Technical Talk Tips



Teacher Analysis of
Technical Talk Tips


T. R. Girill
Technical Literacy Project
October 2018 (ver. 2, WP)


The good-description
turn general concerns and policies about text
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 (below) 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
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:

  • scope/depth tradeoff,
  • milestone,
  • topic transition,
  • technical depth,
  • data density.

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

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.

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

  • When looking for wire at the hardware store, you face a “narrow and
    deep” situation–you can ignore all aisles except for the one marked “electrical”
    (narrow), but then you have to face many specific “deep” choices (copper
    or aluminum, coated or uncoated, braided or solid).
  • When shopping for ice cream, however, your situation is “broad and
    shallow”–31 flavors confront you, but then you only have to pick one scoop
    or two.

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.

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
This site diagrams dozens of kitchen recipes to concisely reveal which
tasks to perform on which ingredients in which order.

If you wish to tap just one of the 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 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.

All of these talk-support suggestions are very authentic. They will help
your students not only in real technical/professional venues, but also in
courtroom settings where forensic analysis is part of a case.