Presenting to policy vs. academic audiences: some thoughts


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I've been doing a bunch of presentations recently to both policy and academic audiences and been reflecting a bit on what the differences in presenting to these two different kinds of audience. Here are a couple of thoughts -- additional contributions are welcome as this is probably a topic that could take up a blog of its own.
1.  Keep the language universal.   If you want to reach the whole audience, you have to keep the language at a level that everyone can understand.     This is pretty obvious, but there are a couple of traps here.
Trap #1: the hidden geek.   You are presenting to a policy audience and a bespectacled nerd asks about your standard errors.   With glee you launch into a discussion of the relevant clustering and robustness.   The problem I have faced is that this nerd has now unleashed my inner nerd, and it's hard to put that genie back in the bottle.   But it's critical to switch back -- speak briefly to the technical question in the appropriate language and then get back to being comprehensible to all. 
Trap #2:  dumbing it down. One mistake I have made is to get too simplistic.   One of the beautiful things about identification is that this an idea that doesn't take economics training to get it.    And more than once I have caught myself making things too simplistic and getting all caught up in a discussion that could have been handled much better with more sophistication at the outset. 
Trap #3: avoid the jargon, all of it.   This is another slippery slope.   It's so easy to say linear relationship and so much harder to say it a more accessible way.    The great thing about technical language is that's precise and brief.   But in some cases, a higher quantity of accessible words will be better (kind of like translating things into French).
2.   Be prepared for out-of-the-box questions.    A room full of policy folks will usually have multiple disciplinary backgrounds, and there is a high chance that a sociologist or a scientist or even an accountant will come at you from an angle you were not prepared for.  
3.  There is also a high chance there is someone in the audience who knows the context better than you do.   Yes, we're development economists, and yes, we spend a lot of time in the field.   But my experience with policy audiences is that they'll either know different things about my local context or something about the national or international context that's relevant and I don't know.  I've definitely been humbled by this more than once.   
4.   Think about what's interesting (hint: it's not your triple difference or the fact that you've come up with the perfect instrument).  Methodology is secondary.   Innovations in measurement are tertiary (unless they are totally counterintuitive).   It's the policy conclusions and why they are important that are key.  Again this is perhaps obvious, but my experience is that it takes a lot of self control to not talk about how cool the survey was.   
5.   A debunking result is not enough.    This was a lesson I learned from one of my (policy) mentors at the World Bank.  His point is that knocking down established wisdoms is a great way to get people's attention, but then the key is offering them something constructive in their place.      
6.   Think about the practical implications for your results.    Odds are high there is someone in the audience is going to think about actually how one might implement your policy recommendations, so spend some time thinking beforehand how this might actually work in practice.   It's one thing to say the results imply the need for better targeting.  It can be quite another to actually do that targeting. 
7.   Be prepared to talk about external validity.   This is a question I see a lot and I think the right approach is to say what you can about your context, and try to draw what external validity there might be without throwing up your hands and saying this is only valid for 4 villages in southern Uganda.
8.  In this vein, also be prepared to talk about cost effectiveness.   If you are convincing policy makers that what your results are showing is a good idea for them to adopt, they're going to want to know what it'll cost them. 
9.   Don't use tables in your presentation.  At least not the ones with standard errors, asterisks, or balance tests.   I often use the language of statistically significant, but don't put this in table form.    
10.   Convey your enthusiasm.   My sense in academic seminars is that enthusiasm can be seen as detracting from some notion of scientific impartiality.    Not so for a policy audience.  
11.  Don't be afraid to ask for clarification.  I often get questions I don't understand.  In some academic seminars, asking people to explain can either signal my ignorance or suggest weakness.   In policy seminars, my experience is that the diversity of people can lead to questions coming from places I hadn't thought of.   And they usually don't mind explaining.   
12.   Keep it shorter.  


Markus Goldstein

Lead Economist, Africa Gender Innovation Lab and Chief Economists Office

Anthony Seddoh
April 16, 2015

Translating research and evidence into the language policy makers understand is really a difficult act particularly if you are use to academic discourse. In that sense this is very useful set of tips that should guide anyone attempting to attract the attention of policy makers. From my experience I noted two things that are essential in the preparation to present process.
1. Understand the possible make up of the audience and anticipate their dominant position on the subject. If the evidence you are presenting will dislodge the dominant position the presentation should seek to address the issue but preserve the constituency's integrity as holding an alternative view
2. Some words mean different things in different contexts particularly when different disciplines will have interest in the policy proposition. It is important to research the key words that will be used to present the policy proposition to be sure that they don't mean different things to different people. If so, use pictorial illustrations to re-enforce the conceptual understanding ofthe policy proposition.
One question: How do you deal with presenting evidence to an audience who are diametrically opposed to a third way when the alternatives they hold is stack against the evidence you presenting though your external validity stacks up nicely

Rhomil Baker
February 13, 2018

I couldn't agree more!

Paddy Carter
April 15, 2015

"In some academic seminars, asking people to explain can either signal my ignorance or suggest weakness."
and there's everything I hate about economists in one sentence*
* OK, just some economists .. but there are too many school yard bullies.

John F. May
June 25, 2015

Very well put! Thank you Markus. I will use this checklist again and again.
John F. May
Visiting Scholar
Population Reference Bureau.

Dr Salamat Ali
July 14, 2021

Love this article. I have faced questions about standard errors in my presentations to government officials. One should be prepared for all kind of situations.