Presentation Skills: Should You “Dumb It Down” for Your Audience?

The question “Do you think I should dumb it down for this group?” pops up all too often from those making technical presentations. When I hear it, I’m tempted to respond, “No, I recommend that you smarten up the speaker.” (Pardon the grammar and the sarcasm.)

Why does this question sound so arrogant? It assumes that if the audience doesn’t understand, the communication problem is theirs. Einstein thought otherwise: “Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in language comprehensible to everyone.” (from The Evolution of Physics)

Obviously, speakers who can think of only one way to express a complex situation or issue are limited by their technical education and focus. Others with a broader understanding, more creativity, wider experiences, and a larger vocabulary can express the idea or issue in multiple ways so that others outside the narrow technical field can grasp the concept.

Take petaflops, for example. I could explain petaflops this way for a technical audience:

A petaflop is the ability of a computer to do one quadrillion floating point operations per second (FLOPS). A petaflop can be measured as one thousand teraflops. The world’s fastest supercomputer today, Titan, is capable of 20 petaflops. Titan was developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Or, I could explain petaflops like this for those unfamiliar with the computing field:

A petaflop refers to the computing speed computers do various calculations. A petaflop is the ability to do one quadrillion (a million billion) calculations per second. (The FLOPS acronym stands for “floating point operations per second.”) A petaflop computer requires such a massive computing ability that you need a massive number of smaller computers working in parallel on the same problem or computation. Such petaflop computers and calculations are used for MRIs in surgery or to put people and objects into space.

The world’s fastest supercomputer today, Titan, developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, is capable of 20 petaflops. This supercomputer is capable of processing 20,000 trillion calculations per second.

To put it another way, according to Datamation.com, it would take 60,000 years for 1,000 people working at rate of one calculation per second to complete the number of calculations that Titan can do each second.

Communicating a concept clearly and credibly for all audiences has little to do with “dumbing down” content. It has everything to do with the skill and creativity of the presenter in making the information relevant and meaningful to the audience. Smarten up about dumbing down. Don’t do it. Instead, get creative in communicating clearly.

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