Terrible Technical Talks (and how to avoid giving them)

Have you 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)?

When it comes to technology, I don't learn by watching somebody else do it; I have to do it myself.

So why do so many technical talks consist of reading slides or pasting code blocks?

I'm a Certified Trainer for Sharon Bowman's "Training from the BACK of the Room!" class. Considering that I'm a full-time developer, I tend to be a practitioner more than a facilitator.

Far too often, however, I've attended technical talks (and attended paid, expensive training) where my eyes have glazed over from watching someone else do everything possible to prevent learning. I think we need a reminder of (or an introduction to) the six learning principles that are more effective at engaging your audience.

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 activity such as learning and memory.

In Brain Rules, 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 those questions over while you take a quick stretch break or head over to the kitchen for a refill.

Talking > Listening

In Informal Learning, 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 discuss active listening; if we want to restate what someone just told us, we have to hear about it, think about it, and restate it. Active listening helps us think about the information more than once.

So why do so many technical talks have the entire audience listening to the presenter? If all we do is listen to the presenter, we think about the information once. And that's it. Do you learn more when you think about something more than once? Tell me in the comments below.

Images > Words

According to John Medina we're primarily a visual species. That doesn't mean we don't use our other senses, 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?

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 might remember where on the page we wrote them.

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, if we're the ones who have to think about what code comes next. Grab a sticky note and write down how we learn differently when we're writing  as opposed to reading.

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:

(618) 555-8624

In that format, you might recognize faster that it's a [fake] phone number. Whenever our brains 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 actual programming and commercials.

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. For us today, this means that our TV shows have to keep changing and pulling on our emotional strings to keep us glued to the screen. To our ancestors long before us, this meant that that they might be attacked or eaten.

In Brain-Based Learning, 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 audience out of auto-pilot?

You can learn more about these principles - and build your toolkit of ways to incorporate these principles into your presentations - in Sharon's book, Using Brain Science to Make Training Stick.

Even better yet, stop by http://bowperson.com/public-training-events to see how you and your company can benefit from Sharon’s "Training from the BACK of the Room!" classes or to find out more about Sharon’s Trainer Certification Course.

Do you have another specific question? Contact us by clicking here (or use the Contact link above), or contact Sharon at SBowperson@gmail.com.