Feb 8, 2021

Brian Krogh

How to Speak as an Expert to Non-Experts: Lessons Learned Working with Teams of Scientists

For many presenters delivering an engaging presentation is a formidable challenge, but if you are an expert in your field you may feel like you face even more of an uphill battle.  It seems the more technical the material, the more likely it is that you will speak over the heads of your audience and lose them in the process.

Over the years, I have worked with clients in the bio-tech and pharma space.  When I am asked to come and provide training it is most often for the experts within the company - almost always the scientists.  The HR director says something like, "these people are amazing, experts in their field, but between you and me, when they present, we have no idea what they are talking about.  It is a 'data dump' and simply over everyone's head."

I've discovered the problem is not one-sided.  Not only is the audience frustrated they cannot understand or follow the material, in my conversations with experts they too struggle with how they can connect their research and data to the audience.  With very few exceptions no one wants to give an uninspiring presentation, and technical experts certainly have a desire to explain their material in a way that is engaging and impactful to the listener.

Here’s the tension the expert faces: while they want to engage the audience, they also do not want to overly simplify their research or data for the sake of keeping the audience happy.  

The presentation must be simple enough to be understood, yet not so simplistic that it undermines the significance of the data and technical details. The good news is that it is entirely possible to present technical information with integrity, but it requires the presenter to shift their approach.

A Mindset Shift 

If you are an expert, your work and life is about technical things.  You spend your time in the trenches, researching and developing utilizing complex methods.  When it is time to present, it is easy to think your task is to explain everything you do and know to the audience.  If you attempt to accomplish this, however, you will find yourself frustrated with a dispassionate audience each time you speak.

In order to connect with your audience, you must embrace the idea that when you speak it is not about the research.  It is about them.  The goal of presenting is not to download everything you know into the minds of the listener, the goal is for you as the presenter is to connect with the audience, and then to connect the audience to your ideas.  You should not attempt to tell them everything you know, rather you should ask the question, “what is most helpful for them to know” and then share only that information. 

The Shift in Motion

In 2020 I worked with a global pharmaceutical company to prepare speakers for an upcoming internal conference.  The purpose of the conference was to create excitement company-wide around some break though developments in research.  This research brought the company significantly closer to curing some terrible diseases.  The conference included 20+ scientists sharing their research.  Each presenter was a gifted researcher and their work quite technical.

The audience for the conference was mixed.  Many scientists, for sure, but all departments were to be a part of the audience - HR, Accounting, Sales, etc.  The fear among the leadership was the scientific presentations would be so technical the audience would be checking email and crushing candy throughout the entire conference.  This fear was not only for the employees who were not directly involved in research, but also for the other scientists in attendance.  It turns out even experts can find the work of other experts quite boring.

Boredom here was not a viable option. Quite literally this company’s work saves lives.  The conference exists because it is vital that employees across all departments experience unity around the overall direction of the research and excitement around how close the team is to having drugs ready for the marketplace.

With this in mind, I went to work meeting with each presenter to review their material and design presentations that would connect with a non-expert audience while not betraying the seriousness of the science.

Three months after the conference I was working with a new client from this same company.  During one of our sessions, she asked me, "are you the one who coached the presenters for the conference last spring?"  When I replied yes, she paused for a moment and said, "oh, well that explains why those presentations were so good." Her reaction was consistent with the many positive evaluations submitted about the presentations.

So, how did we do it?  How did we take experts delivering technical information and connect to a wide audience?   

Here are a few tips if you are an expert looking to connect with non-experts:

Speak to the Least Technical Person in the Room

If you speak to the least technical person in the room then you include everyone in your presentation.  This requires you to think through your audience, which will only help you connect with the whole.  

One practical way to accomplish this is to think through the terms and language you use.  For example, every company and area of expertise has its own set of acronyms and using them in a presentation effectively alienates a segment of any audience.  As you prepare ask yourself, “is there language or technical terms in my presentation that the least technical person in the room would not immediately understand?”  If so, consider changing your language or saying a full phrase instead of the acronym to include the entirety of the audience.

Focus on One Thing

As we stated earlier, if you are an expert you do not want to be simplistic when you speak – that is, to ignore the complexity of the work that you do.  But, if you want to connect with your audience you do need to find a simple, clear way to present the information.

An effective way to accomplish this, is to focus on one thing. Ask yourself, if I ran into someone two weeks after this presentation, what is the one thing I hope they would remember?  This can make your preparation more effective by allowing you to focus on presenting one key idea with great clarity rather than feeling the pressure to present multiple complex ideas, which will inevitably leave the audience overwhelmed.

Use Metaphor and Personal Stories to Illustrate your Idea

Metaphor and stories are effective ways to explain complicated ideas to a novice audience.  As an expert getting ready to present, take a look at the points in your presentation and ask yourself, “what is this like?”

If you are saying something is small, is it small like a thimble compared to the moon or like a sedan compared to an SUV?  If you are explaining a process, is there some common life experience you can compare this process to?  Is it like learning to ride a bike or cooking a meal?  

One presenter for the conference above was excited about her research.  Her team successfully created a cell that functioned in a variety of ways.  The possibilities this research opened were very exciting.  I asked her what this cell was like, and after thinking for a bit she said it was kind of like a swiss army knife.  The official name of the cell is a combination of numbers and letters no one outside of the research would remember.  And yet, when she referred to this cell as the “swiss army knife” of cells, the audience connected and remembered.

Once you have a metaphor, ask, “do I have a personal story I can share?  For example, if you can add a personal story to the metaphor above about the time you used a swiss army knife, you will only increase your connection with your audience and their connection with your idea.

If Possible, Allow for Questions

Allowing time for questions is an effective way to include the entire audience in your presentation.

If you have done well speaking to the person with the least amount of knowledge in the room, then they will feel comfortable asking questions to bring about further clarification.

If someone with greater expertise wishes you would have gone into more detail this is their opportunity to ask you to dig deeper.  In your response recognize that you’re about to share technical information.  Say something like, “I realize not everyone in the room will understand this, but to answer your question . . .”  Those who are less technical will be glad you acknowledged their presence.

Presenting as an expert to non-experts can be a challenge, but it is possible for an expert to inspire a less technical audience.  Above all as you prepare your presentation, remember, it’s about them.

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