Category Archives: Target Audience

Using Tension to Communicate Your Story

Have you ever wondered why some movies, books or television shows can be so enthralling while others are seemingly uninteresting? One reason why we get so hooked on a story is because of suspense. The stories that we most often enjoy have an moment where the final outcome can go either way, and we become emotionally invested in that outcome. During the build up of conflicts in the story we identify with the characters and think of ourselves in that situation. 3 Often for dramatic effect writers and directors make the audience wait as long as possible for the outcome, hoping to build up as much suspense as possible. This is really a build up of emotional frustration in ourselves, due to the not knowing of the outcome and having to wait. Suspense usually manifests itself in the form of tension, and in this post our topic is how to harness this powerful emotional feeling when communicating. By utilizing tension in your presentations you will be able to keep the audience engaged and interested in the outcome of your talk.

Wikimania 2014 opening ceremony audience 16

What is tension?

Tension is used in every aspect of communication from short stories to video games. 2 To begin we need to clearly define exactly what we are trying to achieve. Here, I am referring to tension as the slight emotional or mental strain we feel when we are hearing a story.  It is an effective tool that can help drive the narrative. 1 Using tension can create a more interesting story or increase audience attentiveness. The reason why it works so well is because people empathize with the story they are hearing and imagine themselves in the same situation. 3 This is a unique aspect of human nature that we try our best to identify with our colleagues and friends. Despite tension feeling unpleasant, humans want to be able to relate others and understand the problem at hand. People actually crave feelings that give them excitement and frustration, this helps create an interesting story and something that we enjoy. 2

So you may be asking yourself, but my boring subject matter has no tension, how can I create something that isn’t there in the first place? The fact is that every story can be told in a way that creates tension. There was probably a lot of tension throughout your project that you shrugged off because it didn’t seem to be that important at the time. Specifically in science, there is no work that is done without problems, difficulties, or hurdles to overcome. Yet, in our perception of our own work we tend to trivialize these difficulties so that it seems uninteresting. I can’t tell you how many times I have explained some seemingly boring aspect of my work to the general public only to hear the response of “that is so interesting!”. In our day to day it is easy for things to seem mundane. In fact, the problems you had to face and overcome to achieve your goals or finish your project add to the tension of the story.

Finding tension

There are some tricks you can use to help figure out what parts of your story will add tension when you tell it. Begin by thinking about any  actual consequences of your work, or your research. For example, anyone who does research in bio-medical fields where the lives of others depend on their work. Or perhaps people who take great risks to do work in dangerous areas, such as doctors without borders. If your work is something that is less dramatic, consider things that help people understand what you are solving and why. This is usually the main idea behind the “why should we care” slide that so many people include in their talks. The idea is that you want to explain how others can empathize with your work and expand on this emotion. Do this by brainstorming out some ideas on how your work effects the audience. Next make a list of all the problems big and small that you had to overcome. From your field vehicle breaking down, to someone getting attacked by a wild animal. People think that science is boring, but over the years I have seen deceit, sabotage, and literal fist fights. You don’t need to pretend to be writing a script for a soap opera, but identify conflict and use them to your advantage.  By coming up with a reason for the audience to care, and identifying problems that you faced, you can begin to weave a story that will be build empathy in the audience. Once the audience connects with your work it is easier to add the tension to the story.

Театр оперы и балета. Зал

A give and take interaction between you and the audience

Once you have identified the elements of the story that you will use in your presentation, it is time to add in the tension. Keep in mind that, you don’t want to use up all the tense moments in the first five minutes of your talk. Showing all your cards early will feel like a laundry list of complaints about how hard your project was, and it makes for an weak climax to the story.  Add suspenseful moments throughout your story, think about what happened first and how that led to the next problem you had to overcome. This can be as simple as “the first experiment failed so we went to plan B”. There likely has been been multiple problems to the research, and you can lead the audience through the narrative introducing the next conflict in a logical order as you go along. Remember to allow your audience question how you resolved the conflicts, but don’t just spoon feed all the answers right away give allow for space in your presentation before you resolve each problem.

Tension can also be built up by convincing the audience that they are “missing out” by not engaging in the presentation. 4  Marketers use this tactic all the time with adverts saying things like “By knowing these three secrets to finance you can be rich too, but only for a limited time!”. Using the correct language and visuals makes us think we will miss out and so the audience wants to know more. By being the speaker at a presentation you are in control of all the information and therefore can control who has access and by how much. 4 Use this power by dropping hints throughout the presentation, for example you can say something like this, “I’m going to share with you the secret to how this molecule works to chelate iron, but first let me tell you about X”. The point is that you are controlling the flow of information, and can dose it out slowly to the audience.  This power allows the speaker to create tension where and when they want since they can control these aspects which create tension.

By using tension in your presentation you will have another tool by which to get the audience to engage with your work. Being able to craft a good presentation takes practice so remember to try different points where you create tension, and where you reveal the outcome. With a little practice you will be well on your way to creating an interesting and exciting presentation.


1. Dollerup, C. (1970). The Concepts of “Tension”,“Intensity”, and “Suspense” in Short‐Story Theory. Orbis Litterarum, 25(4), 314-337.

2.  Lazzaro, N. (2004). Why we play games: Four keys to more emotion without story.

3. Stromberg, P. G., (Jun 18, 2010) The Mysteries of Suspense Why do we love suspense?

4. Walsh, M., (May + June 2013). Harnessing the power of positive tension.

Communicating in a Classroom Setting

Until now I have only been addressing public speaking and communication as a means to disseminate information through a one way conversation. For example, when on stage communicating in a public setting, there is not much opportunity for audience participation. The expert is telling a story and conveying information, while the audience listens passively. In these cases generally the only feedback from the audience is nonverbal facial expressions and gestures. There might be time for a few questions at the end, but for the most part this it is a one way street.  There is however, another very important venue for communication, knowledge transfer, and public engagement, which is the classroom. Whether you are a teacher at a high school or a professor at a university the skills and techniques needed are different than an “on stage” presentation. In this post we will discuss some of the ways you can improve audience participation and increase the information retention of your audience.

