Communicating Technical Information to a Non-technical Audience
In my 30+ year career, I’ve been fortunate to be able contribute in some small way to some world class organizations. I’ve come to realize that my biggest challenges haven’t been the technical aspects, but the communication aspects of health physics and radiation safety. Here are some thoughts for those tasked with communicating technical information to a non-technical audience.
Energy deposition into soft tissue due to low energy photons may result in a biological insult with ramifications affecting… Wait a minute! What?!?! Does anyone really like sitting through a technical lecture about something they may not already be somewhat familiar with?
Okay, admittedly, some people probably do. However, I venture to say that most don’t…especially when all you’re really looking for is a little useful information. I’d rather not spend half my time simply trying to decipher the big words the intelligent person in front of me is using and missing the real message. I get it…you’re smart. Now, teach me something and help me to understand the topic. Health physicists (radiation safety professionals), medical physicists, or others knowledgeable about ionizing radiation and its effects oftentimes think they are doing a good job at communicating what they are trying to say, but are they?
I refer to a quote I’ve often seen attributed to Sidney J. Harris: “The two words 'information' and 'communication' are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.”
My father used to tell me to speak with people, don’t talk at them.
I think this is pretty good advice from both men. And I think they’re saying the same thing. When trying to communicate complicated topics one must know the audience to whom they’re speaking, whether it’s an individual or a group of people, and what they expect or need. Is it an academic environment? Is it a stressful situation such as an emergency or an attempt to explain a medical procedure involving radioactive materials? Is it an individual who just wants to learn a little more about a topic? There are many things to take into account.
I come from a radiological background, but I think some things apply to most anyone trying to effectively communicate technical information.
Here are some things I consider when delivering a presentation or simply answering a technical question with a non-technical audience.
Decide what it is you really want/need to convey.
2. Determine who it is that you are trying to reach and what they are wanting.
3. Are there analogies that can be used to simplify the message while still delivering the information? Having multiple analogies ready may be useful.
4. Is it necessary to be 100% correct (precise) when being 90% correct may simplify things and be a better way to get the true message across?
5. Be prepared for a “heckler” to point out what you missed if you go the 90% route. That said, is this “expert” really who you are trying to reach?
6. Watch audience response (body language, attentiveness, etc.) to help judge if your message is getting across.
7. Don’t open a can of worms you’re not willing/able to deal with, and stick to your area of expertise.
8. Be prepared for questions out of left field.
9. Be yourself.
10. Practice – try your message out on your neighbor, spouse, or another non-expert.
11. No need to cram every piece of information onto your presentation slides.
12. Use relatable visual aids
13. Solicit feedback and use it to improve for your next opportunity.
If you are a technical expert, your words have meaning. However, if nobody understands what you just said, why bother saying it? It takes effort, but becoming a good communicator of technical material has value…both to you and your audience.
Steve Sugarman, MS, CHP
Vice President and Corporate Health Physicist
Summit Exercises and Training