You do what?

You do what?

What do you say when a friend or family member asks you to explain what you do? How do you justify the value of your research to potential investors, grant-making agencies, or employers? Knowing how to effectively present yourself and your work to non-specialist audiences is no longer an incidental part of your academic and professional careers. It is critical to your success both within and beyond the university. Here are some steps for successfully talking about your research to non-specialists:

Step 1: Identify your Audience

Who is your audience? What do they want? What benefit can they expect from you or your research? How will their lives be better as a result of what you do? What do they know, and what do they think they know about your research or your discipline?

The better you understand the person or people you’re speaking to, the better your presentation will go, and one of the keys to a successful presentation is being flexible and adaptable in your approach to the various audiences you might encounter.

Step 2: Identify your Value

Keeping the likely audience in mind, you should ask yourself four questions related to your current research: 1) What problem do you solve, or what question do you answer?; 2) Why is the problem worth solving (or the question worth answering)?; 3) Why is yours the best solution or answer?; and finally 4) What is your value to the audience you’re addressing?

In answering these questions, focus on clarity over detail or precision. Your answers should be short, succinct, and to the point. Avoid any unnecessary words and any jargon or technical language that might be unfamiliar to a non-specialist. If you’re not sure whether you’re being sufficiently clear, ask. Present your answers to friends and family members outside of your field whom you trust to give you honest feedback about the clarity of your answers.

Step 3: Identify your Main Ideas

The key to a successful speech is structural simplicity. Audiences are forgetful, and a successful speaker will accept this rather than running from it. Don’t load your speech down with details. Instead, focus on 2-3 main points that you most want the audience to remember. This almost inevitably means that you must sacrifice some precision, and even accuracy to a certain degree, in order to be clear. Think about how you would explain your work or talk about your field to a group of first-year undergraduates. What would you most want them to remember? What would you most want them to care about? By focusing the audience’s attention, you make it much more likely that they will positively remember you and your research at the end of your presentation.

Step 4: Practice

There is no substitute for practice. Rehearse this presentation over and over, in as many different contexts as you can think of and in front of as many different people as you can. Revise the answers to your questions frequently. Stay flexible, and learn to adapt as circumstances and audiences change.

There is no such thing as a perfect speech. Do your best; learn from each speaking opportunity; and have fun!

Dr. Jonathan Edwards is the Basic Course Director of Speech Communication and Rhetoric in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina. Learn more about his work at

Questions? Comments? Ideas? Contact Dr. Heather Brandt at


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