Why is speaking in a classroom so much different than communicating on stage in a public setting? For the most part it has to do with the opportunity for the audience to ask questions and engage the speaker in a way that is possible in other formats. Sure there is time for Q&A  at the end of a presentation, but a few minutes of questions is no comparison to the the back and forth discussion that a classroom setting can have. In the classroom you are teaching to the audience, and allowing them to have an active role in learning. Whereas In the public setting you are relying on the audience to pay attention while you are keeping them engaged and interested. Here, when I refer to the classroom I an going to assume that the audience is composed of young adults. There are obviously many different methods for communicating and when it comes to kids, and some of the methods explained here won’t work as well due to different attention spans, maturity, discipline, etc. However, as a communicator knowing a few techniques to manage a back and forth discussion and increase audience participation can be useful for any classroom setting.

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S77546, Schulunterricht

Getting your audience involved

The first step to communicating in the classroom is to get the audience involved. It is important to begin by literally telling your audience that it is okay to participate. Too often students are discouraged from sharing ideas or questions for fear of feeling stupid or being ridiculed. When you set the tone so that everyone is part of the discussion (as long as it is respectful) it will encourage everyone to take part. If you are working with a particularly young audience you will need to make sure you can guide the discussion and not let it go off topic. No matter, it is imperative that you involve the audience, for two reasons. The first is that if the students are not involved then they will quickly lose interest. These days most of us (including adults) have shorter and shorter attention spans, and are not often able to stay engaged for very long periods of time. When it comes to communicating on the stage, we are relying on the audience to stay attentive on their own. We help this by being interesting and polished, but the ultimate responsibility is on the audience to stay with us. By involving the audience, it will engage them in a different way because they will want to have their opinion or question heard. The second reason is that everyone learns in slightly different ways and most of us need to experience something first hand to learn about it. That being said, as the communicator you will need to provide a mixture of learning opportunities for the audience, be it from questions, discussion,  visual aids , or a hands on activity. Allowing the audience to ask questions, make comments and participate in both listening and speaking, make for a more diverse learning experience. Make sure, however, that you are also prepared with some different kinds of material (visual and hands on) in addition to your spoken word to engage your audience with.

Managing a back and forth discussion

Generally as a communicator you will likely get the most engagement from a discussion setting. Communicators use language as a primary tool and it is no surprise that this would be our first way to connect with the audience. But how do you manage the discussion? The first step is to make sure that you are staying more or less on topic. You can allow a lot of leeway for people to have their comment, but the point is you will need to be comfortable cutting someone off and saying “thanks but we need to stay on topic”.  Now you may be thinking that this will only applies to a younger audience, but you would be surprised at how many adults have little concept of how to remain on topic. Ideally you should allow for questions to be answered as they come up, or pause often and see if any questions arise. However questions are not the only thing that you need to allow for, comments should be welcomed as long as they are on topic. Literally saying this to the audience, is helpful since you are setting the rules for the discussion, rather than having the audience make them up on their own. Cite the fact that time is limited (as it always is) and so everything needs to be on topic and be relevant to the subject. The importance of questions and comments is that they can spur others into a new way of thinking they had not considered before. This is helpful to allow the audience to understand the material better or at least remember more of the presentation. Often it is good practice to repeat the question and answer more than once during the presentation. Humans have a better chance at remembering something if it is repeated with short breaks in between repetitions. In general you will want to allow the discussion to happen naturally, keeping it on track and on time, while making sure that repeat all important points.

When should you become a moderator and allow the audience to interact with itself?

There may be a time that you get a good back and forth going between audience members and you should allow this given time constraints. A back and forth between the audience members can be something that is very productive or it can be a complete disaster, you will need to be the judge of  how it is going. As the communicator you will need to moderate the conversation, making sure no one is cut off and that the discussion stays relevant to the topic. Imagine that you are the referee that can stop the fight at any time if someone is about the get really hurt. Keep in mind that back and forth within the audience is usually not well organized, so you need to also be aware that some people might dominate the conversation. It is your job to make sure that the conversation stay balanced, even by verbally saying “okay what about what other people who have not commented think?”. Ideally this will not take too much effort because for the most part people are respectful of one another, but you are also there to make sure they follow the rules. Allowing the audience to discuss the topic can vastly enrich the experience of everyone in the room.

Lehre an der hhu 2011

Why is this important? and what are the advantages?

When you engage the audience in a classroom setting you are essentially giving them the ability to express thoughts and questions while learning something new. Things may not go as you had planned, but that is what is so unique about classrooms, the discussion is often organic and very interesting ideas can be born from it. As the speaker you are always in control to make sure the right material is covered, however the way in which that material is covered is really up to the audience.  This is relevant because of the way that Humans learn, is through trial and error. Allowing people the chance to formulate thoughts and opinions of the material, will drastically increase information retention over passive listening to a presentation. Overall the classroom setting is a very different place when communicating and if done in a respectful and controlled manner everyone will walk away having gained new insights and information.

Why Every Presentation You Give is Different

Throughout our careers as scientists, science communicators and public speakers, we may be asked to give many different  types of presentations. Each time we speak it is a unique experience with different audiences and different venues. In fact your audience will perceive your presentation differently based on who they are, their level of engagement and level of education. There is a lot more going on behind the scenes between you and your audience than just the words that are spoken. We are constantly adapting in the moment to non verbal feedback from the audience without even knowing it.

