“Ask the Communications Coach” Vol 1., No. 1: Simplifying complex information; experts as presenters

B. Turner sent me a basket of questions to consider for this first “Ask the Communications Coach” post: 

B. Turner:   We both mentioned Pecha Kucha on the HBR blog today, one of my questions is (besides 20×20) what are other tools and methods for communicating complex ideas in limited time?  What tools or tricks do you employ?  A rhetorical question I have is why do we ask people who cannot present — whether they be engineers or human resources — to make presentations?  Does the owner of the content have to be the presenter?

Nice series of questions here, B. Turner.  Allow me to respond in two parts:

Simplifying the complex.  There are several considerations a presenter must make when introducing a complex idea:

  • Establish a goal.  This applies to all presentations, not just complex topics.  Unfortunately, this obvious tip gets more lip-service than practice.  In my experience, far too many presenters focus on “what information do I need to get across?” Instead, the focus should be outward.  Ask:  “What’s going to inspire the audience to consider/adopt/trust what I have to share?  How do I reach their hearts?  And, if applicable, their heads and their feet?” 
  •  Know your audience.  If the audience has some technical background, that doesn’t give license to play the jargon or acronym game.  In my opinion, the best way to convey complex information is through anecdotes.  Even lab-coats like a good story.  If it’s more of a lay-person audience, then the story had better be somewhat entertaining and relevant.
  • Paint a picture.  I’ve recently grown fond of a website called Information is Beautiful.  The “data journalist and information designer” there does a wonderful job of presenting extremely detailed  information through compelling visuals.   Two of my favorites:  Left vs. Right (US) and What does China censor online?  This site should serve as a frequent reminder to all presenters the importance of using visuals to effectively tell your story.

Experts as presenters.  Too often, the subject determines the presenter.  “If the topic is complex and technical, better to let the scientist handle the presentation,” the selection process goes.  I disagree.  The audience you are trying to reach should be the primary factor in deciding who presents the material.  Not the only factor, but the primary factor.

Of course, there will be times when people need to hear directly from scientists, engineers and other technical experts.  In those cases, why not have co-presenters?  The first presenter can set the stage, make personal connections with the audience and headline the information.  (“So that’s the overview.  I don’t know the specifications, but if we all listen to what Dr. Bunsen Honeydew has to say, I think we’ll better understand more depth on this situation.”)  And then the specialist can detail some supporting points.

Although I believe that some experts can improve their presentation style through coaching, I will concede that there are some people that may not have the genetic code to present well.  In those cases, why not use a FlipCam video so you can edit the piece down to the most persuasive points?  Then, the expert can be made available to answer questions at the end of the video.


Remember to “Ask the Crisis Manager” or “Ask the Communications Coach” any time by using the contact/ask link, or sending me a Tweet

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