The people changing business

When we write a report about something, our task is not to write a text but to inform the reader.

We must not stop at correctly and completely describing all aspects of the topic at hand but lead our readers to understanding. It’s vitally important that the reader of our report understands that the product will fail if we don’t manage to bring the tolerance down to .03%. It’s not sufficient to simply describe what we see. We must make sure that our reader sees it, too.

It’s always about the reader, never about the paper. The goal of a report is not to be written but to be understood.

The same is true for communication in general. Our job is not to write a speech, design a website, or create slides but to change people’s minds.

We are in the people-changing business, not the text-writing, website-designing or speech-giving business.

What’s the ideal number of slides for a presentation?

Martin Luther King didn’t need a slide at all. Dick Hardt used 50 slides – per minute! Both used the ideal number of slides – for the story they wanted to tell on that day to that audience.

Rather than with a number of slides it’s much more useful to start with a story and then add slides as we need them. A slide is needed when it allows us to communicate something better with that slide than without it. Sometimes, we need a lot of slides, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes a slide needs a lot of time to explain, sometimes it doesn’t.

In essence, the simple (though, admittedly, not necessarily easy) answer to the question about the ideal number of slides is this: You need as many slides as you need.

Brain to brain

Speaking is a sequential process. We can only speak one word after another.

However, thoughts aren’t sequential. When I think something – let’s say the word “orange” – a network of associations immediately pops up in my brain. In yours, too. Most likely different than for me.

Thoughts form a network. One thought leads to other thoughts which lead to yet more thoughts, loosely connected and jumping from one to the other.

One of the major challenges for speakers is that our audience’s networks of associations are different from ours.

What’s worse: We can’t just tell somebody our network of associations because there’s no easy way of serialising the network.

Speaking is sequential. It requires a series of thoughts. If we want to tell somebody something it can only be done one word after another. My knowledge network has to be transformed into a linear stream of information.

The problem is that every thought (word, even) in this stream of information sparks a network of associations for our audience. And again for the next thought. Our hope is that it will fit into our audience’s knowledge net in a meaningful way – ideally, ending up with the same network.

But it’s far from guaranteed that it does. And there’s no easy way to find out.

A good start is to acknowledge this dilemma and take into account that our audiences might have a completely different set of associations than we have.

Misunderstanding is the norm

We tend to assume that our audience understands what we mean and that misunderstanding is an anomaly in communication. I think it’s much more helpful to assume the opposite.

Misunderstanding is not an anomaly but the norm. More often than not – even when it doesn’t seem so – people have a different understanding of things than us.

When we say “eager” they see something different than we do. When we say “2 billion” it might seem not much to them while it seems much for us.

It helps a lot to keep that in mind when communicating. If in doubt, assume that your audience will misunderstand what you say and increase clarity.

The things we see

The only reason to give a talk is that there’s a gap between what your audience sees and what you see.

The purpose of a talk is to make your audience see what you see.

Of course, it’s so much easier if you don’t worry about that. You just speak about your topic for 30 minutes and when everything is said, you are done.

Yet, the point of a talk is not to be delivered but to change minds. The only way to achieve that is to acknowledge the gap and see your audience first. Where are they coming from? What’s their worldview? How do they see things?

And then take them on a journey to see things from your perspective.

Turn on the light

You see things that I don’t.

The beauty of communication is that for most things I don’t need to be you to see them as well. I don’t need to make the same experiences as you did in order for you to let me in to your experiences. I don’t need to have the same education as you in order for you to make me understand the things that you’ve understood.

You can make me see through the power of communication.

Wouldn’t it be great if 2021 was a year in which we focussed on exactly that? I’d sure love it.

What would you want us to see? Turn on the lights and make us see!

10 eyewitnesses

If, after a car accident, you ask 10 eyewitnesses what they saw, you will hear 10 different versions of the same accident, possibly even contradictory ones. None of the 10 eyewitnesses is lying. None is trying to deceive you. Each one is merely recounting the truth in exactly the way they recall it.

Don’t expect that to be different for a speech. We shouldn’t assume that what we say will be recalled by our audiences in exactly the way we mean it. We shouldn’t even assume that what we say will be heard exactly like we say it. Or that what we show will be seen just like we see it. Or that what someone from your audience will say about your speech tomorrow, will correspond to what they are hearing today.

Each one of us has their own reality. We relate new information to this reality. Therefore, we may conclude different things from the same information than others do. Neither of us makes a mistake. It’s just the way that our brains work.

As a speaker, it’s a fact we have to deal with.

If they didn’t get it, they didn’t get it

End of story.

There’s really no point in insisting that you’ve mentioned it on slide 17. They didn’t get it.

Much better to just take the feedback to grow. Reflect your words and then, next time, try to make your point even clearer.

The presenter’s job

This is usually easy: to make sure that the information in a presentation is correct. That there are no mistakes in the data. That it’s complete. That we didn’t miss anything.

This is usually much harder: to make sure that our audience gets it. What does the data mean? How does this work? Why does it matter?

This is the least we should strive for.

Too many presenters stop at being correct. They consider their job to be to deliver the info.

It’s not.

Their job is to create understanding. The purpose of a presentation isn’t to be delivered but to be understood – if not to change minds.

When someone grants us 30 minutes of their time, the least we should do is to speak with clarity so they get what we mean.

Where are your customers coming from?

To take an audience where you want to go requires understanding where they are coming from.

Because what gets us there is often not what gets others there, too. We’ve gone our ways, made our experiences, and learnt our lessons. Specifically, we’ve learnt our lessons. Not theirs. What brings us there, might or might not work for them – for whatever reason.

When we say “easy”, it means different things for us than it does for them. When we say “fair”, we see different stories than they do. When we say “$10,000”, it might be a lot more for them than it is for us.

As much as we like to think that things are obvious, often they are not.

Where are your customers coming from?

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz

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