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Presenting Technical Information

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Courtroom audience

The presentation of scientific information to laypeople requires real finesse. At one extreme, speakers try to impress (or ignore) their audience through the use of discipline-specific jargon, mathematical formulas, and a pace of discussion that only experts at universities or specialized conferences could follow. The other end of the spectrum involves “dumbing-down” the material or moving so slowly that anyone paying attention would comprehend your message, often leaving many participants bored or feeling patronized. The middle ground, a favored style of many university professors, is to communicate at a level near or slightly above the mean capability of the audience, hoping to avoid losing the interest of higher-end recipients while challenging lower-end receivers to keep up. None of these strategies is particularly effective, especially if the larger goal is to motivate the audience to leave the presentation informed and/or persuaded.

An alternative approach requires a better understanding of the capabilities and motivations of the audience prior to the development of presentation materials. If their scientific training is at or near the level of presenters, the persuasiveness of messages may be dependent upon the depth and sophistication of the material provided. However, if the audience lacks the appropriate scientific background but nonetheless is educated and has experience with technical rigor, their expectations may include a very detailed and complicated discussion with some additional explanation using more common vernacular. For naive audiences with little scientific background or general academic experience, the limited use of technical information combined with stimulating visual experiences may represent the most effective combination. Regardless, an assessment of their motivation to attend, learn, and be persuaded should impact these decisions.

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