Applied mathematics, numerical linear algebra and software.

Knuth on Knowing Your Audience

Donald Knuth has a great ability to summarize things in pithy, quotable nuggets. A good example is the following sentence from his 2001 book Things a Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About:

The amount of terror that lives in a speaker’s stomach when giving a lecture is proportional to the square of the amount he doesn’t know about his audience.

Knuth’s point is about preparation, and it brings to mind the words of Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”.

It’s essential to find out as much as possible about your audience, not just so that you feel more confident, but also so that what you deliver is appropriate for that audience.

As academics we are used to giving seminars and conference talks for which we know that the audience will be made up of peers, and we usually just need to ascertain where to aim the talk on the axes general researcher–specialist and graduate student–experienced researcher.

For any other talk it is important to go to some effort to find out who will be in the audience, perhaps asking for a list of attendees if the event requires registration. For an after-dinner talk you may want to know whether certain key people who you are thinking of mentioning will be in the audience. For a talk to a general audience you will want to assess the base level of technical knowledge that can be assumed.

Keep these thoughts in mind when that sought-after invitation to give a “TED talk” arrives in your mailbox.