Recently, I was trying to explain a challenge I was facing to a project team. While describing the challenge, I could see my audience getting more and more confused. In the end, we were unable to resolve the issue during the meeting, not because of the issue’s complexity, but because of the way I communicated the message.
Almost every day, as technical professionals, we need to communicate something to the teams we work with, and our ability to communicate those messages directly affects the outcome in a positive or negative way.
Becoming a technical storyteller is easier said than done, though, especially when you’re staring at a blank PowerPoint slide. To help, I put together five must-follow steps to help you become an effective technical storyteller.
Step 1: Choose the medium that is best for communicating your story
Constant interruptions from emails and direct messages can make it hard to stay focused during a meeting, especially when you’re working remotely. These distractions, along with the wide range of the human attention span, can make it challenging to communicate your story.
To communicate your message effectively and overcome these hurdles, you need a strong medium for that communication. A medium that easily allows for visuals to be integrated and break up blocks of text will help you convey your message the strongest because it provides variety to help the audience refocus their attention.
I tend to lean towards PowerPoint, as opposed to a Word document, because you can change up the layout for displaying information and can easily incorporate visuals and SmartArt.
Step 2: Remind the audience what you’re talking about
You are very close to the information you are trying to communicate, but you must remember that the stakeholder might not have thought about the project since your last update.
It can feel redundant to have a slide dedicated to summarizing the project’s objective, key deliverables, and timeline, but it’s an important step in communicating your message because it allows your audience to quickly reacclimate to the topic before jumping into specific details.
Step 3: Let the slide do the work for the audience
Because we are so close to the message we are communicating, we may forget that the audience might see something different than what we see when looking at a graph.
By visually calling out the area of the graph a person should look at, and then describing what the graph is showing directly on the slide, you are doing the work for your audience, and therefore making sure the message they receive is the message you were trying to communicate.
Step 4: Let your document speak for itself
When I was taking technical writing courses while studying engineering, we always were told to use size 20 font and only have high-level bullets on a slide. After spending years communicating messages using slides or other mediums requested by the audience, I do not fully agree with this strategy.
Especially now, when teams are more remote and global than ever, it’s less frequent that you’re communicating a message in front of a large boardroom of people. This opens the door to building more complex slides that are strategically packed with information to guide an effective discussion, while also serving as a references that can stand on their own.
When I say “complex slides,” I’m not talking about an entire novel squeeze onto a 16:9 slide at 8pt font. Think of a science fair poster where you had sections of information you wanted to communicate, along with examples to support what you are talking about.
In the end, building a slide that can be sent around an organization and effectively communicate your story, without you present, should be the goal.
Step 5: Quantify everything
At some point in our careers, we’ve probably all said something like “the results were not great.” To us, this makes complete sense because we’ve seen the results, but it doesn’t resonate with others because they don’t understand what “not great” means.
By quantifying everything you can quantify, you give the audience datapoints to help them make informed decisions. Instead of saying “the results were not great,” try saying “we had inaccurate predictions for eight of the 10 test cases.” This allows for your audience to really understand how big a problem is, which expedites the actions taken to move forward.
No matter what role or stage of your career you are in, you will always need to communicate. Investing the time to communicate effectively, and becoming a technical storyteller seems daunting, but in the end, you will streamline your work and arrive on the intended outcome faster.
Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Fast Company and the Huffington Post.
After Solar Impulse, Kassalen has helped Covestro and JPMorgan Chase develop and implement strategies to embrace a range of emerging technology trends from autonomous vehicles to machine learning. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now uses her problem-solving skills at an artificial intelligence startup, CrowdAI, where she leads the implementation of computer vision solutions for existing commercial customers.