Giving technical talks to a target audience

Matt Might has written an outstanding piece about giving academic talks that I highly recommend checking out. I want to build on his point about audience by sharing some personal perspective gained from conference talks I’ve given.

In my area of structural engineering, conferences are attended both by academics and practicing engineers. A hybrid audience like this is challenging: you want to impress the academics and give sound, relevant advice to design engineers. It’s hard to satisfy both. One of my advisors gave me some great advice for how to handle this tension. He told me:

  1. State who the talk is geared toward.
  2. Give an great talk to that audience.

In other words, confront this tension head-on. Unapologetically choose a target demographic. This means if I am presenting a paper for the benefit of structural engineers, I will begin with a statement like this: “This presentation is a summary of several key lessens learned from forensic analysis of structural failures that I feel would directly benefit practicing design engineers. As such, this is intentionally not a very academic talk.” Then I dive in to the content.

This seems to help the academics in the crowd relax a bit and adjust their expectations, and it justifies the omission of some details. In turn, the practicing engineers become more engaged and likely to follow along. They know this is for them.

Your mileage may vary, but this has been very effective for me. I’d love to hear how others handle this tension.

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