PART 1: Understanding Your Audience
– Jason Campbell
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Similarly, it’s impossible for information to make an impact, if no one is made aware of it.
Understanding your audience should be the first step to developing oral or written communication content. I have witnessed numerous presentations that were filled with jargon and failed to to contextualize the importance of their work. The presenter delivery, design of the slides, and data could be fantastic; however, the audience was often left with more questions than answers by the end of it.
How can this be addressed?
The first step in understanding an audience is determining their general level of proficiency. Are they colleagues in your field? Are they laypeople? Or do they fall somewhere in between? Qualifying your audience should be the easiest step, but it is a crucial one.
If you’re presenting to your colleagues, they are likely aware of field-specific jargon and mechanisms of analysis. If they aren’t, you need to focus on clearing up any necessary definitions early on. However, the primary focus should be on how your contributions “fit” into the field. Provide a historical context of the field, culminating in your addition to it, to ensure the best route for comprehension.
Moreover, such audiences will be interested in the technical aspects of methodology and data analysis. “Sure, your results are significant, but what technique was used to determine that?” – Addressing the nuances, as you communicate data, will dissuade your audience from dwelling on them.
What about laypeople?
Presentations to an audience of laypeople require a more didactic approach. A communicator needs to provide ample background, definition of key terms, simplification of concepts, and the use of analogies. The introductory section should introduce ALL key terms and concepts that will be brought up. It is rarely a good idea to simultaneously introduce and develop a new topic mid-way through communication content.
Furthermore, your audience likely won’t be able to memorize a dozen novel terms. Therefore, you need to simplify your context to focus on essential content. For exceptionally intricate concepts, the use of an everyday analogy allows your audience to follow along, even if they can’t fully comprehend every nuance. With limited time/space, there is typically a trade-off between brevity and comprehension.
It can become a bit more nuanced when delivering content to individuals that perform similar work in a distinct field. The early focus of the presentation needs to provide sufficient detail to develop an understanding of the differences and similarities between the fields. However, over-simplification of complex topics is generally unnecessary. Moreover, analogies may be more applicable if you can develop a technical comparison.
It should be very clear that the communicator is not the most important person in the room when attempting to transfer knowledge.