The Expertise Gap


Have you heard of Pecha Kucha? It’s a style of presentation where slides are set to auto advance every 20 seconds, so it requires some rehearsing to get the timing right. I tried this for the first time at an evening session of the Oregon Active Transportation Summit (OATS).


I started by assuming the role of a nervous agency staffer talking to stakeholders about a proposed (and fictional) wireless power transmission project. I threw in every bit of bad presentation technique I could think of including technical jargon, inscrutable diagrams, and unreadable text. The premise was made up, but the confusion brewing in the audience was quite real. After finishing this example of how not to do public outreach, I shed my agency staffer alter-ego and asked the audience a simple question: “Did you trust the speaker?”. The answer was a resounding “No!”, and a big reason for this is what we call “the expertise gap”. Differing levels of project understanding and professional experience make it very difficult for people to work together. To realize good results, some amount of teaching is needed. With this in mind, here are three simple tips that will allow better stakeholder collaboration in almost any project:

  1. Explain Jargon. Don’t “dumb it down”. Identify key concepts and teach with visuals.
  2. Preview Maps & Charts. Focus on a single issue and make sure visuals are legible for your audience.
  3. Use Interactive Media. Change scale & perspective to explain context and address questions about impacts.

Following through on these tips does require some extra planning time and visual communication materials. However, the value to a project is tremendous. Simple, preventable misunderstandings can balloon into expensive problems and even destroy a project. Why not make a reasonable investment in visual communication tools early on?


Joshua Cohen is a Principal at Fat Pencil Studio