Cartoon Einstein lecturing

Does this sound familiar? You’re a technical type or maybe a financial wizard, and you’re giving a presentation at a meeting where you are the Smartest Person in the Room. You have complete command of your subject, and you explain it in considerable detail. Everybody seems to accept your ideas, but as the discussion goes on, you realize they don’t understand much of anything you have said. You command their respect, but you’re not feeling the love.

This is the curse of being the Smartest Person in the Room. When you impress people with your smarts, it’s usually because they don’t quite understand you. And if they don’t quite understand you, they aren’t going to buy whatever you are selling, whether it’s an initiative, a concept, a new way of doing things, or an idea.

If you want to be an effective communicator, recognize that whether or not you are the Smartest Person in the Room is irrelevant. Your job is to sell your idea, and to do that, you need to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. You need to look at the idea the way they are looking at it. Your presentation should not be about the technical details or even the most interesting aspects of your subject. It should be about how the members of the audience will benefit from it.

Here are three principles for presenting your magnificent idea to a nontechnical audience:

  1. Know your audience. They are only going to achieve understanding by building on what they already know. If you have a good idea of what they already know, you’re in a much better position to say, draw examples from their experience rather than your own. Master the language they are comfortable with and translate your technical concepts into that language.
  2. Know what’s in it for them. Your idea must offer some benefit to the audience. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be presenting it to them. Figure out that benefit and find a simple, compelling way to state it.
  3. Give them the gist. You’re never going to get your audience to master a complex argument. You’ll be successful if they come away with no more than an understanding of your theme. Find a brief, engaging way to state your theme, and give them that. You can always provide more detail off-line to those who need it and can master it.

There are three behaviors that you should avoid no matter how much they tempt you:

  1. Don’t present the idea the way you learned it. The way you learned the idea is irrelevant to the audience and probably involves an abundance of detail they don’t need and which will distract them.
  2. Don’t think out loud. If somebody asks a question, don’t launch into your answer, working it out as you go along. Take a moment to formulate your response, which should be based on what the audience needs to know — no more, no less.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask the audience what they need. If you have a good idea of what the audience needs, you are less likely to overwhelm them with detail.

Being the Smartest Person in the Room should not be a disadvantage, but when it comes to communicating effectively with an audience, it is likely to be. With a little preparation, however, you can understand what your audience needs and prepare to provide it. That will do more than make you popular; it will get support for your idea.


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