Audience waiting

When practicing with a new presentation we tailor how we present based on our preconceived notion of the audience. I’ve recommended to take time beforehand to consider, the audience, the venue, and the subject matter, to create the perfect presentation for the event.  However, our presentation is a manifestation of not only the material we put together, but also our current emotional state, and the response of the audience. In most cases we are far more connected with the audience than we think. In this post we will briefly explore how our perception of the audience and their perception of us, can influence our speaking style.

How does the audience see you and your subject matter?

By the very nature of speaking in public we are relying on being broad enough to reach most of the audience, but not too simplistic so as to disengage any one person. From the perspective of the audience, everyone will remember or connect with something different. The audience is considering not only what was said, but what they think it meant, and how they identify with that idea. This similar to how eye witness testimony can be so different even if two people saw exactly the same event. In the court room the main ideas will likely be the same, “a man stole a car”, but the finer details can be different, like thinking he drove away in a blue car when it was actually red. The way that your audience perceives your presentation is largely based on what details they remember to be important (stolen car) and how they filter those details (was it red or blue). This is the same reason why you can go watch a movie with friends, and each person will describe a unique experience afterwards. Your audience will experience your talk in the same way good or bad, right or wrong.

How do you see yourself and your presentation?

Sometimes we can be hard on ourselves for missing a fact or detail during a presentation. Perhaps we made a mistake in how we wanted to define a topic or we used the wrong words, it happens to the best of us. There is an old saying that, “we are our own worst critics”, and it can be true for anyone who works under the eye of public scrutiny. As a presenter, we have an idealized picture of how the material should be presented even before we get on stage. This is a natural human tendency to try to predict the outcome of an event before it happens so we can be prepared. The problem is that usually things go differently (good or bad) from what is in our mind and we get discouraged feeling a little out of control. The reason however things go differently is not always because we make mistakes but because we are adapting based on the audience.

In a one on one conversation you know immediately whether the other person understands you or not, because of non verbal feedback. Having only one person to focus on allows us to stop and repeat ourselves if the other person is lost. As a communicator we are constantly adapting our language and our tone to make sure that the we are understood. When you speak to a large audience, you still are receiving non verbal feedback whether you know it or not. Unlike a one on one conversation this feedback is coming from many different sources, so you are not just adapting based on one person’s response.  Being critical of ourselves while speaking can be generally positive but it is also very easy to let that criticism go too far. We need to be critical and scrutinize our work during the planning phase of the presentation. Once we are on stage, however, and after the presentation is over, being overly critical is of little help. So before you think that things didn’t go according to plan, consider the value of adaptation and thinking on your feet. And finally, the perception of your talk by the audience is probably very different from what you think.

021 JHV 2012 (8272218604)

How can you use perception to your advantage?

The biggest difference between you and the audience is that you know the material better than those listening to you. Therefore as the presenter it is much easier to see and focus on the errors or shortcomings since they appear so obvious to you. Yet, for the most part the audience cannot stay completely focused all the time and take in every detail. They are constantly trying to adsorb new information and assimilate it into their current way of thinking. This is why generally not everyone will experience the talk in the same way. Audience members are also easily distracted, especially as our technologies are ever more present with notifications and instant responses. The vast majority of the world is having a shorter and shorter attention spans as technology advances. The point is that we need to focus on grabbing the attention of the audience more than anything else. Getting the audience to experience the talk in our idealized view is not really a realistic goal since all the information is filtered by the perception of audience. As communicators the idea is to remain fluid and be ready to adapt, explaining your subject based on any feedback from the audience. Remember, that the audience heard what they perceived and it was a unique experience for them whether they enjoyed it or not.

Crafting the Right Presentation for Your Style of Science Communication

When tasked with designing a presentation for an upcoming speaking engagement, it can feel like a monumental task. Often many of us are tempted to rehash an old presentation into the new format needed and not worry too much about the content. This is a problematic way of thinking, since you are giving up the opportunity to improve on your previous work. For example, no self respecting scientist would rehash a old publication showing nearly the same work and call it an original paper, so why do speaking engagements get this treatment. Public presentations have a powerful impact on the audience and can make or break a person’s reputation. Increasingly in the digital age, public talks are recorded and uploaded to the internet and make a lasting impression with the audience that can be re-watched for years to come.

So why are we so quick to accept the mediocre standard of, “I’ll just use what I did from last year”? There is really no excuse for reusing old content, when your success depends on what content is being presented and how it you present it. I’m not only referring to visual aids like slide shows. The problem is that we get into the habit of using the same script for our introduction, our methods and so on. Once you become complacent with your material you stop innovating and less of your audience will be receptive to your message. As a communicator you are constantly being judged on how you present and what supporting material you use. Scientists will often allot months of time to perfect a paper. They ask the coauthors to comment and revise, use the help of independent reviewers to improve the publication, and edit according to the advice of the editor well before anything is made public. Conversely presentations are often only given a week or less of editing time, and maybe one practice run in front of an audience for constructive criticism. Giving a presentation should require as much effort as a publication, since it can actually reflect more on you than your most recent paper.

Example of copyedited manuscript

The editing

It is important to allow time and effort for the revision and editing of your work. It may take you a long time of careful refinement to finally find an effective way to communicate your topic. The key is to ask for feedback from others and not necessarily in a formal setting. Practice public speaking by sitting down with people and speaking off the top of your head and while you explain your work. Afterwards ask them if they understood all of the information and what was unclear, take notes on what can be improved. You can do this many times with different people and see how they understand the topic, after a while you will have a good spectrum of results on how to present to people with different backgrounds. Revise and improve on what language to use, think about how to address common questions people have, and so on. Eventually this type of practice will help fill gaps and reduce overall confusion when you communicate.

Who are you?

