Acing a technical talk: Writing a Session Profile for Successful Presentations

applause-431234_640What makes a presentation successful?

In the last post, we discussed the purpose of a presentation and I suggested that it involves inspiring people in the audience to do something because of the presentation. When this is achieved, we can say it was a successful presentation.

Before they actually do that, they have to learn how to do that. Before that, they need to be convinced to learn it. In earlier posts, we discussed the five stages of the learning process:

  1. Selection
  2. Linking
  3. Organisation
  4. Assimilation
  5. Reinforcement

That’s why as speakers, we follow these steps to make sure that our presentations are effective and successful:

  1. Make sure that the audience is convinced that the information is worth learning. (Selection)
  2. Make sure that the audience is able to process and digest the information presented. (Linking, Organisation)
  3. Present the information and make sure that the audience is able to retain the information. (Assimilation)
  4. Make sure that the audience is able to practice and use the information. (Reinforcement)

Each step is more important than the next one

If an audience member is not convinced enough to listen to you, they’ll never be ready to process and digest the information you present. I have said before that if you are successful in convincing them, your talk can become important enough.

This means that if you are not able to present information that is linked to their existing knowledge or structure it properly, many of them will still take the effort to ask questions, read more and follow up to clarify these links and get a structure of their own.

Every step is not necessary

It’s not that if you don’t convince people, no one is going to listen to you. There will be a section of the audience that is already convinced, for various reasons. In a multi-track event, they wouldn’t have turned up for your session, if they didn’t feel it was important.

At times, you don’t need to spend as much time on some parts of the learning or skip them altogether. It all depends on the topic, your judgement and experience.

Session profile or overview

As discussed above, the session structure will vary depending on multiple factors. Rather than straightaway preparing my session in the order of how it’ll be presented (Introduction, Body and then Conclusion), I usually prepare an overview or a profile of the session. It helps me get the big picture and the core ideas of my presentation. This way I can plan my actual session easily and even modify my presentation on the go, based on the audience’s reaction.

  1. What is the aim or purpose of my presentation? Or, what do I want the audience to do because of my presentation?
  2. What is my presentation about? Or, what is the central idea or theme of my presentation?
  3. What are the goals or objectives that’ll need to be achieved to satisfy the aim?
  4. What do I want my audience to do after my presentation? (Call to action)
  5. What will be the title of my presentation?

We’ve discussed the aim or purpose of a presentation in the last post. We’ve discussed objectives briefly earlier.

Central Idea

The central idea describe what the presentation is about, in a single sentence. Ideally, if someone asks an audience member what your presentation was about, this is what they should paraphrase.

It is slightly different from but related to the aim of the presentation. For example, if your aim is:

I want audience members to start using Theme Frameworks for their projects.

then, the central idea could be:

Theme Frameworks make theme development easy (because they come with built-in functionality, excellent code quality and excellent support).

While the aim states what you want your audience to do, the central idea says why they should do it.


We’ve had a brief discussion on setting objectives earlier. You may recall that objectives are basically well defined statements that describe

  • what the participant will be able to do at the end of your session,
  • under what conditions, and
  • what criteria or standards would be used to evaluate this.

Aim vs Objectives

Although the meaning in the general sense is very similar, these are two distinct words in formal settings. While the aim defines what is going to be done, the objectives tell us the how of it. In fact, to be specific, objectives are the exact things that need to be done so that we know that the aim is achieved.

Call to action

This is what you’d explicitly ask the audience to do at the end of the presentation, either right away or after going back. For the theme framework example above, the call to action could be

I want you to select any theme framework and create a child theme that has a different colour scheme from the parent theme.


Finally, the title is the PR person of your presentation. It is the first thing people will know and it is the only thing they’d need to remember before the presentation. Here’s an excellent resource that saves me from going into details: How to Write Good Speech Titles.

What’s Next

In the next post, we’ll create the actual session plan (from Introduction to Conclusion) based on the session profile.

Worksheets and an exercise

Here’s a worksheet that you can use to plan and structure your session. As an exercise, you could work out the session profile and objectives for a presentation on Theme Frameworks.

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Acing a technical talk: A session structure template

Without any ado, here’s the structure that I recommend:

Presentation Stage Notes Learning Stage


Grab Attention Attention, Motivation & Confidence Selection
State the Central Idea Recall & Relate to existing knowledge Linking


  1. Main Point
    1. Sub-Point/ Example
    2. Sub-Point/ Example
    3. Sub-Point/ Example
  2. Main Point
    1. Sub-Point/ Example
    2. Sub-Point/ Example
    3. Sub-Point/ Example
  3. Main Point
    1. Sub-Point/ Example
    2. Sub-Point/ Example
    3. Sub-Point/ Example
Structuring Content,
Setting Objectives,
Presenting Content,
Presenting Examples
  1. Main Point
    1. Sub-Point/ Example
    2. Sub-Point/ Example
    3. Sub-Point/ Example
  2. Main Point
    1. Sub-Point/ Example
    2. Sub-Point/ Example
    3. Sub-Point/ Example
Maximum 5, only if you are super sure! 🙂


Recap Main Points
Restate the Central Idea
Call to Action Practice, Testing, On-the-job training

Why do I recommend it? Because it serves the purpose of my presentations and I feel, of any presentation in general.

The purpose of your presentation

While defining the aim or purpose of their presentation, people often work with the question

Why am I presenting?

which is a very vague question that may or may not help you. For eg, the following could be some of the many possible answers.

  1. I want to demonstrate and promote my product or a great useful product.
  2. I want to teach people a skill.
  3. I want to teach people a concept.
  4. I want to share my experience of doing something.

