Do you speak the same language as your audience?
We’ve all seen him before. The enthusiastic executive presenting to his team, indulging everyone with jargon as ‘maximizing our shareholder value’ and ‘core customer retention’. He expects his audience to know and care about the subject as deeply as he does. They don’t. In fact, they would have understood just as much had he been speaking in Chinese.
The best explanation for executives’ love affair with fuzzy strategy statements relates to a phenomenon called the Curse of Knowledge. Dan and Chip Heath explain this phenomenon in my favorite book Made to Stick. They offer six principles that determine whether particular ideas or stories will stick. I believe the reason we aren’t surrounded by dazzling presentations today is because of this Curse of Knowledge.
When we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become rotten communicators. As the brothers Heath put it: ‘People tend to think that having a great idea is enough, and they think the communications part will come naturally. We are in deep denial about the difficulty of getting a thought out of our own heads and into the heads of others.’
A typical example would be the lawyer who can’t give you a comprehensible answer to any legal question. Or the doctor mumbling medical abstractions that make you suspect the worst. Their vast knowledge and experience renders them unable to fathom how little you know. And hold on to your seats: we’re all like the lawyer and doctor in our own domain of expertise. The more experience we get in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes to communicate those ideas clearly.
So how do we transform our ideas so our audience will understand us? Here’s 5 simple steps:
- Translate your presentation into concrete language. I always use the term ‘speak in watermelons’. With the word ‘watermelon’, everyone has the same idea and visualization. ‘Shareholder maximization’ means different things to different people.
- Structure your presentation. Structure ensures that you stick to the point and prevents you from dumping all your knowledge onto your audience.
- Keep your presentation simple. Cut out unnecessary details and distinguish the need-to-knows from the have-to-knows.
- Present to a friend from another line of business (or your spouse). Let him/her tell you which parts were too difficult to follow.
- If your work with a PowerPoint presentation, ask yourself at every slide: is this slide about me wanting to share everything I know with my audience or is it about the audience? If it’s about you, delete it.
Let me finish with an example from the book. When JFK informed the public about his space plans, he magnificently dodged the curse by rephrasing his vision as ‘putting a man on the moon in a decade’. A modern-day CEO would have probably said: ‘Our vision is to become the global leader in the space industry, using our capacity for technological innovation to build a bridge towards humanity’s future.’ Can you imagine what would have happened to our moon walk had that been the case?
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