I am in my first year of a PhD in France. I recently attended a competition of best presentation by PhD students. It was a 15 minutes visual presentation and 7 minutes of questions. After the presentation, one of the members of review committee openly stated the following;

Since we have an audience from diverse areas of science, mathematics and technology the presentations should have been simple so that a layman can understand. I quote A. Einstein, "if you can't explain it simply you don't understand it well enough."

Even though this communicates an obvious message, I feel layman bear a high level of ambiguity with it. The following questions crops up in my mind.

  1. How much can you laymanize a particular research topic say, from theoretical physics, for example Non local wavefunction collapse?

The topic is chosen as random but for those who don't have exposure in basic quantum mechanics may not understand the technical terms.

  1. Is it advisable to prepare such a presentation in assumption that the audience are completely nescient?

If I oversimplify the presentation, leaving all the technical terms, I highly doubt that there will not be any material for those who actually knows the subject.

One approach is to try to satisfy both the extremes, first explain the technical terms in detail and then move on to subject core which I found is difficult if not impossible to fit into the time limit.

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    You cannot "laymanize" everything. But you can simplify the presentation of a) the motivation of your work (why it is important) b) How it improves over previous works c) How much it improves over previous works d) Applications of your research
    – Alexandros
    Nov 21, 2015 at 10:46
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    When I defended my PhD in Switzerland in the 1990s, it was expected I do two presentations. The first was to the PhD jury, who were experts in the field of course. Yet I still did not have time to present every mathematical proof in the presentation. After all, the audience saw the gory details in the dissertation. Once that defense was passed, there was a public defense for anyone. The goal of this is to be transparent. But the presentation was also very layperson-oriented, else you tortured your family and friends for 45+ minutes. Preparing both was a great experience. Nov 22, 2015 at 2:03
  • FWIW, Einstein probably did not say anything like that. The quote is of course anti-intellectual and tendentious; the right one is "if you cannot explain it simply enough for the audience present, talk about something different."
    – Kostya_I
    Nov 29, 2023 at 21:28

6 Answers 6


First, it is important to recognize that every scientist is effectively a layman for almost all other science.

For example, I am a computer scientist, and I have only a vague layman-level understanding that when you say "non-local waveform collapse" it's probably about quantum mechanics and Bell's theorem, and the math you put up on a slide will certainly be rather alien and fairly incomprehensible to me. If I put up a slide on the semantics of field calculus, it would probably be likewise alien to you, and if a biologist of my acquaintance put up a slide on the chemical mechanisms of chromatin remodeling it would be alien to both you and I. Think of a layman, then, not as some sort of idiot to be condescended to, but as an intelligent and interested person whose expertise happens to be in a different field.

Furthermore, our relative ignorance of one another's work is greatly amplified while listening to a talk: when I am puzzled and need to think about what you've just said, I miss the next things being said and have to try to catch up! In effect, only people who are extremely close to your own work, even within your field, will be able to follow deep technical details in a talk. Every audience except the smallest and most intimate, then, is effectively composed mostly of laymen---but likely with a few experts as well.

So, how do you give a talk to heterogeneous audiences? Personally, I find it effective to think of a talk as an advertisement, the goal of which is to make people interested enough and convinced enough by your work that they want talk with you about it afterward or to read the manuscripts that present it fully. Start with a discussion of the goal of your work, how the work relates to other work and why its goals might be interesting, narrow down to a few key details (which might only be understood in detail by the few experts in the audience), present evidence for why your insights are correct, and widen back out to explain why what you just presented satisfies the goals you laid out in your introduction. Such a structure can then "laymanize" even the most complex topic, by explaining how it fits into the larger world, while at the same time respecting the intelligence of the audience and not sacrificing communication to experts.

For the details of how to accomplish this effectively, I personally have found Patrick Winston's "How to Speak" lecture to be an excellent resource for heuristics and tips, and recommend it to others as well.

