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The 1-2-3 of Technical Communication

I am standing in front of a classroom in my sophomore year of high school, with my presentation remote in hand. Behind me is a PowerPoint slideshow with an image of a data dashboard. Today’s topic is system logging.

Adult man following stock market data
Adult man following stock market data

I spent hours preparing this presentation, yet something still doesn’t feel quite right. Logging is vital to every modern system but incredibly boring. I am secretly hoping that the presentation does not completely fall apart. With a highly cautious leap of faith, I press the “next” button.

My worst fears are suddenly realized. Right when I push that button, every phone in the audience comes out all at once. I have committed to a 15-minute presentation. However, just before I began, I was notified that I needed to stretch the presentation to 45 minutes. “Great”, I think to myself, “I have 3 times the awkwardness to suffer through before I can be liberated and the audience can do something more productive with their time.” As I slog through presenting to the void, I can’t help but wonder about how I could get the audience to engage in the presentation. Surely, there must be a better way to approach sharing technical information.

After several weeks of research, trial, and error, I finally came across a framework that reliably creates engaging and interesting presentations. I call it the “1-2-3” framework, and in this post, I will answer:

  • What makes a technical presentation good?
  • What are the components of the 1-2-3 framework?
  • How can the 1-2-3 framework develop my presentation?

Table of Contents

What Makes a Technical Presentation Good?

The answer to this question simple: it communicates as many technical details as efficiently as possible in the timespan given.

Oh wait, I’m sorry. I accidentally what answered “what makes a technical presentation bad.” At the time of the disastrous presentation, I believed that my goal was to communicate information efficiently. I discussed how to implement our logging system, how we structure logs, log replay, and more. I didn’t have a word at the time, but I now call the concept “documentation by PowerPoint.”

The problem with this approach is very simple, you are using the wrong medium for the task. The presentation medium is very effective at telling stories and getting people engaged. Documentation, by comparison, excels at offering details. I cannot remember the last time I became engulfed in the exploration of a riveting JavaDoc comment. Likewise, I do not think anyone on the planet could give a multi-hour PowerPoint on the details of implementing RSA without losing the attention of the entire audience.

However, just because documentation by PowerPoint is the wrong use of the medium does not mean that technical presentations do not have a purpose. Instead, I believe that they have a very compelling purpose: to get the audience to care about a technical topic and give them enough basic understanding to conduct their own research.

People are naturally curious, and curiosity is central to engineering and computer science. As such, if you can convince people that there is value in a concept, they will likely go and read through written documentation on their own. My high school robotics team found that when we got participants excited about the content and had them look through documentation on their own, content retention and technical competency skyrocketed.

The one issue, and the main reason why having technical details matters, is that it can often be difficult to get enough of an understanding to be able to search for and read documentation. Without them, people would be excited but lost. In conclusion, the purpose of a technical presentation is to:

  • Create excitement about a concept,
  • Demonstrate utility about a concept, and
  • Enable self-discovery about a concept

What are the Components of the 1-2-3 Framework?

The 1-2-3 framework is a standardized way to maximize the effectiveness of a technical presentation as a method for self-discovery. It consists of four “layers”:

  • 0) The Big Why
  • 1) The Critical Question
  • 2) Core Ideas
  • 3) Supplemental Details

The Big Why

Why does your audience care about the topic? This is the single most important thing to address with a presentation. If you cannot answer why your audience would care, then they don’t need to hear the information and it is not worth presenting. Usually, this is some way that the solution can improve an audience member’s life or a potential risk for the audience member.

The Critical Question

What is the most important information in your presentation? This is your “Layer 1” Critical Question. Anybody who walks into room at any point in your presentation should leave being able to answer this question.

Formatting as Questions

We phrase both Layer 1 and Layer 2 (Core Ideas) as questions for three reasons:

  1. It provides a helpful framework for structuring presentations in a logical format
  2. Our internal testing found that audience members had much higher retention to a question + answer compared to facts
  3. It promotes curiosity and encourages audience members to ask (and answer) their own questions

For example, we could ask “How do you navigate to, read, and write a file in Linux?” Where the answer is:

  • cd to navigate
  • ls to list
  • vi to edit
  • cat to print
  • mv to move
  • cp to copy

We will cover in a later how to integrate these into your presentation. However, associating the commands cd, ls, vi, cat, mv, and cp with the question means that people are more likely to retain the answers in context than if you simply provided the commands.

Core Ideas

From my testing, people are best able to remember lists of three. So, once you have your critical question, you should have two other questions that pertain to the topic at hand. These questions should be answerable by almost everyone in the room, but they are a slightly lower priority than your critical question. These will likely have slightly more detailed answers than your Layer 1 question.

Supplemental Details

Within each of your Layer 1 and Layer 2 categories, you should have supplemental details. These are the basics that people need in order to conduct research or understand the basics. As I will address soon, you should not expect everyone to memorize all of your supplemental details. Rather, you will be more successful if you aim to expose the audience to ideas

Why 1-2-3?

