Teacher Analysis of
Technical Talk Tips

T. R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project


The good-description guidelines turn general concerns and policies about text usability into personal actions that students can take when they draft or revise a technical description. Indeed, each guideline item is a command or instruction (e.g., "organize the part descriptions to help your reader...") that prompts some specific writing behavior for students to try or practice. The Technical Talk Tips chart in this section generalizes this same skill-building approach to address the special constraints that apply to presenting technical information orally.

Like the good-description guidelines that it extends, the four-problem talk-analysis here is intentionally very inclusive. It applies easily to almost any classroom (or current-events) science talk. Students who go on to technical careers will find this framework equally useful when planning or improving technical talks in their work life (talk usability is a very authentic challenge). This also means that examples for modeling or practicing the good-talk techniques on the chart turn up readily in your on-going science lessons.

Extended Techniques

The Technical Talk Tips chart extends the basic writing guidelines in two ways.

This chart explicitly reveals and names for students the four communication problems that listeners typically have during a technical talk. It also connects each added communication problem with responses, with actions that students can take directly. As with writing, this makes responding a matter of social responsibility, of offering usability help for one's audience, not just flaunting one's personal talents. Contrasting each talk problem (column 3) with its counterpart in writing (column 2) shows students why some extra effort from them is needed to cope with the spoken case. Then, as with the description-writing guidelines, this chart itemizes the well-known, empirically grounded (sets of) techniques that good science speakers use to anticipate and mitigate the four talk problems. Students can practice these techniques both to prepare a good talk or to revise a poor one.

In addition to posing new problems, the Talk Tips chart introduces extra (talk-relevant) vocabulary and distinctions to help students cope with the extra talk constraints. Examples of design terms absent from the good-description guidelines but introduced here in column 3 to clarify speech-oriented techniques include:

(The commentary below on the four specific talk problems explains and illustrates these terms in ways that you can share with your classes.)

Basic Alternative Chart

If this extra terminology seems confusing or overwhelming for your students (perhaps because of language limitations or cognitive immaturity), consider using the alternative treatment in the separate but parallel chart called Basic Technical Talk Tips. The fourfold problem analysis and the writing/speaking comparisons are the same on both versions of the chart. But the Basic version omits most of the extra design terms. The underlying distinctions (between broad and narrow treatments, for example, or sparse and dense data) remain relevant, of course. The vocabulary has been simplified, however, so that those distinctions still apply but are not named. This makes the Basic chart linguistically less demanding (hence, more suitable for younger or less prepared students), but it places the burden of introducing the needed extra distinctions entirely on you. (See also the comments on slides below.)

Commentary on Each Talk Problem

Structure (Order: Where Are You Going?)

Problem Technical writing, where the audience can... Technical speaking, where the audience must...
STRUCTURE Read in any order. Listen in the speaker's order of presentation.
  1. Plan your scope/depth tradeoffs early
    (use either broad and shallow treatment or narrow and deep).
  2. Reveal (overtly summarize) your talk's structure
    (the audience cannot see your mental outline or table of contents).
  3. Announce structure milestones as you pass them
    (use verbal headings ["the third problem..."] and proleptics ["by contrast..."]).

The advice (in the right-hand column here) to clearly reveal each talk's structure and milestones (with a spoken summary or with an introductory "table of contents" slide) appears in every book on how to give talks. And the implicit comparison of hearing a talk to taking a trip (oriented with overt milestones) is straightforward.

But you will probably need to explain to students psychologist Donald Norman's related tip about "scope/depth tradeoffs." Shopping provides a familiar example:

To succeed psychologically, explains Norman, a good technical talk must follow one of these same two comfortable scope/depth alternatives. Broad-ranging talks cannot get too detailed, while deeply detailed talks must stay narrowly focused. Student speakers need to help their audiences by becoming aware of these two alternatives, picking one (for each talk), and then sticking with it when they arrange their talk's features.

Review (Rereading: Where Are You Now?)

Problem Technical writing, where the audience can... Technical speaking, where the audience must...
REVIEW Reread any passage. Rely on the speaker to repeat if appropriate.
  1. Remember the slogan "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them."
  2. Identify and manage your topic transitions carefully, usually with planned repetition of structure cues.
  3. Practice to avoid pointless, accidental repetition.

In a movie, viewers can easily tell when the action shifts from scene to scene. Likewise, the audience of a technical talk needs to easily tell when the speaker shifts from topic to topic. Student speakers therefore must learn to help their listeners topically by paying attention to their own "topic transitions" and clearly signaling the audience about them. Using a personal story board, perhaps constructed of one sticky note per (sub)topic pasted on a wall or large sheet of paper for easy rearrangement, is the standard, Disney-pioneered way of mapping out the "scene changes" (topic transitions) in a technical talk (so that the speaker can be sure to disclose them to their otherwise confused listeners).

Understanding (Complexity: What Do You Mean?)

Problem Technical writing, where the audience can... Technical speaking, where the audience must...
UNDERSTANDING Study and gradually understand. Understand on the first hearing.
  1. Choose your vocabulary, examples, and comparisons to control your technical depth. Adjust to suit:
    • Your audience's background.
    • How your talk unfolds.
  2. Manage your data density:
    • Control your amount of supporting detail.
    • Supplement your talk with detail-bearing handouts (references, for example).
    • Use visual aids (slides, models) to carefully increase data density without increasing confusion.

