Presenting Complex Information – 10 Simple Rules Every Subject Expert Needs to Know

An authority or expert has instant credibility on the podium. But many experts giving technical presentations fall into the trap of overwhelming the audience with too much content. They fill in every moment of the talk with data and facts. The charts and statistics become a security blanket. Being an effective communicator requires that you understand the listener’s ability to absorb information. These 10 simple rules will help you give a talk that connects with an audience, moves them to action and leaves a positive impression.

  1. Do your research. Talk to other experts, especially inside your own organization. Ignoring them might bruise the egos of co-workers who have a stake in the topic. Know what the audience expects. Research their existing level of knowledge about your topic. Make sure your content is relevant to the audience.
  2. Choose one ‘big idea’ or main thesis for your talk or presentation. Don’t try to put too many ideas into your speech. Research shows that people remember very little from speeches, so just give them one big idea to hang onto. What is the one idea you want the audience to hear, remember, and act on?
  3. Choose a ‘destination point’ for the talk. When people leave the room what will they do or feel differently than they did before you started presenting? Before you know where you want to take the audience, you need to be honest about your own hidden assumptions and the audience’s current situation.
  4. Aim to make three main points in the talk. Use three related words or phrases to grab attention, encapsulate, summarize. The number three is interesting – we easily remember three things. Beyond this it becomes progressively more difficult to remember. Three items act as a powerful unifying format. Examples:
    • Three key themes that together cover a wide area.
    • Three items that act in sequence to get to a desired goal.
    • Two problems and a solution that resolves the problem.
    • Two actions or objectives and a solution that will result from achieving these.
  5. Create the speech Abstract first. Focus your content in your own mind. If you cannot (or choose not to) do this, the chances are that your thinking isn’t clear enough for the audience to understand your purpose.
  6. Construct a logical argument. There is no reason to give a speech unless you have an argument to make. A speech should never be confused with normal conversation such as “Nice day, huh?’ The speech argument is an explanation of why one believes something to be true.
    • State the Big Idea that forms the content of your argument.
    • Ask the question: Why is my interpretation of the evidence true?
    • List, in order of importance, all the reasons why you find the interpretation persuasive.
  7. Start with an outline. Once you have a clear outline, writing the details is relatively straight forward, almost like filling in the blanks. Within each section of the speech:
    • State the question you are answering
    • Support the premise with examples, stories, statistics.
    • Tie-in each of the section premise to the speech thesis.
    • Transition to the next question.
  8. Avoid burying the audience in raw data. Subject experts can overwhelm an audience with too much data. Less is more. Give each statistic a context that makes it relevant to the audience. Numbers alone are often meaningless and difficult to grasp by themselves.
  9. Include a human element. No matter how ‘dry’ your topic, look for ways to humanize it. Including stories and case studies enables you to engage the audience and raise levels of motivation, acceptance, and approval.
  10. Conclude with a call to action. State what the audience has to do, change or think after your talk. Many speeches avoid a call to action. Even in an educational presentation you want to ensure the audience knows what you want them to do. It can be something as simple as ‘read the new accounting regulations’.

Following these rules will minimize the chance that the audience will mentally check-out during your talk. They will still respect your expertise, and remember more of your speech the next day.

9 Comments so far
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Good advice- thanks!

This is an excellent post filled with great advice. I would particularly recommend points 2, 3, and 4 to get people to focus their talks. By far the most common problem amongst my clients preparing speeches is too much information.

I work with subject matter experts all the time, helping them with their presentations. Your advice is so on the mark that I’ll be referring them to it from now on. Great advice.

Thanks to Chris Witt for posting a link to this article in his blog ‘Life After PowerPoint’ and advising readers that “I would summarize his 10 rules, but you’d be better off reading them in their entirety. (It’s such great advice, I wish I had written it myself.)”

Thanks to Olivia Mitchell for posting a link to this article in her blog ‘Speaking About Presenting’

I would expect only 3 simpler rules instead of 10, you know, it is easier to remember 🙂

Joey Asher at Speechworks has posted a useful summary of five principles to follow to use numbers effectively during a presentation.

Thanks to Alan Steven’s for this insight:


Here’s a speaking characteristic I suspect you don’t want to demonstrate. TMI. Too Much Information. It might appear to be a good problem to have, especially if you are being paid to deliver your knowledge. However, it is not at all helpful to your audience to overwhelm them with facts and figures that they have little time to absorb, let alone use. I see the TMI phenomenon often at events all around the world. Some speakers fear that they are not getting enough information across, so pack their speeches with detailed evidence to back up their messages (yes, they deliver a whole bunch of different messages too).

The symptoms of TMI can be observed in the audience, by watching people getting increasingly frustrated, and saying to each other “Did you get that?” There are several possible causes. Firstly, the speaker may be rushing through their material in order to finish on time. That’s never going to work, since the audience will feel cheated. Secondly, there may be way too much information on the slides, accompanied by the speaker saying “You probably can’t see the detail on this slide, so I will talk you through it”. (Oh dear).

In most cases, however, it’s simply a case of trying to deliver too many messages in one speech. Here’s my rule of thumb; one speech, one message. That’s it. It’s simple, clear and prevents any confusion. The thing is, a week or two later, people in your audience will remember just the one thing that made the greatest impression on them.

So the cure for TMI is obvious and simple. Focus on one message only, and provide plenty of time for your audience to understand it.

This information was written by Alan Stevens, and originally appeared in “The MediaCoach”, his free weekly ezine, available at

Garr Reynolds has posted some excellent advice on giving technical presentations. He highlights a 1985 essay by Dr. Jay H. Lehr, an engineer and scientist, on the need for SME’s presenting technical papers to change their act:

A speaker cannot hope to teach the audience the specifics of his work, but he can elicit a valuable appreciation of the research effort and imply the value of the contribution to the growing body of knowledge on the subject. To achieve this he must convey enlightened enthusiasm for his subject and the advances he has attained.

Without exception a presentation with the aforementioned goals can and should be made extemporaneously. A scientist who cannot retain in his head the essence of his latest work can hardly be said to be enraptured by his subject. If a speaker is not excited enough by his area of expertise to weave it comfortably into the fabric of his cognitive thought processes, then how can he hope to excite an audience to an
acceptable level of appreciation?


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