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Sometimes I give a talk for a limited number of persons (typically well below 15). Here, the audience consists of persons from different subfields of the same fields. Consequently, I am often not familiar with the background of all persons in the audience. In the past, I sometimes was unsure whether all the attending persons are familiar with a specific topic that is considered basic in my subfield but might not in theirs. I then asked directly, whether they are familiar with the specific topic. The answer was almost always "yes" although later it turned out that the topic was not so clear to everybody.

How can I rephrase this question in order to get an honest answer?

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    Your question title and body are asking two different questions. To your final question in the question body, "How can I rephrase this question in order to get an honest answer?", I would suggest never asking whether everyone knows X (the audience cannot know whether "everyone" does), but always about who doesn't know X. That can be quite effective, but it certainly isn't face-saving (other than making the audience used to seeing lots of raised hands and thereby getting the feeling that not knowing is normal and does not mean losing face). – O. R. Mapper Jul 25 '16 at 0:51
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    For a small audience, it may be worth asking them to briefly introduce themselves and say what they do (maximum 30 seconds per person). If you want to have interaction during the rest of the talk, define the "rules of engagement" right from the start. If the audience members also don't know each other, the introductions will probably be of interest to them as well as to you. This is more likely to get them interacting than asking the whole group a question - after all, almost everybody's favourite topic of conversation is talking about themselves! – alephzero Jul 25 '16 at 1:24
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    Don't expect to get honest (verbal) admissions of ignorance. Egos are fragile, especially in academia. Instead, watch and listen, and be prepared to adapt your presentation to what you see and hear. More details in my answer below. – Dan C Jul 25 '16 at 1:52
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    Just to comment, I find asking "raise your hand if you have no experience with ..." tends to catch people from flying under the radar more than "raise your hand if you have experience with ...". Plus, IMHO, it's a more important count for the speaker than the number of people who are familiar with what you are discussing. – Charles Jul 26 '16 at 5:12
  • @alephzero interesting approach. However, the audience is familiar with each other in my specific case. The problem is that even that I know that a person is in subfield X doing Y, I do not know if the person is familiar with the concept of Z that is used in my subfield. – snalx Jul 26 '16 at 11:48
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When I give talks in similar situations, I typically assume that at least some of the audience members will be unfamiliar with much of what I think of as basic. Your job is to "remind" them, without spending excessive time on the topic. A good place to use this technique is with definitions. For instance: "... a polynomial, for example 3x4-5x2+2x+6." (The best way to teach most things, particularly definitions and algorithms, is with examples.) You can do this fairly unobtrusively, so that those who don't recall the definition are reminded, while those who do are still not offended.

Another point to remember is that generally, it's good for some of your talk to be a refresher. You might say something like "most of you are probably familiar with this, but just to make sure we're all on the same page..." This material shouldn't be the majority of your talk, but 5 or 10 minutes of this is often very appropriate, say in a 25 minute talk.

In most talks I start by saying: "If you have questions as we go along, please ask." If you get many questions on material that you think of as basic, be ready to slow your pace. A variation on this is to have some worked examples early in your talk. Give the audience time to think about a question, then ask audience members for the answer before revealing it on your slides. Their responses (especially nonverbal) can give you a good sense of who knows what. Typically, I talk with slides, but answer miscellaneous questions on a whiteboard.

A final option is to get to the room early, and try to talk one-on-one with the audience members, as they arrive. If you ask them then, you may be more likely to get an honest answer. Another version of this is to ask the seminar organizer (or whoever schedule you to give the talk) what knowledge they think is reasonable to assume of the audience.

To summarize,

  • Make educated guesses beforehand about what your audience knows (typically less than you would think), asking them (or the organizer) if possible.
  • Make liberal use of examples and "parenthetical explanations".
  • Plan for 20-30% of your talk to be review.
  • Adapt the speed of your presentation based on the feedback you get during the talk.
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    In particle physics people often allege that the mini-lesson at the start is there to "establish notation and conventions". And because we have a lot of subjects that do have varied conventions and notations it sounds perfectly natural. I've learned quite a bit from that part of talks that then promptly took off through my hair and only gained altitude from there. – dmckee Jul 25 '16 at 0:22
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    @dmckee, And yet I still never have any idea what the particle physicists are talking about after slide 4. – user1717828 Jul 25 '16 at 2:23
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    @user1717828 You should try general relativity physicists then :-D – Massimo Ortolano Jul 25 '16 at 8:56
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    Great answer. A quick refresher not only helps clue-in those with less experience in the area, it also helps orient the minds of the other folks who walk in to your talk thinking about getting cat food on the way home tonight and whether they should pit-stop at the restroom before or after your talk. – Basil Bourque Jul 26 '16 at 22:18
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    Some of the earlier comments remind me of this – Willie Wong Jul 27 '16 at 1:36
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In talks I have given, I simply over-exaggerate the question. Then I tone it down and re-ask it until I see a majority of hands.

Example:

"Show of hands, please: How many people here feel they have an excellent, clear and thorough understanding of Graph Theory?" (1 out of 20)

"Okay, how many of you have a good, decent familiarity with Graph Theory?" (6 out of 20)

"All right. How many of you have heard of Graph Theory?" (18 out of 20)

The first question is so exaggerated in the thorough grasp being asked about that no one feels embarrassed to not raise their hand, so I get pretty honest answers.


However, I agree with Dan C's answer: it is absolutely crucial that you define the terms that you use. You may cover the definitions extremely rapidly—and should, if the majority of your audience is already familiar with them to some degree—or you may cover the definitions thoroughly and in detail, if it is a totally new subject for all of your audience. But you need to define your terms. (Even if you don't plan to argue with me. Or Voltaire.) ;)

  • Good advise. But I personally prefer the opposite order: First ask about trivial understanding and then raise the bar until most hands go down. This first activates the audience to give you feedback but then puts them back into a "I don't know everything so I might learn something here" mindset. But I don't want to claim that one way to do this is inherently superior to the other. – Philipp Jul 26 '16 at 9:20
  • @Philipp, true. The example above takes advantage of the inherent humor in the situation for the I.T. world, where the first question usually gets a chuckle and helps build rapport. Hardly anyone in I.T. has a deep, thorough grasp of Graph Theory, but nearly everyone has heard of it. (Come to think of it, actually, I believe ending the questions on the "win" that they have at least heard of the subject may in fact be inherently better just as it gives a success rather than a failure.) :) – Wildcard Jul 26 '16 at 18:04
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I usually ask in the negative. "I assume that not everybody is familiar with woffles. However, I could skip over this part if you feel bored." Then look at their faces, usually several people will slightly shake their head. In this way nobody has to state that they do not know something.

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    I agree that asking in negative might keep you in the safe side. However, often the problem is a shy or unresponsive audience that doesn't give you a good clue even if you ask both whether they know about the subject and whether they don't know about it. – Pere Jul 25 '16 at 16:34
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Tell them this one: "The saying goes that in any talk, the first twenty minutes are for the audience, the next twenty for the speaker, and the last twenty for God. Pay attention, now; this part's for you."

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