High Pressure Over Ireland – Simple Forecasts That Are Never That Simple

In Ireland, we always celebrate the first warm spell of the year because (A.) it’s the first one, and (B.) it may be the last. But what may not have occurred to you is that the short, simple weather forecast, that have brought nothing but good news this week, is actually a perfect model for a technical presentation.

Boffins of all disciplines find it hard to explain their stuff to us non-expert plebs, particularly in a short space of time. I remember, in a series of eight-minute presentation I ran last year, one of the participants came to me looking for an extra two minutes because his topic was so complex – 25% more complex than everyone else’s, presumably. The weather forecast, however, is an iconic example of how a technical presentation should work.

No one thinks of the weather bulletin as technical because it looks simple – two minutes, friendly presenter, nice pictures – but is actually anything but. It is created by specialist scientists who gather huge quantities of data from many sources, process it through complex computer models and present it on animated infographics and charts. The final communication is simple but that’s only because of the compression, simplification and customisation that has taken place. It is a classic example of a presentation that takes from an expert’s store of knowledge just the insights that the audience needs to hear.

This audience-focus is critical. People often strive to make their presentations more interesting but you cannot airlift ‘interestingness’ into a presentation. It has to be built into the content and how this relates to the viewers. Again, the weather forecast illustrates the point.

Let us ask the question: is the weather forecast ‘interesting’? Well, if it affects you, it is. If you are going sailing or having a bar-b-que or painting the outside of your house, it’s spellbinding. If you live in the city, drive to work and have to stay late all week, it’s not such a big deal. Your own presentations work in the same way. Find out which bit of your knowledge is useful to your audience and present just that. Then it will be interesting.

The other thing to take from the weather forecast is how it is expressed in language meaningful to the audience, not the presenter. The meteorologists deal in ‘Coriolis forces’, ‘radiosnonde’s’, ‘NCEP’s’ and ‘MOS’s’ but they don’t use these terms in the final bulletin. This is made up of wind arrows and cloud and sun symbols, which seems simple, but only because the communication has evolved this way to meet the needs of the audience.

The science behind the weather forecast is anything but simple.

Imagine there had never been a weather forecast and you approached a group of meteorologists and asked them to take all of their data and analytical models, and produce a two-minute presentation that a child could understand. They’d laugh at your innocence and optimism. ‘Two minutes? Have you any idea how complicated this stuff is?’

The other thing to note, when you next watch the TV weather bulletin, is that there is almost no text on the screen. There are numbers, symbols and single-word captions like ‘Tuesday morning’, but no bullet points. The don’t write the weather down, they say it and show it. See link to video example of this.

So the weather forecast takes complex science and presents just a small piece of this, in simple language, to an interested audience. Which is exactly what all technical presentations should strive to do. Of course it helps when the news is good; everyone enjoys a technical presentation with sun symbols in it.

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