Help your audience with clear signposts

A friend of mine rolls out a stock phrase whenever she feels an argument is not being expressed clearly. The phrase is “Help me to understand how this is a good idea”. Whenever we hear the words ‘Help me to understand…’ we know we stand accused of lack of clarity.

Sometimes we become so absorbed with an idea or a point of view that we forget to fill in some of the context when we share the idea with others. We are so immersed in the background that, in our own minds, we are able to take mental short cuts through the complications.

But try to take those short cuts when you are explaining your topic to strangers and you’ll be met with blank stares.

This is a problem many presenters and speakers face. They’ve spent weeks or months or years researching the topic. They’ve spent hours writing and re-writing the script. They’ve laboured over slides.

They know the material so well, they are able to jump straight to the heart of the matter.

And that’s when they run up against the blank stares from the audience. The fidgeting. The surreptitious glances at watches. That’s when you know the audience is thinking “Help me to understand…”.

Here are some tips for guiding any audience through your next presentation or speech:

  • Organize your content for a logical flow. A leads to B leads to C leads to D. No jumping around between the building blocks of your presentation. And don’t miss out any of the stages. Be gentle with your audience. You know all this stuff – but it’s all new and strange to your listeners, and they are looking for help to make the pieces fit together.
  • Signpost key pieces of information. Don’t be afraid to use so obvious a phrase as “Now this is really important…”. Do whatever it takes to make sure the audience grasps the really significant elements of your speech. Don’t assume that because you know a section is important, your audience will automatically see it in the same light.
  • Don’t be afraid to recap on key points: “Now remember how I said we had done X? Well that allowed us to move on to the stage I’m going to tell you about now.”
  • Use the power of the pause. Don’t rush though your presentation. Every time you stop talking, you give the audience a chance to process the information they’ve heard. The pause is one of the greatest communication tools you have, and it’s not used as much as it should be. You can also use the pause to draw attention to the thought that is coming up.
  • Summarize your main points at the end.
  • Use a phrase like “if you’ve learned only one thing today, let it be X.”
  • Find other ways of checking on comprehension. Ask the audience to shout out the points that resonated with them. Use that audience participation to reinforce or correct perceptions.

Try some or all of these tips in your next presentation. Then you won’t get anyone saying “Help me to understand…”.