That’s not the aim, but the intention. The question that’ll lead you to the aim should rather be

What do I want people in the audience to do because of my presentation?

This question applied to the earlier examples, gives us something more specific:

  1. I want them to try/ use my product.
  2. I want them to be able to complete a task in a better way with fewer problems.
  3. I want people to realise the the true nature of a concept in depth and clear misconceptions and misunderstandings.
  4. I want people to avoid my mistakes and adopt the practices that worked for me.

labyrinth-1015639_640In other words, you want the audience to do something in a particular way because they will learn it from you.

In the previous posts, I have discussed how people learn things. In the table above, I have associated the relevant stage of your presentation with the stage of learning involved. We will go into the details in a subsequent post along with a worksheet to help plan your session. At this stage, however, I’d like to leave you with a couple of questions:

  1. Why only 3 main points (maximum 5)? (Hint: chunking)
  2. What is the central idea of your presentation?
  3. What is a call to action?

Acing a technical talk: Reinforcing knowledge

While the contents of this post are outside the scope of the session proper, an understanding of these principles may go a long way in structuring the session. You could go a step further and include these in your structure in creative ways.

The building analogy

We have already looked at the principles by which a participant first selects and assimilates the knowledge that you have provided into their existing ideas. Previously, I compared this to constructing a building.

In the first post, we discussed selection and linking. The strategies of grabbing attention, motivation and confidence (selection) make the participant choose willingly to construct the building on their minds. Recalling other buildings that they have seen and relating the features of this new building to the other buildings prepares them better. It links the idea of the new building to whatever they already know. They are ready to build.


In the second post, we discussed how without a proper scaffolding or framework (organising), you can’t just place bricks on top of each other and create a strong and useful building. Once you have created the structure and placed your bricks, you are able to create a brand new building that makes complete sense with the existing landscape of their minds (assimilation).


There’s just a small problem. Building knowledge in our minds is a little different from building structures in the real world. If new knowledge is a building made of a concrete scaffold and strong and beautiful bricks, the mortar is just clay. It erodes quickly; the building cannot stand for long. Which is why, unlike the real world, you have to start adding your cement mixture, after the building’s ready.


Without reinforcing or strengthening the assimilation of new knowledge to existing, new knowledge is quickly lost. Many of the strategies are known to us since we use them to reinforce memories all the time.

Strengthening this assimilation in memory


It’s the most popular strategy. Practice makes a person perfect. However, there are two kinds of practice or rehearsal. One of them is when you just repeat a phone number over and over and is called passive rehearsal. It hasn’t found to be as effective as the other one.


The second type is meaningful rehearsal where often you rehearse after creating meaningful associations. For example, when you try and remember names. Simply repeating a name does nothing. However, by linking some attributes of the person to the name (WordPress developer, beard, bald, no spectacles, wears bright t-shirts) and repeating this information maybe just twice, we are able to remember the name better.

Every time you meet this bearded, bald, bright t-shirt wearing WordPress developer, you’d actually be rehearsing the memory and Joshua‘s name will be remembered better.


After learning something and reinforcing with practice, there has to be a way for the learner to check how well they are doing. Are they able to apply what they’ve learnt usefully? Do they have any problems in doing so? Why are they having these problems?


You gave your talk, your audience went home and practised what you preached and now they could get stuck. How much of the responsibility of feedback are you willing to take? Are you keeping a communication channel or a resource for them that they can use to get feedback and support? Is that possible for your topic?


A summary is just repeating the structure of content that was used to help organise the new knowledge. It helps to go back to the scaffold, refreshes links and reinforces the assimilation.


This is by far the most technical part and is often left to experts. However, I’ll only give an example. You are going to teach someone to build a widget with an example of recent posts. Once you have done that, what do you think is a better strategy?

Asking participants to build a widget of

  • most recent posts
  • most popular posts (using comments & social media shares)
  • related posts (using tags)
  • latest tweets
  • latest YouTube videos


If a participant is able to apply their newly learnt knowledge in new situations, it does mean that they have assimilated it well. It will also strengthen the new knowledge better by creating more and better associations.

On-the-job Training

The final stage is when the participant is able to successfully apply new knowledge at work, on a real life project. Once they start doing that, there’s no way anyone is forgetting anything.


Implications for your session

How much of the actual strategies of practise, feedback, summary, testing and on-the-job training can we include in the actual session? If not, are there ways we can accommodate them into our sessions, partially? If not, are there ways by which we could create the direction or a framework that could help your audience get the reinforcement?

What next?

Next, we start building a plan and structure for your talk utilising these principles.

Acing a technical talk: The actual learning

In the previous post How do we learn anything?, I discussed the first two stages of learning

  1. Selection (selecting new information to learn)
    1. Attention (grabbing attention to the information)
    2. Motivation (What’s in it for me or WIIFM)
    3. Confidence (You can do it or YCDI)
  2. Linking (linking new information to existing)
    1. Recall (recall existing information)
    2. Relate (relate new information to existing information)

In this one, we’ll discuss the next two stages, Organisation and Assimilation. We keep Reinforcement for another post. These are stages that all of us give enough importance to. That’s why many of the steps or strategies are common knowledge and/or are pretty well understood.

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Acing a technical talk: How do we learn anything?

Learning is a complex processes, but research in cognitive psychology has found at least a commonly agreed upon process. The purpose of a talk, presentation or training session is to present new information and ultimately, learning this information to affect a change in behaviour in some way.

These aren’t my theories but scientific research that I read up and my notes. I use them while preparing my training sessions or talks that I give.

There are five stages involved in learning something:

  1. Selection
  2. Linking
  3. Organisation
  4. Assimilation
  5. Reinforcement

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