Several years ago I had the pleasure of working with Wendy Warman, speech coach, president of Smartalkers, and author of Loud and Clear, a book about making your point and being heard. Wendy was coaching my Stetson University MBA cohort. The first assignment was to describe something (in my case, a party) to our group, communicating as if the group was ten years old. I was surprised at how very very difficult this assignment was for me.
I love public speaking; I believe there may be a teacher buried deep inside me. When I was ten years old, myself, I was organizing the other ten year olds into a classroom, and teaching them math or spelling. So you would think I might have this one; nope.
Somehow I managed to get the word “ubiquitous” into my three minute speech. Then I realized I’d said “crudites” instead of “raw vegetables” and it just went straight downhill from there. What the. . . ? Apparently I could not make the adjustment to a new audience on the fly. And frankly, on the fly in this case was at least twenty minutes lead time, fair warning, and several good examples ahead of me in the class. I was sort of mortified.
Making adjustments for the audience, whoever the audience is, is an important skill. And it’s more than that–it’s a way of thinking about the needs of others, to understand you, to not have to ask you what the heck you just said, and to come away from a conversation with you feeling that you understand them.
Last Friday’s New York Times has a great article, How to Talk to Real People, about an Emory University program called Communicating Science. Chemists and other scientists are taught to deliver a three minute speech about their work to several different constituencies: peers, other scientists, neighbors, and third graders. It is worth examining the differences and applying the principles and the exercise to your own tendencies, if you operate in a profession that has a language or jargon all its own. This means you, IT people, lawyers, accountants, HR Benefits professionals, and dozens of other people who can sound a little scary to the rest of the world.
And in the event that you are headed for an interview or networking meeting, remember that if you make what you do and what you think accessible to everyone, you will have that many more possible connections to a job just waiting for the right person. People who don’t understand what you do (or want to do) can’t help you. It is your job to help them understand.