You worked hard on your presentation: conducted research, honed your content, built your slides and practiced your pitch. That's why it was so disappointing when the meeting fell flat. People stared into space. Some surreptitiously checked their phones. And few really engaged in discussion--you got a couple of lackluster questions, but not much energy.

The result? You left not knowing whether people even understood what you were talking about, or whether they supported your proposal.

Chances are that you made this classic communication mistake: assumed that audience members know more about your topic (and related topics) than they actually do. So you plunge ahead, using technical terms, showing complicated charts and referring to specialized processes--and leaving the audience bored and baffled.

What you should do instead is use a well-known psychological principle called "appropriate knowledge" or "prior knowledge."

In his book, Clear and to the Point, Stephen M. Kosslyn explains that appropriate knowledge can be defined like this: "Communication requires prior knowledge of pertinent concepts, jargon and symbols. You communicate effectively only if you make use of what the audience members already know. We humans understand new information by relating it to information previously stored in memory."

Kosslyn, who is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, advises that you apply this psychological principle in 5 ways:

1. Know your audience. As I've written many times, "know your audience" is one of the oldest tenets of communication. The concept, of course, is that the better you understand the needs and preferences of the people you're trying to reach, the better you can design communication that will actually get through to them.

A big part of knowing your audience, says Kosslyn, is understanding what members know and what they don't know about your topic. His advice: "Build on the audience's knowledge and concerns when you explain why your topic is important; find out what information is important to the audience, and which level of presentation is important for them."

2. Watch your language. This is not about bad words, but about "the jargon you choose" and "the sophistication and complexity of both the vocabulary and syntactic structure." What Kosslyn means is not that you need to "dumb down" your vocabulary, just use language that's easy for everyone in your audience to understand. And if you have to use a technical term, define it.

3. Use visuals to simplify, not obscure. Kosslyn writes, "A standard bar chart is familiar to almost everyone, but a box-and-whisker chart (which shows the median, range of values in the quartile above and below it, and the extreme values) is not universally understood; in fact, you--along with most people--have probably never heard of it."

4. Connect the dots. Use concepts that audience members can relate to. "We understand and remember a message more easily if it connects to what we already know. For example, everyone understands amount, but not everyone knows what a first or second derivative is," writes Kosslyn. "If you assume that the members of the audience know more than they actually do and you use unfamiliar language, conventions, or concepts, you will not connect with them--and actually might intimidate them."

5. Be concrete. Define the topic by providing a concrete example. Conceptual terms (like quality, innovation, cost-efficiency, progress or customer service) are not compelling. They're abstractions that you can't connect to. Most of them are long words, so they seem important, but you can't touch, taste, see, smell or hear any of these concepts. My sense of what "quality" looks like may be cool and blue, while yours may be square, stark and white. That's why an important strategy for being compelling is to get specific. Explain clearly and concisely why your problem, question or topic is important to your audience.

Above all, address your audience members' concerns and interests. "It's a curious fact of memory that the more we reflect on material, the more likely it is that the material will stick--that we will remember it, whether or not we've tried to do so," writes Kosslyn. "If you can interest your audience and engage them with the material, they will end up remembering it.

And isn't that what you're trying to achieve?

Published on: Jul 26, 2018
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