Structure Helps You Scaffold Your Audience’s Understanding of Your Presentation
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    Structure Helps You Scaffold Your Audience’s Understanding of Your Presentation

    Routinely, when I visit my eye doctor, I am flummoxed by the puzzles she places in front of me. These multi-colored, spotted circles (technically called Ishihara plates), reveal pictures and numbers to those who see properly. Unfortunately, I don’t see properly… I am colorblind. I struggle to see certain reds and greens, which not only lead me to see nothing in my eye doctor’s tests, but upon occasion, have led to some pretty interesting fashion choices on my part. I am not alone in my color blindness. Approximately 8% of people (mostly men since it is a sex-linked genetic trait) are colorblind.

    Much like the way people differentially perceive color based on their genetics, people vary in their ability to perceive the structure of information they are hearing from others. According to Dr. Morton Gernsbacher’s “structure-building theory,” some individuals are better at creating initial mental frameworks based on the information they receive from others, which later allows them to build upon their initial foundation. These “skilled structure builders” not only understand information better, but they also retain it longer and more readily apply it.

    New research by Dr. Dung Bui published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition has shown that less skilled structure builders can improve their understanding of the information they are hearing when they are exposed to pre-communication maps and diagrams. Specifically, by providing his subjects with outlines or agendas (these could be simple bulleted verbiage, images, or process flows) of upcoming lecture content, his subjects recalled more and were better able to apply the information learned to novel situations when compared to control subjects.

    Speakers would be well served to make sure they structure their presentations and then take time up front to set their audience’s expectations for what is to come in their presentations.

    There are many presentation structures on which you can rely, including:

    −Past-Present-Future — good for providing a history or stepping people through a process

    -Comparison-Contrast-Recommendation — good for showing the relative advantages of your position 

    -Cause-Effect-Results — good for helping people understand the underlying logic of your position 

    Additionally, having a structure not only helps your audience to understand and remember your words of wisdom, but it helps you remember what you plan to say, because even if you forget the specifics, you can use the general framework to stay on track.

    Early in the beginning of your presentation, you should make your structure known to your audience. By setting their expectations and mapping out your course, you will empower your audience to build mental frameworks of your content. Simply previewing your Problem-Solution-Benefit talk by saying “today I intend to walk us through the problem we are facing, how we can solve it, and the benefits we will reap” is enough to scaffold your audience.

    While there is not yet a viable, ubiquitous solution to color blindness, there are readily available techniques for helping both you and your audience with structure building.