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Presenting Technical Ideas to Business Audiences

Originally published in 2019 on Mandel Communications blog

Technical experts shine when communicating to others in their field because, in a way, they all speak the same language.

They share a common need and appreciation for deep, data-driven explanations of ideas and solutions. They use data-rich PowerPoints and whiteboards to carefully explain their ideas.

This patient, methodical, and logical approach makes perfect sense in the world of technology and science. In fact, it would be reckless and damaging to credibility to do otherwise.

But does this approach work when presenting to a business audience?

In my experience, not so much.

Here’s the good news. In my many years of coaching inside technology organizations, I’ve learned that, with the right coaching and tools, engineers and scientists can become very effective at sharing ideas with business decision makers. They can learn to do this in a surprisingly short amount of time.

And when they do, it’s like adding a booster rocket to their career trajectory and the value they bring to their organization.

Why Do Brilliant Engineers and Scientists Seek Mandel’s Help?

One of my favorite things about being part of the Mandel team is the extensive work we do with these extraordinary engineers and scientists. I am in awe of these innovative, passionate, and extensively educated world changers.

When does their genius really pay off? When they effectively communicate the value of their ideas to a non-technical, business audience. As Melissa Marshall reminds us in her TED TalkTalk Nerdy to Me, technical experts need to communicate especially well with decision makers who fund their work, as well as with internal and external customers who adopt their solutions.

Some engineers and scientists present to these business audiences well, others struggle to be effective, and a few panic at the thought of presenting at all.

A Dangerous Disconnect in Communication Styles

To some engineers and scientists, having to present ideas to business decision makers can feel like entering a lion’s den. In my experience, it’s in large part because of a fundamental disconnect in communication styles. The key is to learn how to speak their business language, because ultimately, they’re not going to learn how to speak yours.

So what communication style do business audiences respond to?

These executives have little patience for details. They focus primarily on the “why” – that is, the value or opportunities lost if they don’t implement an idea, and/or the value gained if they do.

Attention spans start to slip with a heavy barrage of data, or a lengthy buildup of support for a solution that the engineer plans to give at the end of the presentation.

Business audiences need to know right up front how a recommendation will help their organization make money, save money, and/or mitigate risk. Unfortunately, that’s not a communication approach that most technology experts are comfortable with.

And technical jargon and acronyms? While it may make perfect sense to use this shorthand with fellow technologists, it confuses business people. It alienates them. Some of the executives I’ve interviewed say that jargon angers them. Some even confessed to how their fear of appearing ignorant prevents them from asking for explanations.

That’s not good for effective decision making.

Let’s take a look at some specific and practical ways that engineers and scientists can bridge these communication styles and become more effective presenters with business audiences.

11 Tactics for Technology Experts Presenting to Business Audiences

  1. Identify business issues. Do your homework. Find out what priorities are on their plate that relate to your idea. What do they care about? What do they need to achieve? What challenges or opportunities are they facing? What’s the impact?
  2. Start with “why.” Don’t make the mistake of jumping right to your idea. First sell the problem it solves. Business decision makers need attention grabbing context to even consider your idea. This is easy to do if you’ve done your homework. Just succinctly link to the business issue you discovered and its implications.
  3. Then share your idea. Resist the urge to dive into details to create a rock-solid runway for your idea to land on – you’ll crash and burn. Business decision makers tend to be more deductive and want the answer first. They want clear and concise ideas in about 30 seconds. Details can wait.
  4. Highlight outcomes. Share the value that acting on your idea will deliver – value to the organization and value to the business decision makers. Keep if brief and make it very compelling. Did I mention that details can wait?
  5. Finally… Details! Focus only on the details the business decision makers absolutely must know. If they want to hear about “nice to know” details, they’ll ask. Follow the rule of three and organize supporting details into a tight, three-point agenda and preview it before diving in.
  6. “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Genius advice from Albert Einstein. Follow it. It gives your ideas a huge competitive advantage over the competition, because simple does not equal easy. If it did, everyone would be doing it.
  7. Avoid dense, overstuffed PowerPoint decks. In fact, avoid them like the plague. The same goes for minutely detailed whiteboards. Instead, embrace your inner Einstein. Keep your slides and whiteboards as simple and as intuitive as possible. Don’t forget that a picture is worth a 1000 words. Data visualization software has never been better or more accessible. For a slide strategy that aligns with tips one through five, check out this Harvard Business Publishing video.
  8. Sprinkle in stories and analogies. Stories work like magic to increase memorability and influence the listener. Except it’s not magic, it’s science. And nothing is better than a good analogy to accelerate understanding of new ideas, especially the disruptive ones.
  9. Use technical acronyms and jargon VERY sparingly. And be sure to define them when you do. It’s that simple.
  10. Don’t get defensive. If business decision makers are at all interested your idea, you are going to get questions. Some of these questions might feel like an attack on you and your ideas. This short Harvard Business Review video provides proven insight on how to defend your ideas without getting defensive.
  11. Let your conviction shine. Every engineer and scientist I’ve coached is fiercely protective of their professional credibility. The one downside to this? There is often a fear of being perceived as too “salesy,” resulting in ideas being shared in a professional yet unenthusiastic way. Unfortunately, as one executive vice president so aptly described, business decisions makers not only need to buy into your thinking, they also need to feel the “fire in the belly.”* Ironically, my favorite Einstein quote was edited to be clearer and much more concise before it was first published in The New York Times in 1950 – the editors wanted it to resonate with non-scientists.

