It’s frustrating when you are speaking to a group of people and they just don’t seem to be grasping what you’re saying.
You might feel at a loss. You thought you were communicating in a good way, but apparently not.
Here a few ideas to make it easier for an audience to understand you.
1. Simplify, simplify, simplify
Simple beats complex every time. The average US presidential candidate speaks at a grade six or eight vocabulary level.
Why? Because they are trying to be understood by an extremely wide audience.
In the past US presidents spoke in much more complex and dense form. At that time, only a small educated elite had the right to vote, so it worked.
Today presidents must be easily understood by everyone, from PhDs to high school dropouts.
Look at your current speech or presentation. And now go through it and make it simpler.
Now make it simpler again.
We have to remember something: people cannot read our thoughts.
(They may be able to read our emotions through our body language and nonverbals, but that’s a totally different issue.)
We have to make our message crystal clear. For people who do not have a lot of practice speaking to large audiences, this can be difficult.
Unless you make a conscious effort to simplify your words, chances are, your speech is not simple enough.
We all have idiosyncracies and unique ways of speaking: special phrases, off-the-cuff references, idioms, figures of speech.
Try to minimize these as much as possible, unless you know for sure your audience will “get it.”
“If we don’t cut to the chase and bottom line it during this upcoming negotiation, we’re going to wind up spinning our wheels. At the end of the day, we might walk out of there with egg on our faces.”
Can become this:
“If we don’t say our main point quickly during this upcoming negotiation, we’re going to waste a lot of time. After it’s all over, we might walk out of there looking bad.”
There are two mental tricks you can use to force yourself to simplify:
- Imagine you are speaking to children
- Imagine you are speaking to foreign-language speakers who don’t understand English very well
2. Analogies, metaphors and stories
The human brain is wired to respond to stories.
“Let me tell you a funny story…”
“I’d like to start today with something interesting my cousin said to me last week…”
“I want to share an unusual experience I had a few years ago at the Atlanta airport…”
As soon as we hear the beginnings of a story, we immediately sit up and pay attention.
Analogies and metaphors are extremely useful techniques to take hard-to-understand concepts and make them more relatable:
“Why do we need a great manager for this project? The same reason a ship needs a great captain. There are risks coming and we need strong, experienced leadership to weather the storm.”
3. Mimic their style
Whenever possible and appropriate, make use of special words or phrases that will resonate with your audience.
Observe their own literature and writings, the way they talk, and what is important to them. Then simply take those same words and ideas and incorporate them into your speech.
If they tend to use words like “the best”, “top”, “number one” then use those in your speech.
If they are more restrained and cautious in their wording–“perhaps it might be a good idea to consider an alternative approach”–then adjust accordingly.
Whether their communication is cut-and-dry or flamboyant, overly-descriptive or clipped and concise, find small ways to mimic it as you speak.
4. Work with their questions
Finally, this is especially important if you are giving the same presentation over and over again to the same kind of audience.
As people ask you questions in your presentations, pay attention and learn from them.
Identify patterns and trends in their questions: What kinds of issues are they struggling with? What is important to them? How do they seem to be thinking about this topic?
This is essential to really understanding your audience and being understood.
Don’t just blindly go into Q&As over and over again with no deeper reflection.
Take a step back and figure out what is really on their mind, and which areas of the presentation need to be clarified, simplified or explained better.
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