How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

A Hypothesis: Chunk Your Caveats

Caveats — sprinkled through a presentation or discussion — act like paper cuts. Not fatal in themselves, but fatally distracting. One is annoying. Any more than that and the audience can’t focus on anything else.

One potential solution: Chunk the caveats.

We know that chunking information — sorting and labeling similar types of information — increases audiences’ ability to comprehend and remember that information.

My hypothesis: Chunking your caveats also might work to contain and defang them — by making them part of your narrative, rather than a bloodsucking agent draining its life with every new point.

Say you’re presenting a strategy. Grouping your caveats together in a list of “uncertainties/dependencies” that you could go through quickly after presenting your strategy sends the following messages:

  • I’ve assessed risk for this strategy comprehensively and am sharing my findings with you;
  • Risk is normal, and my transparency about it here is simply best practice;
  • I’ll let you make your own judgements about the importance of these caveats, but I’ve considered them and am still confident in the strategy.

Whether science or strategy, you’re always presenting a narrative. The conventional method of caveating — telling an audience something, and then telling them why it might not be true — disrupts that narrative and undercuts your authority. Chunking caveats makes caveats part of the narrative of how you developed the strategy, research conclusions or thought leadership.

I would then sum up your main points after the caveat chunk, to minimize recency bias.

Takeaway: Uncertainty is a constant; nod to it, but don’t let it overwhelm the journey. The destination — with you as guide — is what non-specialist audiences crave.