It is worth asking, why is the framework called the 1-2-3 framework?

The idea is that you will have one critical question, two core ideas, and three supplemental details. Based on our internal testing, a person who is paying somewhat attention will be able to remember three things from a presentation, and someone who is paying close attention will usually be able to remember six.

The framework was built upon internal testing in my high school robotics team as well as researching the work done by other public speakers and psychologists, ultimately aiming to optimize retention. Steve Jobs was a huge fan of the rule of three: most of his events involved three products. Usually, it was two normal announcements and one “one more thing.”

Additionally, speaking of psychological optimization, 1-2-3 is very easy for presenters to remember. It is arguably the most intuitive and memorable numerical sequence in the world. For organizations, having a system that is both optimized for audiences and presenters means that the system is more likely to be adopted and that all stakeholders benefit.

What are the Components of the 1-2-3 Framework?

To recap, what are the components of the 1-2-3 framework? Take the time to think, and then check your answer with the answer below:

  • 0) The Big Why: Why does the topic affect your audience and why does your audience care?
  • 1) The Critical Question: What is the single most important information in your presentation?
  • 2) Core Ideas: What are the two other sections of your presentation?
  • 3) Supplemental Details: What are the details of your questions that people will not be expected to memorize?

How Can the 1-2-3 Framework Develop My Presentation?

The 1-2-3 Framework was originally designed to streamline the presentation creation process. Presentations can be highly effective when structured as follows:

Tell a Story

We begin by telling a story since it acts as a hook and tells the audience why they should care, all in one. I think this is the most important step. In fact, when reusing presentations, this is where I will spend most of my prep time. If you have a weak story, your audience disengages and the rest of the presentation is worthless. However, a strong story puts your audience in a position to be highly receptive.

Here are some things that I have learned about telling hook stories:

Propose All of Your Questions

Your questions are the roadmap of the presentation. Each section serves to answer one question. One critical aspect of any presentation is repeating critical information. When you outline the three questions (in the order they will be addressed), the audience knows what to expect and listen for. Since you phrase each section topic as a question, the audience will be more likely to pay attention in order to get the answer. By contrast, if you simply gave your main points, the audience would have no reason to continue paying attention.

Answer Each Question

Now that the presentation roadmap has been established, your audience is ready to listen and retain the information. The bulk of your presentation is answering the questions you proposed. As a general rule, the body of each section should be structured as follows:

  • Reiterate the question
  • Offer a summary answer
  • Go into greater detail (Layer 3)
  • Reiterate the question and summary answer

People are more likely to retain information if they hear it multiple times. By repeating the question and summary answer twice, the audience knows what the most important information is, and are more likely to retain than if you only answered once. Also, asking the audience to answer the summary at the end can be a great way to foster audience engagement and further retention.

Reiterate Your Questions and Answers

In the last section I talked about repetition. At the end of your presentation, you will want to reiterate the three questions and summary answers one final time so that there is a sense of closure, and your audience remembers what they learned during the session. You may also want to repeat the Big Why to put the learning in context again. If you are looking for audience engagement, the ending can be a great time to do it. One great way to do this is to simply ask a variation of your Layer 1 and 2 questions, and see if anyone can answer. If they can, then you have done a successful job at conveying the information effectively.

Applying the Concepts

When you build on the 1-2-3 framework, presentations become highly standardized and highly effective. Slide building goes from a daunting, time-intensive task to a simple matter of turning your outline into reality. Events go from having significant risk to being successful every time. New presenters can also quickly become acquainted to the topic and know what is coming next thanks to the outline, since all presentations are structured the same. For high-turnover organizations like high school robotics team, the highly structured nature can be a life saver for reusing content.

To conclude, we can use the 1-2-3 framework as a guide to develop slide decks, and offer excellent, standardized presentations every time!


We addressed three questions in this post.

First, what makes a technical presentation good? What matters at the end of the day is showing why the technology matters, and offering basic information to encourage exploration.

Second, what are the components of the 1-2-3 framework? We have four layers: the big why, the critical question, core ideas, and supplemental details. The Big Why is the most important, as if you don’t have a Big Why, there is no reason to present. The Critical Question and Core Ideas are similar, but the Critical Question is more important for audience retention than Core Ideas. Lastly, supplemental details offer enough information for the audience to understand the basics and read documentation without being overwhelmed.

Third, how can the 1-2-3 framework develop a presentation? It offers a highly standardized format that reduced the time spent in PowerPoint and ensures that audience retention is maximized every time.

The framework gives presenters a way to make their lives easier. Rather than reinventing the wheel for every presentation, they have a single format that results in high audience understanding and inspires further research. It has been a lifesaver for me, and I believe it will be for you as well.