So how do you craft a presentation to fit your style? First there are several things you must consider. Every person has their strengths and weaknesses, for the most part weaknesses can be improved but you want to make good use of your strengths as well. For example, I remember hearing a student talk and his voice was powerful and dramatic. The topic was on medical research and and his booming voice made for strong emotional moments, however he did not win best talk of the meeting. This is because the visual aids were lacking, and the continuity of the story was somewhat difficult to follow. The point is figure out whatever you are good at and do it, but don’t forget to fill the gaps where you fall short as well. If you are comfortable in front of audiences let your charisma come through but be sure to use professional language as well. If you are nervous then work on relieving your tension and anxiety through practice and add your analytical skills to the talk. The key is to be well rounded enough so that the true personality and voice can shine through.

Degrowth Conference 2014 Photo by Eva Mahnke CC-BY-SA 13 Audimax Universität Leipzig

The audience

When you are making a new presentation your need to consider you audience before editing for content. Understanding who you are speaking to should be an important factor in deciding how to design your presentation. Consider the type of audience (e.g. students, public, colleagues) and general knowledge level. The level of knowledge and information you include needs to be balanced by the audience you  expect to have. Significant time will mostly be spent in the introduction if the audience is new to the material, but if they are all familiar you can pack in more information in the results. Be ready to think on your feet as well, if you planned for the general public and many experienced scientists show up, then you need to be prepared to explain your data thoroughly without any additional visual aids. This can be achieved by being well versed in the topic before you even begin to construct a presentation. Thinking ahead about the audience can alleviate a lot stress on the day you present.

The environment

When you are giving a talk the environment is an important thing to consider. Think not only of the type of presentation you will give (e.g. seminar, workshop, etc) but also the room and AV equipment that you will be using. In a large room with a small screen small text and figures will not be easy to read, however in a small classroom setting the same figure with small text could be legible. Will the room be dark or light? Will you be speaking in the morning or evening? Will you be the first speaker or the keynote? All of these factors will affect the attention level of your audience, and your presentation needs to be adjusted accordingly.

The context

Imagine that you are the fourth speaker at a professional meeting about aquatic invertebrates. Right away you already know that the audience is well versed in the topic and how many people might show up to the talk. Using this information on the context of your talk can help refine your presentation. All too often a student will get up to present at a national meeting spending the first few minutes giving an identical introduction to the speaker before. In this example you can leave out a lot of background because the session is designed to attract those who already know a lot about the subject. Furthermore, you are right in the middle of the session so the audience will already be thinking about the subject more deeply than in the first talk. If your research is new and controversial, better make sure there is time for questions at the end. If it is informative make sure to include resources where the audience can learn more. As a last note, if you are the final speaker in a session consider the fatigue of the audience and make sure to tailor your presentation so that it is not too complicated or long.

Following these simple ideas while constructing your presentation will set you up for success the next time you speak in public.

How to Communicate Like a Negotiator in 3 Steps

Although this blog has focused exclusively thus far on how to communicate in a presentation setting, there are times when having the skills to communicate in a back and forth discussion are extremely helpful. Being competent in skills such as negotiation, debate, and communication, is helpful when working large groups that have varied interests. Negotiation, however, usually gets a bad rap in most people’s view. The common sentiment is that people who negotiate are usually rude and confrontational. Imagine talking with some pushy salesperson trying to trick a customer into a purchase that they do not want, or some a rude business executive giving ultimatums if they do not get their way. The reality of negotiation as a communication tool could be nothing further from the truth. Negotiating is an important skill that the majority of people are not very good, due to fear of confrontation and conflict. 3 In this post we will explore how using negotiation tactics not only will help create a positive atmosphere for discussion, but also allow trust and goodwill to be fostered between opposing groups.

BP Oil Flood Protest in New Orleans 30

Step 1: Decide upon a goal or outcome before you begin to negotiate.

A self assessment is one of the most important things you can do as a communicator, asking “what do I want from this?” will go a long way to being clear and concise when it comes to negotiating. 3 Decide what the outcome should be before you begin communicating or writing down what you will say. For example, do you want a cooperative agreement or are you trying to convince the audience that your way of thinking is best. Considering the possible mutual gains for both you and the audience will make sure you are not perceived as an adversary whom needs to be opposed. 1 Evaluate who you are speaking to and take into consideration what they are wanting to accomplish and compare this with what your personal goals are for the discussion. Developing empathy for your audience can be one of the most powerful tools that you can use to improve communication. Keep in mind while you think of the goals, that you are trying to create a positive relationship with others and find common ground.

As with any communication you must know the topic and become well versed in both sides of the argument. Good negotiators strive to understand where the opposing views, thoughts and feelings are coming from. Knowing your audience as thoroughly as possible is key to your success, since you will need to tailor your information to meet their needs. You do not want to end up in a situation where you are using negotiation tactics with an audience that will not benefit from it. 1

Step 2: Stage presence, keep your composure while communicating.

Consider the relationship you already have with the audience; are you an unknown? an adversary? or a trusted source of information? Whatever category you fall into will impact how you communicate with your audience. 1 Take into account (but do not obsess over) the fact that you will be judged on your presentation and make sure that you are well rehearsed and relaxed. Focus the tone of the presentation on completing objectives and solving problems rather than trying to change opinions or beliefs. 1 Work slowly so you are coherent and fluid you do not want to concede anything you have not had time to think about. 1 Remember you are the communicator and therefore set the pace for discussion, make sure to use this ability to your advantage. A general rule of thumb is to stay focused on the positive when possible and maintain a relaxed composure. Do not take anything personally and try to take a break or recess if you lose your cool. If you have done your homework beforehand you will likely already be composed and things will go smoothly.

Step 3: There are no losers, everyone walks away with something.

