Let's say you're putting together a presentation and you know you won't have a lot of time to share it. You may be tempted to present only "high-level" information: broad strokes, conceptual, not a lot of detail.

Your meeting may go well--people nodding in agreement--but you may be surprised when there aren't a lot of questions. Later you may be in for another surprise when you discover that participants don't clearly remember what you presented. And when it's time to implement your proposal, the same people who seemed to be in agreement now raise what seem to be surprising objections.

What's the problem? It's that darn "high level," of course.

As Christopher Locke wrote in Gonzo Marketing, people in business "seem to assume we know what they mean when they sling around terms like value, brand and positioning and equate the resulting blur of vague ideas to something we might actually care about."

These concepts are hard to argue with because they're not tangible. If someone says, "we should improve customer service," how can you object?

But these high-level ideas don't leave much of a lasting impression. And when it comes time to get things done, reality sets in. "Customer service" is fine as a theoretical term, but when everyone realizes that it means all your phone agents have to go through seven hours of training, suddenly people wonder whether the concept is worth the work.

That's why in order to be persuasive, you need to back up abstractions with information that's both tangible and tactile.

Here are four ways to use specifics to create understanding and gain buy-in:

1. Decide on your one key objective. Often the reason people communicate at a high level is because they're trying to cover too many topics--so there's only time for a superficial drive-by on each. It's better to go deep on the one thing you really care about than try to do too much.

2. Answer the questions people will have. If you say we need to improve customer service, your stakeholders want to know: "By how much? How will we know we've achieved an improvement? What does 'improved' look and feel like? What, specifically, will we need to do differently?"

3. Communicate as if you know nothing about the topic. Dan and Chip Heath built on this idea in Made to Stick, coining the term, "The Curse of Knowledge." The Heath brothers write, "Once we know something, our knowledge has 'cursed' us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind."

How? By simplifying communication enough so your audience members can understand it. That has nothing to do with "dumbing down;" this is about respecting your audience members' intelligence by honoring the fact that they're knowledgeable about different things than you are.

4. Engage the senses. Create communication that your audience can see, hear, smell, taste and touch.

Robin Lakoff, professor linguistics emerita at UC Berkeley, has written about "texture words" that make an abstraction real.  "'Crispy' is so much better than 'crisp.' Crispy is crispier. It really sounds like you can almost feel your teeth crunching against it," writes Lakoff. "Tactile activity is going on."

So use this phenomenon to your advantage when communicating, to draw your audience in and get them to pay attention. By turning on the switch to the senses, you create a vivid connection to your messages.

If you're thinking that your topic--say, customer service--can't be conveyed by engaging the senses, listen to the advice of Strunk and White, authors of the classic guide to writing, The Elements of Style.

Write Strunk and White, "The greatest writers--Homer, Dante, Shakespeare--are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures." 

Published on: Nov 12, 2019
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