Giving (Student) Technical Talks Effectively

T. R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project
trgirill@acm.org

The Value of This Application

Technical talks are one of the most common science communications, in school and in real life. Those who learn how to craft and present effective technical talks have a practical, valuable skill set, which they can apply as

Because they are spoken (and heard) rather than written (and read), technical talks face constraints beyond those on technical reports. This means that success demands extra skills beyond those sufficient for adequate technical writing. Hence, this section places technical talks within the broad technical communication framework that we have used to explain effective instructions and descriptions, and then it goes on to For example, we extend the basic good-description guidelines from text to talks (with several versions to help students with different levels of readiness). And the cognitive apprenticeship teaching strategy that reliably develops writing skills also extends well to building student skills for technical presentations. So our goal in this section is to help students prepare and present effective technical talks by learning techniques that

Slide Issues

An important feature of technical talks in science is that most involve a visual component or "presentation" to accompany the spoken words--usually viewgraphs or slides made with Powerpoint software or in some similar way. This means that preparing an effective science talk also requires designing appropriate slides. No talk-tip lessons would be complete without exploring the problems of slide design, even though a good talk demands much more of the speaker than merely having a stack of good slides to show.

This section therefore includes (but is certainly not limited to) an overt checklist of good-slide techniques (unsurprisingly, another extension of the good-description usability principles to handle the special size and time constraints of viewgraphs). Indeed, integrating slide design with audience-appropriate delivery techniques comprises one of those extra skills (mentioned above) that effective technical talks demand. Such integrated success is crucial for working scientists or engineers too, not just for students addressing their classmates.

Resource Overview

Why is a set of special resources devoted to skill building for technical talks even needed? Most students have extensive experience with social speech, which is usually thin and terse (aside from classroom demands, they may get through the whole day with just a few short, slang phrases). But few students have much practice with technical speech: when speakers need to explain a serious, complex topic to an audience that expects to learn substantial new information, speech becomes dense and verbose. Textbooks face this challenge regularly in print, of course, and respond with many familiar textual features (such as section headings, tables of contents, and summaries). When speaking technically, a speaker therefore has the extra responsibility of replacing those familiar textual coping aids with spoken (and presentational) moves that help the audience in corresponding ways. Showing students how to meet this need is the special purpose of the teaching tools included here.

This chart summarizes and links to the available resources:

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.