Thursday, October 29, 2015

4 risks when you assume your audience knows what you know

"What if the audience already knows everything I have to say?" is a reader question from a woman speaker that we tackled in an earlier post. In the tech and academic worlds, it's every junior developer's or junior researcher's nightmare. But recently, I sat through another presentation--from a male speaker--that made me see another side to the issue. I wouldn't change my advice in the first post, but I would like to expand on it.

This particular male speaker reminded me that there are risks in assuming your audience knows everything you know--assumptions that didn't make it into my previous post. So here are the risks speakers face when they assume the audience knows what they know:
  1. You don't explain things clearly: When you assume everyone knows what you know, clarity may be sacrificed. The signs: You skip over basics (like the explanation of your program or topic), use a lot of acronyms or shorthand phrases, and omit basic reporting on your progress. Generally, if you have a Q&A session following, the questions will catch you out--if you don't lose the audience in the first place. The speaker I saw recently had to say over and over, "Yes, I generally include...." during the questions about the parts he left out this time.
  2. You exclude audience members: Audiences are not monoliths, and often, there are at least a few people (at minimum) who don't know what you know. When you skip over basics in an effort to impress the knowledgeable, you miss the chance to bring along the newcomers. The old favorite, "As we all know...." makes that risk verbal. How will we feel about you if we don't know? Speaking is all about connecting...with everyone in the audience.
  3. You miss the chance to demonstrate your own knowledge: Particularly if you're a subject-matter expert or working in a technical field, you lose the chance to display your thorough grounding in a topic when you skip over the basics or the things you are assuming we know. You may sound thin on facts and details if you skim the surface.
  4. You limit questions: Some speakers, seeking to avoid questions, may present fewer details. But speakers who assume the audience knows certain things will find they've pushed the questioners back to the basics, as in the first example above. That line of questioning, just to get to the omitted background facts, limited the discussion instead of allowing for a higher-order set of questions and answers.
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Esteban Cavrico)

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