Negotiating can be a difficult task, since often you will be working with an audience that is passionate and has many different opposing views. Keep in mind that negotiating is a two way transfer of knowledge with the ultimate goal of solving a problem. 2 This means that no one need feel as though they are conceding something in a sort of compromise, but rather that everyone is working in a positive manner to come to an agreeable resolution.  The overall success when negotiating your desired outcome, often is heavily based on the relationship and trust between the parties involved. 1 Separate the personalities from the problem so that no one takes something personally but instead is focused on working together to solve the problem. 1  Negotiate on the audience’s ultimate desires and goals and not their personal opinions. 1 For example, think about how most people support renewable energy whether they believe in climate change or not. Try to avoid using ultimatums when communicating since they can make people feel like they are cornered or trapped. 1

You will want to take into account how passionate the audience is about something and stay aware of conflict that might arise. If you think that conflict is likely, then prepare beforehand ways to calm down the audience so that you will be able to diffuse the situation before it gets to intense. 5 One way to avoid potential conflict is to keep people busy by task sharing. Breaking the problem up into smaller parts and then distributing them out to all interested parties is an effective way to come to an agreement. 2 Stay positive and remember that often when negotiating one side will make measurable gains while the other will simply strengthen their relationship and feelings towards the whole community. At the end of the day if every feels good about the agreement or resolution then the negotiation was successful.

TAA–University bargaining, 1970

A final note.

Using negotiation in a presentation does not mean you need to be “tough” by playing hardball or being confrontational. Nor does it mean you should be “soft” letting others manipulate or walk all over you. Using negotiation while communicating means that you will need to; evaluate each situation differently, make sure that you are working towards a goal, address the needs of everyone involved, and finally create a positive  agreeable outcome. 3 Focusing on the needs of the audience and solving their problems is more effective than trying to convince the audience to think the way you do. Remember the audience will respond to problem solving and constructive conversation, but they will quickly shut down if they feel that they are being manipulated or pressured. 4 Use the right tools for the topic, but be aware that there are some issues that cannot be negotiated on, and as a communicator it is important to recognize and steer away from these. 5


1. Anderson, T. (1992). Step into my parlor: A survey of strategies and techniques for effective negotiation. Business Horizons, 35(3), 71-76.

2. Davis, R., & Smith, R. G. (1983). Negotiation as a metaphor for distributed problem solving. Artificial intelligence, 20(1), 63-109.

3. Leigh, T. (2012). Mind and heart of the negotiator. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

4. Rackham, N., Kalomeer, R., & Rapkin, D. (1988). SPIN selling. New York: McGraw-Hill.j

5. Rubin, J. Z. (1983). Negotiation An Introduction to Some Issues and Themes. American Behavioral Scientist, 27(2), 135-147.

8 Tips to Help Communicate a Controversial Topic

Many people tend to shy away from speaking about controversial topics, fearing that the audience will not receive the message well, or that conflict and confrontation will arise.  Although sometimes communicating a controversial topic can cause the audience to respond in a negative way, it doesn’t mean that the only outcome is conflict. When you find yourself needing to communicate a controversial topic, using methods that promote open minded, positive discussion will go a long way to diffuse any conflicts. In this post I have compiled a list of tips that can help communicate the facts and create a positive environment for your next presentation.

Jeff Isom arguing with an umpire

1. Be prepared and make sure that you are well versed in the subject matter.

Speaking about any subject requires that you do your homework beforehand. This is even more important when you are speaking about a topic that the audience finds controversial. Before you reach the stage or podium you need to do your homework so that you understand what are the facts are and what is propaganda. Consider what information might be difficult for the audience understand and prepare yourself to be able to explain those parts. Think of analogies or anecdotes to help explain the topic while avoiding unnecessary jargon or technical terminology. Furthermore make sure that you are well versed and prepared with the subject manner not only in a rhetorical way. Chances are that the audience will want to discuss the topic afterwards, and research has shown well prepared discussions by those participating usually turn out successful. 2

2. Think about the overall outcome or desired result for your presentation.

Before you start speaking you will need to think about what the goals for your talk are. Do you want to change people’s mind about a topic? Are you just simply informing them of the other side? Are you trying to promote a willingness to work together despite differences? Taking time before you speak to the audience to think about outcomes will help you craft a logical and coherent story. Write down your specific goals or results and brainstorm how you can achieve those. For example you can present supporting facts, information, and visuals to help get factual information across. Or you can take time to debunk common myths held by the public. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure that you are always working towards a logical outcome.

3. Know your audience.

In order to have a successful delivery, it is important to take into account the constraints of the presentation (e. g. timing, subject matter, etc). 3 Knowing the knowledge level and experience of the audience, and whether or not you will have a discussion will go a long ways to help the audience understand the subject matter. 3 Since you already know that your topic is controversial, think of how the audience will react to the content of the presentation. Consider how people will disagree with you. What sort of counter arguments might they bring up? How will you deal with a vocal minority? How will you resolve and diffuse conflict? When you think about the audience, the key is to anticipate what problems might arise for them and already have plan to put into action. Think about what points someone might make who disagrees with you, and work your answers to them into the presentation. Plan ahead on how the audience will perceive the content and what might lead to internal or external conflict. Taking time before the presentation will make it easier on you, so you don’t have to scramble for a solution on the spot.

 4. Establish Credibility.

One of the more important tasks as a speaker is to establish credibility with the audience. By establishing credibility you build trust and trustworthiness in your message. In order for the audience to respect what facts and information you are bringing to the talk you need to establish yourself as a credible source. Becoming a credible source will also help reduce the chances of conflict in the audience since they can trust what you say as factual. Make sure to establish your experience and skills early on in the presentation by sharing stories or facts about yourself as a topical expert. Think elevator pitch, you need to become a credible source quickly in a concise fashion so you can build trust early on.

