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Instruction 101, Part I: Get Your Message Across

Instruction 101, Part I: Get Your Message Across

By Minda Zetlin

It’s a moment many geeks dread. At some point in your career, it’s likely you’ll have to teach your peers -- or worse, your non-technical co-workers or customers -- about a new technology.

Doing so can be a real boost to your career, not only because it gives you great visibility within your organization -- and sometimes beyond it -- but also because it will help you increase your expertise. “You never truly master something until you teach it to someone else,” says Jeremiah Dunham, president of the IT support company Design-PT and an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

Teaching is daunting, especially if you’ve never done it before. Here are four keys to making sure you come across like a pro:

1. Know your audience. Find out who’s likely to be there, and most important, what they’ll want to learn from you. This is especially vital when teaching a non-technical audience about technology. You may love the new technology or product for its elegant design and functionality, but that’s unlikely to matter to a lay audience that will only want to know how the product can help them do their jobs more easily, increase revenues or save the company money. They may also be worried that newer, more efficient technology will result in layoffs, so make sure you’re sensitive to those concerns.

2. Set the stage. Finding the right location for your teaching session can be tricky. You want a setting where you won’t be interrupted or distracted by nearby noise. “A lab type of environment, where everyone has their own computer, is the most effective setting if you’re teaching a new piece of software,” notes Dunham.

Always visit the room beforehand. “If you’re in a new venue, you need to check out every aspect of it: room size, chair arrangement, lighting, acoustics and any technology you’re going to use,” says Mike Scheuermann, associate vice president of Instructional Technology Support at Drexel University. “If you have a glitch because you didn’t prepare, you can undermine your own effectiveness.”

3. Dress the part. Your audience will feel more comfortable with you, and thus be more receptive to what you say, if your attire reflects theirs. In most cases, this means that you, as a geek, will have to look more formal than usual. But the reverse can also be true.

Early in his career, Lawrence Burgee, department chair of Information Systems at Stevenson University had to make a presentation to 500 public utility workers. He arrived dressed for business, as was required in the company’s headquarters offices, where he worked. But the utility workers, who spent their time out in the field, were wearing jeans and T-shirts. “As I walked through the door, I heard one audience member tell his neighbor, ‘Here comes another suit!’” Burgee recalls. “I set the wrong tone by dressing wrong.”

4. Plan to record. “We encourage everyone we deal with to at least consider recording their presentations,” says Scheuermann. “It provides a great benefit for audience members to be able to go over the material again, whether or not they attended the session face-to-face. There are vast numbers of technologies that let you record with different feature sets, and the less expensive ones can be just as effective. It’s a best practice to always make a recording.”

Mastering these steps should give you as much confidence in your presentation skills as you have in your tech know-how.

Coming next month: “Instruction 101, Part II: Keep Your Audience Engaged.”

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Minda Zetlin is a writer who specializes in business and technology. She is the author of several books, most recently The Geek Gap, co-authored with her husband Bill Pfleging. She is the vice president of The American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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