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Technical training for a non-technical audience

Explaining technical topics can be tricky, especially when your audience is not technically inclined.  But at some point, every technology company will need to train non-tech people on complex tools or processes.  We hope that the following recommendations will help you engage team members who are unfamiliar with, or even averse to, technical subject matter.

Audience Awareness

As with any presentation, knowing your audience is critical to technical training.  Making false assumptions about your listeners or addressing them at an inappropriate technical level can have devastating effects.  You can leave your audience not only just as uninformed as before but also soured on the notion of learning the topic in the future.

Knowing to whom you are speaking is a nuanced process.  Typically your listeners will have a wide range of technical aptitude, and it is the presenter’s job to find the “sweet spot” for the training.  Ideal evaluation of your training would consist of majority audience satisfaction, with a few edge cases faulting you for being either too technical or not technical enough.

Covering The Right Material

Having a good feel for your audience will help you select the scope of material to be covered.  Determining what to cover and what not is key, because it helps you deliver the material effectively.  Too broad of a scope can be overwhelming and convoluted, while too narrow of scope may bore the audience due to lack of substance.

For longer training segments, you must be prepared to change directions and add or delete material based on progress.  If your audience requires more attention to basics, you may consider cutting out a more advanced topic.  Conversely, you should have supplemental material ready to be added if your listeners grasp the initial concepts rapidly.

The K.I.S.S. Method (“Keep It Simple, Stupid!”)

One of the most important skills of a trainer or presenter is simplifying complex material.  You may be inclined to show off your thorough knowledge of a topic, but instead, try asking yourself if each component you cover will help the listener do something useful.  If not, you are better off saving it for another time.  Use your experience to stage the complexity of your curriculum appropriately.

A great way to keep a topic simple is to summarize or give a shortened version of it by focusing on its main points.  In many cases, your audience will not benefit from knowing every detail, unless the topic is a specific tool or procedure.  It is your job as a trainer to find the 20% of material that will help your trainees get familiar with 80% of the topic.  This allows your audience to give extra attention to the most important information while not getting lost in the details.

Attitude Vs. Aptitude

Half the battle in teaching a technical topic is the presenter’s demeanor.  Your audience is not stupid, but they may not have any prerequisite skill set or knowledge for the topic you are teaching.  Moreover, you cannot expect them to have the same level of interest that you do.  It is important to remember that you are the expert in this particular topic, but also that your audience likely knows more than you about a number of other topics.  Respect your listeners and be attentive to their questions, comments, and concerns.

Be enthusiastic and authentic.  Your excitement for the material will be inspirational and, eventually, contagious.  Put your interest in a topic on display, and you will find it that much easier to captivate your audience.  How you present yourself should be exactly who you are.  Be grateful for the opportunity to speak before your audience, and have a good time with it.  A dull learning environment reduces productivity –– you will get better results by making the material fun and having a sense of humor.

Training Is A Team Effort

Audience participation is generally a good thing and should be encouraged.  Technical knowledge is more likely to be retained by an actively engaged listener.  A great way to increase participation is by asking for questions at each stopping point.  Instead of “Are there any questions?”, try asking in an open-ended way, such as “What questions do you all have?”  This phrasing tells the audience that you expect questions, and you should be prepared to wait until the first one is posed.  Don’t be afraid to take the presentation from a lecture to more of a conversation, as long as you can stay on-topic.  People learn in different ways, and group discussions can be a great addition to your training.

We hope this post helps provide some guidance for your next technical training session.  Additionally, we would love to hear other tips and tricks you have used that are not mentioned here.  Now … What questions do you all have?

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