5. Acknowledge that a topic is controversial.

The more direct and honest with the audience you can be, the more likely they will trust you and your sources of information. Acknowledging the “elephant in the room” will allow the audience to relax a bit by knowing that you are taking the issue seriously. This works similarly to the acknowledgment of an awkward situation and will help relieve tension. Saying literally that you know this material is controversial and that you respect people’s opinion will go a long way to building trust.

6. Ask what the audience already knows about the topic.

Take time either in a rhetorical sense or a discussion setting to ask what preconceived ideas and information the audience already has. This allows the audience to feel as if they have a voice in the conversation about the topic. It is important to remember that each person in the audience will likely hold a slightly different point of view, and that being respectful of each other’s viewpoint will go a long way to fostering positive discussion. This doesn’t mean that you need to give people the opportunity to voice incorrect or biased points of views, but rather that you are acknowledging in a respectful environment that everyone has a voice. Make sure that people are heard and addressed respectfully but make sure to keep things reasonable and on topic. For example, you can voice your opinion about the government because freedom of speech protects you, but you cannot yell fire in a crowded theater because in endangers others. Use common sense here to allow the audience to feel heard but not to derail the talk into a shouting match.

7. Present both sides of the argument.

It is important to take both sides of the argument into account even if one is blatantly wrong. The reason is that some of the audience may hold the wrong point of view, and by acknowledging it you are able to logically debunk it with factual data. Avoid saying things like “you are wrong” or “the wrong way to think is”. Use language that will be more persuasive to the other side like, “some may hold X opinion, but we are going to explore why the evidence is pointing to a different take”. It is important to remain as neutral as possible about a topic, not letting your own bias enter into the facts of the topic. 1 There is a tendency for people to unknowingly assert their own beliefs into a topic and this bias can influence the audience. If you want to encourage discussion and open minded knowledge transfer, then it is best to allow the audience to review the information and make their own decisions. Remember, you may not convince everyone in the audience, but even if a few people change their minds it is a positive outcome.


8. Encourage open minded discussion.

Depending on the kind of presentation you are giving, encourage thoughtful discussion at the end of your presentation. In some cases it may be appropriate to say “since this topic is controversial, I want to remind everyone to be respectful of others” making sure to lay the ground rules for the discussion and diffuse conflicts before they arise. Remember in most of these cases you are going to be the moderator and need to be able to cut people off if they begin to ramble. Often this can be done politely by mentioning time constraints. Finally if the end goal is to come to some common agreement or negotiation then remind everyone that there needs to be a resolution at the end of the day. Keeping your audience on task by commenting that they are working together to improve the situation through respectful discussion can also help in these situations.


1. Cotton, D. R. (2006). Teaching controversial environmental issues: Neutrality and balance in the reality of the classroom. Educational Research, 48(2), 223-241.

2. Hess, D. E. (2002). Discussing controversial public issues in secondary social studies classrooms: Learning from skilled teachers. Theory & Research in Social Education, 30(1), 10-41.

3. Stradling, R. (1984). The Teaching of Controversial Issues: an evaluation [1].Educational Review, 36(2), 121-129.

Building Trust, Collaboration, and Understanding, Through Communication

Getting your message across is important, but what happens when you want the audience to do something with that message? If you are presenting in a workshop or special session you may want the audience to interact with you, join a community, retain and use the new information, or be inspired to contribute to the overall subject matter. When your goal is to have greater interaction with the audience, you will need to consider questions such as; what is the take home message? How might they use this new new knowledge? And what information will they actually retain? In this post we will go over three important concepts to keep in mind if you want to increase audience interaction and participation.

Handshake (Workshop Cologne '06)

1. Building Trust in Your Audience

As discussed in previous posts, building trust and trustworthiness can help the audience retain information and pay attention. If the audience has a lack of trust or respect for the presenter, it can become a large barrier for communication and knowledge transfer. Fostering a sense of trust is not only important during the presentation but also for afterwards. If they audience has a lack of trust in the information or the presenter then they are unlikely to do anything with the new information. If your presentation is focused on trying to get people to commit to a call to action, then you will need to build trust with the audience.  As a presenter you are depending on the audience to trust you enough that they willing to stand behind the message. Building trust with your audience is the basis for thoughtful discussion, interaction and knowledge transfer. 4

Trust can be defined as a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of a person or idea. Trust in new ideas is built when the perceived risk and uncertainty is low enough that people are willing to put themselves in a vulnerable position. Remember that an idea only has as much value as people are willing to put in it, by listening and trust. However, trust and trustworthiness are different traits when it comes to communication. 3 It is better to build credibility and trustworthiness through being consistent with your information. Additionally, be willing to share information and ideas that are not complete or “perfect”. Allowing yourself to be judged and see what people think can build trustworthiness in the audience. The perfect work never gets shared because it is “never finished”, and this can be interpreted as a lack of confidence or secrecy. To build trustworthiness you will need to put your ideas on the line.

The key to building trust is that you need to convince your audience (often in a short amount of time) that not only is believing in your message worth the risk but also that believing in you is worth the risk. Some of the ways that trust can be achieved is by; having a clear purpose or objective, presenting a thorough understanding of the topic, accepting that trust evolves over time, and remembering that some may need to hear the message more than once to be “on-board”. When you want to build trust strive to present a balanced viewpoint and avoid being biased. Obviously you want to be as honest as possible in your presentations, and make sure you are not omitting facts to make your point more appealing. Additionally focus on your message and do not over use technology. Technology is an assistant but not the point of the communication. Often audiences may be “wowed” by technology but it can distract from the actual subject matter. Use discretion when putting together your presentation and be careful not to drive attention away from building trust. Following these basic tips will go a long way to building trust with your audience.