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    Any of Steven Pinker's longer talks on The Sense of Style would probably work as well. Yes, he's ultimately trying to sell a book, but since the book is largely about communicating in plain language and navigating around "the curse of knowledge", so any sufficiently long presentation is necessarily going to give away much of the game. (As an aside, I haven't touched "serious" mathematics in decades, but I have very little trouble following Cédric Villani's talks to general mathematical audiences. Depths do not need to be impenetrable.) Nov 22, 2015 at 2:23
  • +1 for the Link to Patrick Winstons lecture alone - This was the most interesting and insightful things I have ever seen about how to present.
    – dirkk
    Nov 22, 2015 at 12:58

A good rule of thumb when speaking to lay people (or scientists from other fields) is to talk mostly about why you research a particular topic, and only a little bit about how you actually solve the problem. A general audience isn't going to understand the details anyway, but you should be able to explain to them in broad strokes what it is that you're interested in and why anyone should care. Indeed, if you can't explain these last two points, then you probably did not understand them well enough yourself.


In my experience the best approach in these situations is the use of analogy.

The reason for this is, if you can find an analogy which is applicable it can be accessed by most members of the public as well as your peers. There is an added bonus that an analogy is far less condescending than a talk during which you treat everyone as if they were 5 years old :)

Analogies can be scaled to the audience. For example, I once saw a talk at a conference where kinetochores were likened to couples dancing. It was effective and I feel would have been accessible to anyone. While speaking to an academic audience terminology was used which made it clear that the 'couples dancing' analogy was not fully suitable however it was a good 'base' on which to build the questions and hypothesis.

Another advantage of this technique is that if you are clever about it you can make your talk humorous in a natural way.


One of the members of review committee... stated... "The presentations should have been simple so that a layman can understand."

If they did not provide these instructions ahead of time, and if it's not clear that the one guy is speaking for the whole committee, I think you may safely ignore his comment.

Some topics are of course more laymanizable than others.


You should talk to the audience that you have in front of you, not the audience you wish to have.

If your audience knows next to nothing of importance of your subject, explain to them why anyone should care. Given the time constraints, this might mean that you give them an introductory lecture from a 1st year course, and reduce your own work to "having something to do with simplifying calculations that arise in blah.". It is better than them being completely lost and intimidated by words that they do not understand.

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    If you read the first part, the presentation I attended is by PhD students who present their work. I don't think introductory lecture from a first year course is a proper thing to do on that stage. More or less it would render the audience to applaud the obvious inappropriacy if not stupidity of the presenter.
    – Sathyam
    Nov 21, 2015 at 14:16
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    I did read your post. It is better to break the letter of instructions and explain something than to follow the instructions and leave audience no wiser than before your talk.
    – Boris Bukh
    Nov 21, 2015 at 14:34
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    @ThejusMahajan: The reality is that the topics of most academic talks are only tangentially relevant to the vast majority of their audiences. The people who come to your talk may not have an overwhelming interest in your topic, but they do have an overwhelming interest in not having an hour of their time wasted. Non-understandable talks waste other people's time (and your own), so you shouldn't give them. If in doubt, make your talk extremely simple and let people go away feeling like they learnt something. The purpose of giving talks is to communicate, not to advertise your own cleverness. Nov 21, 2015 at 14:43
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    And incidentally, as an audience member, I don't find talks that tell me something "simple" about an area I'm not familiar with inappropriate or stupid -- if anything, I rate the presenter's communication skills more highly, and assume that they're actually interested in telling me something rather than showing off. I do, however, take exception to presenters who go out of their way in their talks to make non-specialists feel like idiots because they don't have a background in their extremely niche topic. Nov 21, 2015 at 14:47

My rule of the thumb is: Everyone should understand SOMETHING, but not everyone needs to understand EVERYTHING.

Make sure the context, motivation, and results obtained are understandable by, e.g., your family attending the talk. But you also need to prove to the committee that your work was interesting and not trivial.

It also helps to use the "layman" bits to break the rhythm, so that if someone got lost (which always happens, even with the committee) they have a chance to get back on board.

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