SPEECH (Language Choices)

The language choices that are made in a technical presentation should be largely dictated by the prior knowledge of the audience.  A presentation that you give to a general public audience will use very different language than a presentation given to a group of colleagues in your lab.

  1. Analogies, examples, and stories. The employment of these strategies can often be the difference between a good presentation and a great one. Examples and stories help technical information to “come alive” for an audience and most scientific presentations can benefit from trying to include an example or story.  Analogies are one of the most powerful speech strategies available to a technical presenter. An analogy anchors a complex technical idea to a concept or idea that an audience already understands. When you use an analogy, you are using the audience’s prior knowledge and understandings to explain your technical concept. This is a much deeper form of learning because it is anchored to something that was already in their brain. As a result, the retention of concepts explained with analogies can be much higher because the listener’s brain already has a place to file that information, instead of having to create an entirely new file from scratch.
  2. Provide clear definitions for key terms. When you introduce a new term, take just a moment to define it simply and clearly. This doesn’t take long, but it is worth the time in the presentation because it ensures that your audience is on the same page with you.   
  3. Anticipate the questions of your audience. An excellent language strategy that will help you engage you audience in your presentation is to consider where they would have questions about your material. When you see these points in your presentation, you can verbally acknowledge this to your audience, “So you might be wondering at this point…” This makes the audience feel as though you are relating this talk to their needs and the result will be that they will be more likely to stay engaged. We can see this strategy employed by our example speakers in this category. 



Video Examples for Speech



Example #1 

Brian Cox, "An Inside Tour of the World's Biggest Supercollider"



Example #2

Matt Chang, "Graphene: The Answer to Moore's Law?"


Discussion of Example #2

This presenter takes on the challenging topic of Moore’s Law and an innovative new material called Graphene.  The audience for this presentation was engineering undergraduate students, many of whom had little prior knowledge of this subject as they were from a wide variety of engineering fields. This speaker does many powerful things with his language choices to make this topic understandable and meaningful to his audience.


Anticipating Questions

When crafting the language of your talk, an excellent technique is to anticipate the questions of your audience and then use those questions to frame the content that you will cover.  This creates an instant connection between speaker and audience because the audience perceives the speaker as being invested in their understanding of the talk. We see this speaker use this strategy very effectively:

(2:15) “You might be wondering at this point, why is it a problem if my computer can’t do over a billion computations every second?”  His answer to this question allows him to establish the “big picture” significance of this topic, which is a crucial first step to engaging the interest of the audience. The audience needs to know why this presentation matters. This question piques the listener’s interest by implying that a billion computations every second is not enough.

(5:00)  “You might be wondering how can we combat a problem like this?” This prepares the audience to move on to the background information about the size of transistors that is necessary to understand his proposed solution.

(5:40)  “You have to be thinking, how can we tackle this problem if we are already down to the atomic scale?”


(9:20) “But you might be thinking, ‘One atom is weak and how can we construct something that is one atom thick? Won’t it just break?’”  Both of these questions serve a similar purpose. Instead of allowing the audience to become skeptical because the qualities of Graphene are so outstanding (and perhaps perceived as unlikely), the speaker instead features these questions ones that he would expect the audience to have. Each question is followed with a thorough response that is well supported by evidence.


Making Numbers Matter

There are many occasions in technical presentations where the presenter must discuss elements of size and amount.  Sometimes an audience might not fully appreciate the significance of a raw number or measurement when it is just stated “as is”, but this can be an opportunity to make your information really stand out if you can provide them with some context for that number. By making a number relevant to what they already know, you are making that information much more meaningful and, most importantly, memorable. This speaker provides several examples of how he worked to make numbers more meaningful for his audience:

(2:36)  “If one year’s worth of data collected from the Large Hadron Collider was burned to CDs, this stack of CDs would be 20 kilometers high.” This example helps us to image how much data that is, and thus we can more fully understand the importance of computing speed when processing that data.

(4:39)  “We can fit 30,000 transistors on the head of a pin.” This speaker could have very easily just emphasized that they were very small and provided an exact measurement, but this is a much more vivid picture that captures the attention of the listeners. Now, we have a visual picture of how tiny these really are.

(9:40) In discussing the strength of Graphene, he says that it is “100 times stronger than the strongest steel on the market”.  Instead of just providing us with the data on the tensile strength of Graphene, he compares this strength to a material that the audience is already very familiar with. An audience is much more likely to remember that Graphene is 100 times stronger than steel, than to remember the exact measurement.


Clearly Defined

(6:50)  As this speaker starts to explain the material Graphene for the first time, he describes it as a single, atom think sheet of carbon. He could have just provided this definition (which might not mean much to some audience members), but instead he provides us with some key comparisons for this material. He says that if Graphene is rolled into a tube, it is a carbon nanotube and if it is stacked on top of one another, it becomes pencil lead. Now the listener is able to anchor the concept of this new material to something that they already understand.  

(7:20)  In order to understand the capabilities of Graphene, the listener must grasp the concept of mobility. Instead of assuming that the audience will intuitively understand this term, the speaker provides a clear, concise definition of “a measurement of how fast electrons move in a certain substance.” He then follows up with the significance of this measurement—“it correlates with how fast devices can operate.”   This two-step process of a clear definition followed by the establishment of significance or relevance is an excellent way to impart understanding of a key term or concept to your audience.


Paint a Picture

(9:50)  To demonstrate the strength, the speaker gives the example that if you could put the weight of an elephant onto a pencil and you put that point onto a flake of Graphene, it would not break. This paints a very vivid picture for the listener of the strength of this material as we picture how heavy an elephant would be on top of a pencil.

(10:35) “A revolution in electronics is about to come—it needs to come.”  This line comes during the conclusion of the presentation, and the word choice provides a sense of urgency, which is often important in a conclusion. The conclusion is your last opportunity to “make your case” to the listener. In this case, this speaker wanted to educate and excite the audience on the potential of Graphene to replace silicon in our electronics—this sentence choice effectively emphasizes this by saying that a revolution is coming and we will not longer be using the status quo silicon, there will be something new. And it is clear what material this speaker thinks should be a forefront of that revolution.

(10:40) “It might not be too surprising to find in the near future that your computer is constructed out of something as simple as pencil lead.”  This is a very effective final line because it is memorable. The unexpectedness of a “computer made out of pencil lead” is a memorable closing line because it provokes the thought of the listener as they think of something as ordinary as pencil lead doing something extraordinary in technology.



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