2. Building Collaboration in Your Audience

Collaboration can be defined as working together with someone or a group of people to produce or create something new. When you want to build a collaboration you need to consider what are the best ways to transfer knowledge and making sharing ideas more effective. As a communicator it is your job to get people involved and excited about contributing something new to the project or idea. By actively involving your audience you will get them interested and engaged. Keep in mind that people are highly motivated by the guiding belief, principle, and expected outcome of the project or idea. That is, there needs to be a higher purpose than just making a profit or publishing a paper. Having a clear goal or objective that is beyond short term gains will motivate others to share and work together. The best motivation for a collaboration is often the job itself.

When you are building a collaboration it is a very different than giving a presentation and saying “I am here to tell you about…”. Building collaboration requires different approaches to communication. Someone needs to take on the role as a central coordinator so that people  have a moderated way to communicate. When communicating in a collaborative setting the coordinator needs to be well versed in methods of communication such as; being nondominant in conversation, being noncontentious to the audience, and being attentive to others. 1 It is very important to avoid communicating in a way that causes people to shutdown and disengage. A contentious argumentative style (often over trivial issues) or being overly precise causes the conversation to hang up on unimportant details so that the bigger picture is missed. 1 Additionally monopolizing the conversation by speaking forcefully, causes others to feel pushed back and unwilling to respond. 1 Instead the coordinator needs to remain focused on being attentive and emphasize back and forth communication. 1  Building a collaboration requires a lot effort, but the rewards of  the exchange of new ideas is well worth the time it takes to communicate effectively. Keep these communication styles in mind as you present your ideas for collaboration, and you are bound to see a positive outcome with the introduction of new energy and ideas from your new collaborators.

Wikipedia presentation MU Brno 2009-03-09

3. Building Understanding in Your Audience

Understanding can be defined as the action or capability of comprehending an idea or concept. When communicating with the public or in a workshop setting, being able to predict the level of understanding can be an important tool to addressing confusion and doubt. You can’t expect an audience to tell you what they already know and what new information is confusing to them. Making sure that your presentation or information is not too complex requires that you consider the audience beforehand. Take into account the culture, the technology, and lives of the people you are working with. Additionally thoughtful practice in front of test groups that are not familiar with your information may help tailor your presentation. By taking into account the audience and making sure the content is at the appropriate level you will increase audience understanding. However be sure to keep balance in the content so that you are not just “dumbing it down” to a very basic level. A coherent story leading from point A to B to C is far more effective at getting your information across than just removing information to simplify the message. Challenging material with clear background is much more likely to promote understanding of a topic. 2

It is important to engage the users of your material so they can take it to the next level on their own. When people become motivated about a subject they will often do the hard work to figure out what they do not understand for themselves. When you reach points in presentation that are difficult it may be best to allow the audience time to think about the information. Add break points and silence so the material can sink in, and be sure to allow time for discussion and questions afterwards. Think about what problems might arise for audience, and try to include information throughout the presentation so they can figure it out for themselves.  Encourage the use of additional resources to learn more such as; books and articles, online resources, videos, mentoring, guided learning, and shadowing others to gain the essential knowledge. Knowledge and information are different things, having facts (information) is not the same as letting people develop the skills or experience (knowledge) to become more informed.

In your next presentation think about what you want for the overall goal or outcome. Consider what is the aim of your information is, want you want the call to action to be, what kind of community you want to create, and how you want to inform people? Taking time before your presentation to answer some of these questions will help to create a seamless transition to the desired audience interaction.


1. Coeling, H. V. E., & Cukr, P. L. (2000). Communication styles that promote perceptions of collaboration, quality, and nurse satisfaction. Journal of nursing care quality, 14(2), 63-74.

2. McNamara, D. S., Kintsch, E., Songer, N. B., & Kintsch, W. (1996). Are good texts always better? Interactions of text coherence, background knowledge, and levels of understanding in learning from text. Cognition and instruction, 14(1), 1-43.

3. Rotter, J. (1967). A new scale for the measurement of interpersonal trust. Journal of personality.

4. Vangen, S., & Huxham, C. (2003). Nurturing collaborative relations Building trust in interorganizational collaboration. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 39(1), 5-31.

Focusing on the Audience’s Needs, 4 Common Problems in Public Speaking

Determining the needs of your audience can feel like a daunting task. There are many things to take into consideration, such as; are you presenting to like-minded professionals? Is this a public outreach event? Does the audience know any of the subject matter?  What age group is the audience? Is the audience full of native speakers of your language, or not? Is jargon going to confuse most of the audience?  And the list goes on and on. However, just because audience consideration is complicated, it doesn’t mean it can be overlooked. Imagine if a college professor taught a class but treated the students like they were colleagues at a national meeting. Most of the students in the room would be lost and confused, causing them to disengage from what is being taught. Likewise if someone was presenting at a national meeting, but used the format of a Biology 101 class, the audience would become quickly bored due to the level of information. Taking into account who you are speaking to is an important task that cannot be overlooked by any speaker.3 Considering your audience when preparing your presentation will make positive and significant impacts on what you are communicating.1

When we converse with our friends, colleagues, and family we almost always tailor our conversations and stories to meet their needs. Often we do this without thinking too much about it. If you desire to create a greater impact, increase retention of information, or want people to take action, then you need to carefully consider the audience in the same way. As an aside, teaching in the classroom is a form of public speaking as well, but is a significantly different experience. The classroom can have very different levels of audience participation and [therefore teaching deserves it own separate post].  Here I am going to focus on the traditional rhetorical presentation and consider the audience to improve the the impact of the message. In a rhetorical presentation generally you are not going to get any verbal feedback from your audience (except maybe during the end Q and A session). Despite the lack of feedback there are many things you can do to avoid problems and help connect to your audience.

