Having interviewed many, many leaders on keys to success for my books, keynotes, and this column, I can tell you that strong communication skills consistently comes up as a crucial success driver. Especially when it comes to clarity of communication.
No matter how brilliant your thoughts are, if the audience can’t follow them, it does no one any good. That’s why some particularly interesting advice on how to communicate more clearly caught my eye when it was highlighted in late November on TED.
Physicist Dominic Walliman writes children’s books and creates YouTube videos that teach children mild-numbingly complex topics like quantum physics and nanotechnology. You know, standard stuff for an age group that doesn’t understand or care about flushing the toilet.
Walliman gave a TEDx talk in which he shares four communication principles he follows to clearly communicate the dense topics, even to dense kids. He says his method means that “you can pretty much explain anything to anybody, as long as you go about it the right way.”
First, here’s the talk.
I’ll follow here by condensing and sharing the four steps Walliman suggests along with my own perspective being a student and practitioner of clear communication as a professional speaker.
1. Start by meeting your audience where they’re at.
Walliman calls this first step “starting off in the right place.” You don’t want to start explaining something the audience already knows or jump to the conclusion that they get where you’re coming from right away. The quickest way to lose someone is to not begin the race from the same starting line.
As a communicator, you must take into account different knowledge levels and backgrounds and set the pace accordingly. Before I give a keynote, I do as much research on my audience as I can to understand their background. If I do want to share something I know they know, I acknowledge that. I even make fun of myself sometimes with this line, “I know you know this but sometimes my job is to be a professional reminder-er” (repeating the “er” several times to poke fun at the fact that it’s not a real word).
If you’re not sure what your audience knows, Walliman says ask, with questions like “Do you already get this?” or “Does this make sense?”
2. Don’t lose the plot.
In Walliman’s words, he implores you not to “go too far down the rabbit hole.” We lose people most frequently when we start getting into too much detail, often detail that’s tangential to the main point. This is a cardinal sin in keynote speaking. Say what you need to say to communicate your point clearly, brilliantly, memorably, and with emotion, but don’t get caught up with add-on thoughts that don’t add on value or relevance.
Here’s a trick. Make the most important points you want to convey worthy of being considered an epiphany. Then support those insightful points with a few relevant details to support your case. Then stop. Any more will unwind memorability of the epiphany you gifted your audience with.
3. Go for clarity over accuracy.
Walliman says when we’re knowledgeable about a topic it’s easy to worry about getting every fact explained perfectly. That can get in the way of comprehension. Instead, he says “It’s better to come up with a simpler explanation that maybe isn’t completely technically correct but it gets the point across.” In this manner you give a basic understanding, and if the audience wants to learn more, you can then fill-in-the-blanks and complete the picture more fully and accurately.
I do a lot of original research for my books, keynotes, and classes I teach at Indiana University. On stage, I explain the very basics of the methodology behind a study I conducted, enough to make it interesting and to set up the payoff (the study results), but without worrying about being 100 percent accurate in explaining the methodology. To do so would counteract the emotional response I’m trying to build to when I reveal the study result.
4. Explain why you’re so passionate about your topic.
If the audience can understand why you’re fascinated with your topic and why it’s so important, they’re more likely to feel the same way. You have to establish the case for why they should care, just as in business when you have to establish the reason for why change is needed or why a certain strategy should be followed.
And don’t be afraid to convey your enthusiasm in the energy you exude, in your voice, and in your movements. People get caught up in what you’re caught up in, which ultimately aids in clarity of communication.
Hopefully, this article has brought clarity on achieving clarity. Now go make your point.