Prioritize Building Communication and Influencing Skills

These tactics might be very straightforward and actionable, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to implement, at least not at first.

That’s why thousands of engineers and scientists have adopted the Mandel Blueprint® as their go-to communication framework. This intuitive, globally proven tool guides their thinking so they can speak to business decision makers with confidence.

It’s difficult for technology experts to invest the time needed to sharpen their communication and influence skills, especially when keeping current on technical knowledge is an absolute must. But it’s a smart investment with huge return on investment. Nobody wins when innovation gets lost in presentation – not the engineers and scientists, and certainly not the business decision makers and their organizations.

I started off by sharing that one of my favorite things about being part of the Mandel team is the extensive work we do with technical organizations and the extraordinary engineers and scientists who work in them. My fellow Mandel coaches around the globe feel the same way. Let us know if we can help.

You can see our full set of Communication Skills courses here

Citations (in order of appearance)
Marshall, Melissa. (2012). Talk nerdy to me . Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/melissa_marshall_talk_nerdy_to_me?language=en
Holst, Brad. (n.d.).  Entering the (executive) lion’s den. Mandel.com. Retrieved from https://www.mandel.com/blog/entering-the-executive-lions-den
Holst, Brad. (n.d.). Are acronyms hurting or helping your communications? Mandel.com. Retrieved from https://www.mandel.com/blog/are-acronyms-hurting-or-helping-your-communications/
Holst, Brad. (n.d.). Sell the problem…and they just might adopt your idea. Mandel.com. Retrieved from https://www.mandel.com/blog/sell-the-problem-and-they-just-might-adopt-your-idea
Bradford, Alina. (2017). Deductive Reasoning vs. Inductive Reasoning. Livescience.com. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/21569-deduction-vs-induction.html
Holst, Brad. (n.d.). Want your presentation to be memorable? Follow the rule of three. Mandel.com. Retrieved from https://www.mandel.com/blog/want-your-presentation-to-be-memorable
Plaue, Christopher, Miller, T., and Stasko, J. (n.d.). Is a picture worth a thousand words? Georgia Institute of Technology. Retrieved from https://www.cc.gatech.edu/~john.stasko/papers/gi04-glance.pdf
Mandel Communications. (2017). Mandel’s 5+1 Slide Strategy. . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=11&v=EefYOsAP1fo
Mandel Communications. (2017). The Power of Storytelling. . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUbqH304y-8&feature=youtu.be
Holst, Brad. (2019). Are you leveraging the power of business value stories? Trainingindustry.com. Retrieved from https://trainingindustry.com/articles/sales/are-you-leveraging-the-power-of-business-value-stories/
Mandel Communications. (2016). How to React Non Defensively. . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1m8crvvvnJI&feature=youtu.be
Holst, Brad. (n.d.). Where’s the fire in your belly? Mandel.com. Retrieved from https://www.mandel.com/blog/fire-in-your-belly/
Mandel Communications. (n.d.). Powerful Storytelling and Communication Tool. Mandel.com. Retrieved from https://www.mandel.com/why-mandel//mandel-blueprint-communication-tools