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Technical Writing: Technical Talk Terminology

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Technical Writing: Technical Talk Terminology

A decade ago Moshe Y. Vardi, then editor in chief of the influential
Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, published
a one-page editorial in which he lamented the poor quality of too
many technical talks that he had heard...a missed opportunity both
for the presenter to effectively share their work and for the audience
to adequately encounter that information.  Despite some appearances,
asserted Vardi, "science is a social undertaking" and so science
"talks better be clear, informative, and interesting" (CACM, Sept.
2011, p. 5).  Unfortunately, many science students never discover
"that preparing a good talk is quite different from, though equally
important as, writing a good paper."  That the presentation problems
called out by Vardi still persist a decade later shows how valuable
it is for STEM students to become aware of them and their solutions
early, while still in school.  Technical talks present an authentic
STEM communication challenge that K-12 education can start to fix.

But merely watching others deliver a good technical talk--even if
students are fortunate enough to encounter them from classmates--
is seldom enough to build presentation-design skills alone. You
need to call out explicitly the special moves and distinctions
involved in effective STEM talks so that other students can practice
more perceptively and hence gradually build up their own presentation-
skill repertoire.  

You can seed presentation-skill building by alerting students to  
four important but sometimes subtle features vital to enable STEM
talk effectiveness for listeners, whether they are students or

1. Plan and announce STRUCTURAL CUES.
Readers can scan a technical text in any order that they choose.
But listeners are constrained to follow a STEM talk in the topic
order chosen by the speaker.  So for a complex science or engineering
topic, the speaker has an obligation to carefully choose their topic
sequence and then overtly announce each subtopic milestone that they
cross by using spoken cues.  Some will be milestone markers ("the
third problem is...") and others will be comparison signals ("by
contrast...") for all in the audience to hear.

2. Help listeners SELF-REVIEW.
Readers can reread any passage that confuses them, but listeners must
press on to keep up with the speaker.  So effective presenters build
review and summarization into the talk itself.  This often calls for
several practice iterations so that the speaker avoids needless
repetition yet includes helpful verbal "look backs" (for example,
"unlike features A and B, feature C has...").  

3. Manage DATA DENSITY carefully.
Readers can look up unknown words and scrutinize figure captions for
interpretive clues.  But listeners must rely on the presenter to
supply such help while the talk unfolds.  STEM topics can easily
overwhelm listeners with too much data density.  So effective speakers
explain crucial vocabulary or distinctions as part of their own
presentation.  And presented graphics are usually simplified or
labeled so that viewers can spot key features or contrasts quickly,
even from the back of the room.  Such extra data-density management
is entirely the speaker's responsibility, planned and tuned long
before public presentation time.

4. Rehearse for effective DELIVERY.
Writing a STEM text and reading it occur separately, at different times
and paces.  But listeners are prisoners of the speaker's pace and
style.  So effective STEM presenters practice privately, usually
with the help of notes, a mirror, and a clock, to iteratively develop
a delivery pace and style that is simultaneously comfortable for
them and helpful for their audience.

Classroom STEM talks (to classmates) can develop several valuable life
skills, as computer scientist Vardi noted above.  But this seldom
happens spontaneously.  Presenting, like writing, is a kind of text
engineering that students can refine iteratively if you frame the
effort with overt cues that show student speakers the key but
subtle features that they need to nurture for authentic success.

[Want more background on technical writing in science class? See
For explicit technical-talk support for students, with a checklist, see ]



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