Rita is an actuary with years of training in how to assess risk using complex tools and a myriad of data. Recently, she’s been assessing the risk of insuring real estate in low-lying areas that could be more prone to flood-damage as climate change progresses. When she meets with her clients she shares her comprehensive charts and rigorous forecasting models that change depending on the degree increase in global temperatures, but she also notices that their eyes glaze over before she’s barely explained the first few data points.
For this reason, Rita knows she must let go of the data she has poured over for days on end and remember her client’s perspectives: What do they absolutely need to know and remember? And why should they care about it? Starting with empathy for her audience will allow Rita to craft a presentation that will be meaningful to her client and effectively communicate the importance of her risk analysis.
We might not all be actuaries, but when any subject-matter expert wants to reach an audience beyond their peers, we must share why it matters. Your audience must know why they should care. In this article, two authors who are experts in sharing complex subjects with a general audience give tips that will help you create compelling, memorable, and meaningful presentations.
Meet our experts: Former editor of Harvard Business Review Karen Dillon co-authored three books with the top thinker in innovation and management, Clay Christensen, including New York Times best-seller, How Will You Measure Your Life? Her most recent book is The Microstress Effect: How Little Things Pile Up and Create Big Problems—and What to Do. She is an expert in helping theorists share their expertise with an audience beyond the ivory tower.
Our second expert, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, writes from the depths of scientific and historical research. Haupt is an award-winning ecophilosopher whose work explores complex relationships between humans and the wild, natural world. Her most recent book is Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit. Her writing has been described by reviewers as “sparkling with imagination, emotion and insight.”
Here are their insights:
Ask Good Questions.
When Karen Dillon worked with Clay Christiansen, he would explain a theory and she would ask questions. Dillon said: “I wouldn’t ask questions that were directly aimed at me understanding, but so that I could translate it.” She wanted to understand what the big idea was behind the theory. She would ask questions that would allow Christiansen to tell relevant stories. The kinds of questions she asked included open-ended questions like: How do I see this in everyday life? Why is this different from X? Can you give me an example? Give me another example. Why do you think this is so interesting? What will this theory change for people, if they understand it?
The more expert you become in a subject, the more you need to remember what it’s like not to know.
During our interview Dillon shared a story from a wedding she attended that clarified for her the importance of being able to explain yourself: “My dad, a smart engineer, was talking to one of the groomsmen about his Ph.D. The guy said to my dad, “I don’t think I could possibly explain it in a way that you could understand it. I was offended for my dad.” But then she realized, it was actually the groomsmen’s failure not her dad’s.
Her takeaway from this experience? “You should be smart enough to be able to tell the high-level insight of your work in a way that people understand it or you’re never going to have an audience that appreciates it. The more expert you become, the harder it is for you to talk about it beyond your peers.” If your goal is to share your ideas to a broad audience, you must provide them with a way in.
Trust your expertise; don’t show it off.
Haupt’s advice on expertise comes at the same idea as Dillon’s but from a different angle. Ultimately, both Dillon and Haupt want you to remember who your audience is. For all of her books, Haupt researches deeply. She said, “In writing Mozart’s Starling, I read eight books on the composer Dvořák and 20 papers. I wrote a whole chapter about his relationship with birds and composition. Then I realized that the chapter didn’t belong. And I cut the whole Dvořák section down to basically three sentences.” She doesn’t believe her depth of research was a waste. “I did it so that the three sentences were the right sentences,” she explained.
Haupt didn’t feel the need to show off her depth of knowledge with a million footnotes and esoteric references to Dvořák. Oftentimes, experts can include too much detail about how they came to their realizations and risk losing their audience’s attention. Haupt was confident enough in her knowledge and her work to trust those three sentences.
Show Connections Between Your Thoughts
On the flip side to knowing what you don’t need to include, experts must also understand what is necessary to include. Dillon says that many experts elide necessary connections because they are so familiar with them, they take the steps without acknowledging it. Without this connective tissue, audience members can get lost. Because your listener doesn’t have all the background you do, it may be necessary to show how A leads to B, which leads to C. Jumping to C without showing how you got there can cause confusion. This is often referred to as the Curse of Knowledge. You can forget what it is like not to know what you. This is where empathy, understanding another person’s perspective becomes so helpful.
Talk it out (with a real audience).
Dillon has seen many engaging teachers sit down to write a book and they suddenly become astonishingly boring. “They are thinking, ‘I have to be academically perfect and impressive. They write densely and boringly,” said Dillon.
Without a direct audience they can see, these experts forget their purpose. They forget that they are trying to reach an audience. If you want to write a book or an article (or really anything that involves explaining complexity that your audience don’t have to deal with regularly), Dillon suggests talking out your first draft rather than writing it. A recording and transcription will render a great rough draft that keeps a reader in mind.
Use stories to demonstrate relevance and human connection.
Haupt breaks up explanatory sessions with stories to help her audience connect to the subject matter. Speaking about her book Rooted, she said, “stories aren’t meant to impart information other than to show the relevance or the resonance of the things that I’m talking about.”
She gave this example: “In a section where I’m talking about all of the neurotransmitters that have been detected within trees which allow them to communicate, I pause to mention my friend Kjersti, who’s a tree activist and expert. She struggles with depression. I was talking to her when she was depressed and she said, ‘I wish I was a tree, because then I would never be alone.’” Haupt says this brief story is “a little moment of remembrance of the human dimension.” It turns the scientific data, which could be really dry, and imposes human emotion and experience onto it, which all readers can connect to. “Even if we haven’t struggled with depression, we’ve longed for that sense of community and communion with others.”
Harness the power of stories.
Philosopher Susan Sontag said, “descriptions mean nothing without examples.” We learn through examples. Haupt reminds herself there is a reason for this, “When I’m trying to share information that can be arcane, I try to remember that our ancestral way of knowing is through story. We have been learning through story for almost 40,000 years.” Scientific papers, on the other hand, have only been around for a couple hundred years. Both stories and scientific papers, Haupt says, are invitations to learn something new, but with a story’s narrative arc you have the ability to engage your audience’s imagination and emotion.
Dillon agrees. When she was working with Christiansen, she credits his storytelling as the reason he was able to reach such a wide audience. She said, “In his class, he had gotten great at the case method, telling stories that would help people understand something.” Christensen’s theories were complex, but his stories were simple. She explained that “your case should not be so detailed that people can’t see how it relates to them. You have to tell it at a high level that they understand the broad strokes of what was interesting. You can’t get bogged down in details.”
The Takeaway for Leadership Communication
These 7 actionable tips from communication experts Karen Dillon and Lyanda Lynn Haupt all point to the importance of understanding your audience. Knowing who you are speaking to will help you know what information you need to share and what you need to omit; what questions to ask and what questions to answer; when to insert a story and what story will have resonance.
Perhaps you are headed to a summer block party, where a neighbor will be sure to ask you about what you do for work. Maybe you have been putting off preparing for an upcoming presentation, because you don’t know where to start. Whatever the situation, pick one or two of these tips and put them in practice. How does it change the way you share information?
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