As noted at the end of the "Giving (Student) Technical Talks Effectively" overview, technical talks are much more dense with data than is ordinary speech. Most people can absorb dense information more easily by seeing it than by hearing it only. So most good technical speakers supplement their spoken words with things that their audience can also see: exhibits, handouts, pictures, summaries, or slides. Student speakers, therefore, need to make two separate choices about data density:

  1. how much information to present per minute or per slide, and
  2. how to manage that density level with visual aids (especially technical slides).

For very discussable, visually clever, gender-neutral examples of data-dense handouts or charts, visit http://www.cookingforengineers.com. This site diagrams dozens of kitchen recipes to concisely reveal which tasks to perform on which ingredients in which order.

For help planning good slides, the "Simple Tips for Effective Technical Slides" chart and its itemized teacher commentary summarize rules of thumb found in dozens of book-length treatments of slide design. If you wish to tap just one of those many published slide-advice discussions with high relevance to science class, consult Edward R. Tufte, Visual Explanations (Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 1997, especially pp. 38-53). Effectively managing dense science data with astute slide graphics is one of Tufte's major themes.

Delivery (Presentation: What Did You Say?)

Problem Technical writing, where the audience can... Technical speaking, where the audience must...
DELIVERY Read at any pace. Listen and absorb at the speaker's pace.
  1. (Before talking) spell out your list of claims
    (to confirm just how many claims you have).
  2. Rehearse privately:
    • With your notes (to tune self-prompts).
    • Before a mirror (to practice eye contact).
    • With a clock (to check pace and length).
  3. Avoid saying one thing and showing another
    (plan and practice speech/slide coordination).
  4. Maintain audience interest:
    • Use short, direct sentences.
    • Show (appropriate) enthusiasm.
    • Attend to audience needs (confused? can't hear? questions?).

No matter how thoughtfully a speaker plans the structure, topic transitions, and data density for their technical talk, they still must actually deliver it aloud to their audience. The tips on the student chart for this delivery problem are rather more specific than for the other three problems, and of course students must physically try them out through personal practice to benefit from them. You can helpfully model these tips by presenting from a few sample slides, since slide/speech coordination often defeats beginners. Sticky-note prompts placed on the slides themselves can help nervous speakers manage the rough spots. "Casing the room" is another helpful behavior that you can model here--checking the lights, projector alignment and focus, and sight lines from the corners and rear--before launching into the prepared talk.

Talk Skills from the CSI Perspective

The handbook section on crime-scene investigation (CSI) issues already notes the many important roles for technical communication in real-life forensic-science careers. Pointing out the authentic character of CSI notes, talks, and reports can motivate students otherwise bored or annoyed about practicing them in school. That alone won't build the missing skills to write or speak effectively about science topics, however. Underperforming students also need specific goals, scaffolded practice activities, and explicit techniques. Then they can actually practice the CSI-relevant moves that they lack and gradually add them to their personal communication repertoire.

This is the reason for a third version of the Technical Talk Tips chart, focused overtly on forensic science (FS) themes. This FS version preserves the same fourfold problem framework (column 1) as the standard and basic versions discussed above: structure, review, understanding, and delivery. In column 2, however, the FS version replaces the technical writing comparisons with hooks into FS/CSI professional life. The writing/speaking differences are sacrificed (in column 2 and in each row's subhead in column 3) in favor of back transfers from on-the-job CSI demands to school science talks.

Thematically, this chart version looks at each speaker problem as one aspect of "presenting a case" to doubtful colleagues or even in court. Audience concerns must be met and even criticisms anticipated, just as would be needed in a real criminal investigation. The recommended student responses or techniques (itemized in each row of column 3) are just the same as on the standard talk-tips chart, of course, since they were always authentically justified. And the (sometimes daunting) extra vocabulary (scope/depth tradeoffs, data density, noted earlier) is here too: the CSI version does not simplify effective-speaking techniques but rather just places them overtly in a beyond-school, forensic (court-oriented) practical context. Teachers who prefer to introduce effective talks before effective text drafting (perhaps for special education or ESL students where physical writing poses an extra challenge) can even start with the FS chart and then later switch back to the standard version to gradually introduce each problem's writing/speaking comparison as an enrichment or (reverse) extension.

Slide Design

The Understanding subsection above points out that slides accompany most technical talks, primarily to help speakers manage their data density. The "Simple Tips" chart offers students a short slide-improvement checklist, while the corresponding teacher commentary explains and illustrates the design principles featured on that chart.

Resource Map

Here is a comparative jump table for all of the technical-talk resources mentioned in this analysis:

Giving Technical Talks Effectively
Resources surveyed to help students give technical talks.
Teacher Analysis of Technical Talk Tips
Problems introduced, vocabulary explained, three tip charts compared.
Simple Tips for Effective Slides
Student checklist of common slide problems and solutions.
Technical Talk Tips
Chart of four communication problems and the difference between responding to them when writing and when speaking.
Teacher Commentary on Simple Tips for Effective Slides
Each tip explained and illustrated with positive and negative slide cases.
Basic Technical Talk Tips
Shorter chart of four talk problems with simplified details and vocabulary.
Talk Tips for Forensic Science
Chart of four talk problems that stresses forensic comparisons.