How to communicate with an audience?


I strongly think that technical professionals’ ability to speak, write and the quality of idea (in that order) would be a significant factor in their success. So why is communication important? We live in an era of distractions, work from home, online conference meetings, etc. Humans have only one language processor. We do not know if everyone on the meeting across the wire implements rules of engagement as they would during an in-person discussion. Even during an in-person conversation, it is plausible for someone to be mentally absent.

The uniform code of military justice specifies court-martial for any officer who sends a soldier into battle without a weapon. Communication skills are nothing short of weapons for professionals.

Speech

If you go to conferences, I can almost guarantee that 9 out of 10 speakers would start their speech by saying “{Greetings} my name is {name} I am from {place} and this talk is about {topic}.” By repeating what you already know, the speaker is signaling you to catch up with emails on your laptop/phone or maybe make plans for your weekend. Second, “Umm … umm … aaah .. is the mic working? How much time have I got?” Not a great way to get uninterrupted attention from your audience.

Another example would be a social networking event. Most of the time, you walk up to a group of people hanging out and say, “Hi, I am {name}. I am from {place}. My interests are {hobbies}. I do {occupation}.” I bet it is just a matter of time before these people would walk away from you. How can you get them to engage with you in a conversation? If possible, use social networking tools (e.g., LinkedIn) to research the people you would be meeting and find common ground. e.g., Try to walk away from a stranger who tells you that they and you know someone in common! If we are to define the quality of communication, it could be defined as following. Here, I have used font size to emphasize the importance of each parameter.

Quality = f(Knowledge, Practice, Inherent talent)

When I deliver my presentation or speech, I generally start with an empowerment promise or a question that matters to the audience or a shocking factoid to captivate the audience. Example: A solar panel array covering an area of the Sahara desert only as big as the US state of New Mexico is capable of generating 100% of the entire world’s modern electricity needs. It would have approx 51.4 billion solar panels. I am sure that would make you re-think solar energy.

Another approach in a networking setting that is quite effective is storytelling because stories are about people! An adult version of “once upon a time.” For example, “In September last year, I was in this room with 150 people, and we were having a little conversation with one of the leading world experts on computer science. He said something to me that has me thinking ever since. He said something to me that changed what I think about what I think would be the future of the human race.” Suppose you can tell a story from your own life that connects you to why a particular topic is important to you. In business, how do you affect the quality of life of a customer? That’s what would make them trust you.

Recommendations

  • Use Graphics (Board):
    Gives a target to draw audience’s attention back to you if they have got out of the track on what you have been saying.
  • Use Props:
    Right props really carve a long lasting image on our memory. Remember Walter Lewin’s video from MIT?
  • Inspire audience:
    Exhibit passion about what you are doing.

Presentation

How many times have you seen a too busy presentation or the presenter is reading the slides? As a reminder, humans have only one language processor. So when the slide is too busy, the audience is likely to ignore what you are saying. Try to avoid distractions (funky backgrounds, etc.). Engaging with an audience and maintaining eye contact is far more important than making them watch the back of your head.

Slides should be condiments of what you are saying, not the other way around.

Within the first five minutes, take an opportunity to explain your vision and show that you have done “something” relevant to the topic.

The last slide

Titles like “Questions?”, “Conclusions”, “Collaborators”, “The End”, “Thank you”, “For details, see {link}”are common examples for the last slide. They all are awful. I do not recommend using any of these! Saluting the audience or saying “Ite, missa est” are far better ways, comparatively. I want to let the audience remember me by what I have done: My Contributions, which allows me to come full circle on my vision slide in the beginning. Alternatively, my final words often are a joke. So, when I finish, the audience thinks they had fun the whole time. 😂

In the end, I’d leave you with a YouTube video [link to the video] if you do a lot of public speaking on technical demos, presentations, etc.

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