2014-14 wikimania day three (14)

Problem 1; Turning your most recent paper or report into a presentation.

“Scientific reports belong to the genre of forensic arguments, affirming the validity of past facts, the experimental data”2

The above statement says it all, not only is it a wordy and complicated sentence that is somewhat confusing, but it also states that papers are designed to store our facts and experimental data. Papers and reports are great materials for reference and learning. However, they are meant to be read and not used as a substitute for good public speaking. The advantage of a paper and the written word is that the reader can stop at any moment, and look up a definition or reread a confusing sentence. In the medium of spoken presentations the audience does not have that opportunity. In a presentation the audience is locked in to whatever you say or do. And if something isn’t clear then there is now way an audience member can fix the problem in the moment. Using a paper or report as basis of the presentation will hurt your chances at connecting with the audience. An occasional fact or figure from a recent paper is fine but don’t overdo it. I have too often heard people say “Oh I just took my paper and turned it into some slides”, this approach will seriously hinder your ability to communicate and ultimately make the audience disconnect. If you are making a presentation about your recent findings in a paper, then try writing (without looking at your paper) a quick summary of the paper in your own conversational tone. This can be done in a formal written page or in a brainstorming session, just make sure to focus on the overall outcome, story, or take home message. Then, go back to your scientific paper and fill in any details that need some strengthening. This way you are not going from a technical paper direct to a presentation, but rather you are forced to translate the story for the audience before you are on stage.

Problem 2; Not enough context to your story.

The audience needs context in addition to the facts of the story. Just giving the basic “who what where why when” is not enough, there must be a clear and formulated story that is the backbone of the presentation Audience members shut down if there is a lack of information and context; specifically in structure and visuals.In a way, you must assume that the audience knows nothing about the topic, that does not mean assume the audience is stupid. 4 As the audience takes in new information they generally cannot retain and process more than 5 to 7 new things at a time. Be considerate of the amount of new ideas you are throwing out there and make sure that the background to each part is explained. For example, this can be done by showing a picture of hospital beds or saying the of number of deaths from malaria each year. In this case a concise picture or numerical fact will help the audience understand why you are doing your work. Additionally people respond very well when you convey what you believe in as well as why you do things you do.

Furthermore make sure to be honest about any uncertainties in your work or results. As a communicator you must present a balanced point of view, but also be honest about the certainties and present the correct point of view. The audience needs to know if something is controversial, or has some parts of the argument that are not yet fully resolved. By doing this you will help add context to your story, showing that it (the science) if often a work in progress, but still tremendous gains have been made on the topic.

Problem 3; Customize your message? Or a one size fits all approach?

Deciding whether to make a single presentation for everyone or create an customized message depends very much on the audience.1 Having a single presentation and message can help maintain a consistent image when dealing with different groups. By maintaining a similar message across your presentations, you will begin to project a single specific identity that the general public can connect with.1 This might help in the case of a controversial topic, where there are many doubters or disbelievers in your field. Using the same approach across different audiences will prevent any accusations of hypocrisy by having different variations of the same message. On the other hand, making a custom presentation for your audience, is beneficial when dealing with small or special interest groups. Giving the audience the information they want and need may increase retention and project trustworthiness in you.1 Additionally by customizing your message you are allowing the audience to feel more included in the project or research. Ultimately you will need to use your best judgement as to which method to use.

Problem 4; Lack of use of technology and up to date materials.

Smart phone

All too often presentations will use out of date materials, old visual aids and ignore current technologies. Audience members are very savvy and will especially notice out of date information. Almost everyone carries around a fully functional computer in their pocket these days. Since everyone is always connected to the internet (aka all of human knowledge) the audience is aware how old information is. Even if you reuse a slide from a few years ago a tremendous amount has happened in the world since then, and in a globally connected world information is moving faster than ever. It is in your best interest to make sure all information is up to date and accurate since and no one wants to see old stuff recycled in a presentation. Additionally don’t stray away from new technologies. The internet has revolutionized the world, and using old outdated tech to tell a story will generally bore your audience. That is not to say you need to get overwhelmed learning newest social app out there, but make sure to take note of new technologies in your field and integrate them as best you can. Think of it this way, PowerPoint was released 25 years ago, YouTube and streaming video is over 10 years old now, Facebook is 11 years old, Twitter is 9 years old, and Snapchat is turning 4. If you are not even aware of the new things happening you are already behind, so do your homework and read tech news once to stay up to date. Simply being ready to learn new things and integrate them into your presentation is already half the battle.

Fotothek df roe-neg 0006206 036 Blick auf die Zuschauer des Theaterstücks "Spiel

When presenting we need to consider to the audience and work with them while giving a presentation. The audience is already interested otherwise they would not have come to hear you talk, so don’t waste that opportunity by not taking them into consideration. If the concerns, interest, and intelligence, of the audience is taken superficially, then the likely outcome is mistrust and cynicism.1 Careful consideration to the audience is needed to avoid undesirable outcomes in communicating your message.So do your homework before your next presentation and you will connect with the audience in a much better way.


1. Crane, A., & Livesey, S. M. (2003). Are you talking to me? Stakeholder communication and the risks and rewards of dialogue. Stakeholder Communication and the Risks and Rewards of Dialogue.

2. Fahnestock, J. (1986). Accommodating Science The Rhetorical Life of Scientific Facts. Written communication, 3(3), 275-296.

3. Friedman, S. M., Dunwoody, S., & Rogers, C. L. (1999). Communicating uncertainty: Media coverage of new and controversial science. Routledge.

4. Rogers, C. L. (2000). Making the audience a key participant in the science communication process. Science and engineering ethics, 6(4), 553-557.