of boring technical talks with no images?
Writing > Reading
Remember how important movement is? Remember how we need to think about information more than once? Remember how we see images before we see words? Writing encompasses all three of those principles.
A lot of us like to take notes. We recognize that reading or hearing something once isn’t sufficient enough to remember it. By writing things down or typing them in our own words, we remember our action of writing and we’ll probably remember WHERE on the page we wrote the words (better yet, we’ll probably remember WHAT we wrote down!).
So why do so many technical talks have us watching someone else code? We’re more likely to remember how to do something if we actually do it, i.e. if WE are the ones who have to think about, and write, what code comes next. So grab a sticky note right now and write down a summary of what you’ve learned so far from this blog post.
Shorter > Longer
Consider this number:
Perhaps it’s a long, scary number; six billion is a lot of dollars, or calories, or whatever this number means. Now consider the same number if we display it as:
In that format, you might recognize faster that it’s a [fake] USA phone number. Whenever the human brain can chunk information into smaller or shorter segments, it does a better job of remembering those pieces than if it tried to remember the whole thing.
John Medina’s research revealed that our attention starts drifting after about ten minutes!
So why do so many technical talks drone on for 60 minutes (or more) when we’re not even going to pay attention to the last 50 minutes? Television producers and advertisers figured this out a long time ago: Breaking down each hour into short programming segments, and then inserting even shorter commercials in between the programming content, held their viewers’ interest longer.
We’ll move on to the last principle after a message from our sponsors …
Different > Same
We pay more attention to things we haven’t seen before and things that stand out in contrast to everything else. This means that our current TV shows have to keep changing scenes and pulling on our emotional strings in order to keep us glued to the screen. To our ancestors long before us, “pulling on emotional strings” meant that that they might be attacked or eaten, so they paid close attention to what was going on at any given time.
In Brain-Based Learning, author Eric Jensen explains that our fight-or-flight response directs our attention to new, contrasting stimuli. When we do mundane tasks, our brain goes into auto-pilot and leaves our conscious mind to think about other things. If something novel, contrasting, or emotionally intense happens, it’ll gain our attention.
So why do so many technical talks follow the same mundane patterns of reading slides and pasting code snippets? What could YOU do to get the attention of YOUR audiences in relevant, content-related ways?
You can learn more about these principles – and build a useful toolkit of ways to incorporate these principles into your presentations – in Sharon’s book, Using Brain Science to Make Training Stick.
Better yet, click on the Training from the BACK of the Room! page to see how you and your company can benefit from Sharon’s classes and Trainer Certification Course. If you’re interested in attending a public “Training from the BACK of the Room!” class, click on the Training Events page for classes offered globally by TBR Certified Trainers or Sharon.
Do you have another specific question? Post your comments below or contact Sharon at SBowperson@gmail.com.
With over 15 years of professional experience in software development and technical project management, I have seen and suffered through the pitfalls of poorly designed and poorly written software. So I enjoy using cutting-edge technology to solve problems and to teach/train/coach others. I also apply my expertise to professional software development and technical project management (and to personal interests like home improvement and cooking!). I am a “technical overachiever” at InfernoRed Technology. You can visit my blog there, and find me on LinkedIn.
Sharon’s Footnote: For the original post on Ed’s blog, click HERE. Thanks, Ed, for a great contribution to my blog!