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The Assertion-Evidence Approach to Technical Presentations: Overcoming Resistance in Professional Settings

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Improving Presentation Skills Through Summer Research and Ambassador Programs

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Elizabeth L. Miller Pennsylvania State University

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Elizabeth Miller is a rising senior studying mechanical engineering at Pennsylvania State University. She is a student in the Schreyer Honors College and an Engineering Ambassador. Last summer she had an internship in Siemens’ Energy Management Division, and this summer she will be working in Capital One's Management Rotation Program.

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Michael Alley Pennsylvania State University, University Park

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Michael Alley is an associate professor of engineering communication at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of The Craft of Scientific Presentations (Springer-Verlag, 2013) and founder of the website Assertion-Evidence Approach, which receives more than 200,000 page downloads each year.

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The assertion-evidence approach to presentations calls on speakers to follow three principles: build the talk on messages, not topics; support those messages with visual evidence, not bullet lists; and explain that evidence by fashioning words on the spot [1]. Recent research has found that the assertion-evidence approach leads to technical presentations that are better understood by audiences [2]. Other research has found that students who use the approach to present new content learn that content more deeply than students who follow a traditional approach [3]. Given that, a significant number of engineering students are learning the approach through their institutions and organizations such as the Engineering Ambassadors Network [4]. Although the assertion-evidence approach appears to be more effective for technical presentations, the dominant presentation approach in industry still is to build each presentation slide on a phrase topic and then to support that topic with a bulleted list of subtopics and perhaps a graphic [5, 6]. Given that, many students find themselves in a situation in which they have adopted an innovation [7] that has not yet spread to the companies and laboratories in which they begin working as interns, entry-level engineers, or graduate students. Anecdotal reports are that many of these students are facing much resistance in their attempts to present with the assertion-evidence approach. This paper analyzes the following four research questions: (1) do students and recent graduates who learn the approach attempt to use it in professional settings? (2) how much resistance do those students and recent graduates face? (3) what are the underlying reasons for that resistance? (4) what strategies are students and recent graduates using to overcome that resistance? To achieve these four objectives, this research performs customer-discovery interviews that follow guidelines outlined by NSF Innovation-Corps [8]. The principal customers for these interviews are current and former Engineering Ambassadors. Preliminary results have found that almost all of the students and recent graduates whom we have interviewed have attempted to use the assertion-evidence approach in their professional presentations. As far as resistance experienced, the amount has varied considerably—from students and recent graduates being encouraged to use the approach to students and recent graduates not being allowed to use the approach. Likewise, the underlying reasons for that resistance have varied. Finally, those students and recent graduates who have experienced resistance are trying a number of strategies to continue using the assertion-evidence approach, from masking an assertion-evidence talk in a talk that appears traditional to giving lunch-and-learn talks that introduce the assertion-evidence approach to institutions. To assist these students and recent graduates in their efforts, [1] is adding information, as suggested by the customer discovery interviews.


1. “The Assertion-Evidence Approach” (2016)., ed. by ______ and ______. __________: ______________________. 2. ____________ and ______________ (2013). How the design of presentation slides affects audience comprehension: A case for the assertion–evidence approach. International Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 29, no. 6, pp. 1564-1579. 3. ____________ and ______________ (2016). Slide structure can influence the presenter’s understanding of the presentation’s content. International Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 32, no. 1(A), pp. 39-54. 4. ____________, __________, ____________, and ____________ (14-17 June 2014). “Engineering Ambassadors Network: Progress in 2015 on Creating a National Network of Ambassadors,” paper 12411, 2014 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, (Seattle, WA: American Society of Engineering Educators). 5. Traci Nathans-Kelly and Christine Nicometo (2015). Slide Rules: Design, Build, and Archive Presentations in the Engineering and Technical Fields. New York: IEEE Press. 6. ___________, ___________, _____________, and ____________ (2009). The common use of PowerPoint versus the assertion–evidence structure: A cognitive psychology perspective. Technical Communication, 56 (4). 7. Everett M. Rogers (2003). The Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press. 8. National Science Foundation (2016). “NSF Innovation Corps,” Arlington, VA.

Miller, E. L., & Alley, M. (2017, June), The Assertion-Evidence Approach to Technical Presentations: Overcoming Resistance in Professional Settings Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio.

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