Technical communication is particularly hard for newcomers

06 Mar 2019 Gregory J. Stein

In my role as a Communication Advisor for the MIT Communication Lab, I see a lot of practice talks. Students, both graduate and undergraduate, sign up for a 30 minute or 1 hour long session during which they will present some material they’re working on and ask for guidance on both content and presentation: “How clear is what I was trying to accomplish?” or “Are my results figures clear?”

Rarely do students ask “Did I use too much jargon?” It likely doesn’t occur to them that, despite their relative inexperience, they might know more about the subject at hand than those to which they are presenting.

One of the key components to good technical communication is the right amount of context. Provide too much background material and your audience will lose interest; too little, and the audience may not be able to follow the remainder of the talk. The first half of a talk should clearly communicate Why the audience should care about your work and How your work compares to other work in the field. Addressing these questions often requires an understanding of popular trends within a discipline or how common certain tools or tricks are.

It should come as no surprise that newer researchers, typically undergraduates or first/second-year graduate students, may find it difficult to decide what information to include when preparing a talk. More frequently than not, I find that most technical talks — particularly those from newcomers to the field — spend too much time discussing the nitty-gritty details of an experiment while leaving out important details about the motivation of their research. Talks from neophyte researchers often vacillate between including an overwhelming amount of detail to covering unnecessary minutiae or unknowingly including too much jargon when explaining difficult concepts, likely in an effort to seem experienced. It is not uncommon for such presentations — in the space of two slides — to transition from an in-depth description of background material that the audience might consider “common knowledge” to a hastily-done description of domain-specific information essential for understanding the remainder of the talk. To make matters more complicated, the composition of the audience must be taken into consideration when deciding what material needs to be addressed during the talk: what one group might decide is “common knowledge” may be completely foreign to another.

Preparing a talk requires understanding one’s audience and, without external support, only experience yields such knowledge. Technical communication is understandably hard for newcomers. Not only do they have trouble fully appreciating what they know and don’t know, it’s also extremely difficult for them to understand what others around them know. Good mentorship is critical for shaping a younger student’s perspective in this regard. Such students should seek out feedback from more established members of the community and experienced communicators should make themselves available to provide support.

As always, I welcome your thoughts (and personal anecdotes) in the comments below or on Hacker News.