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How to Communicate with a Non-Technical Audience
chillibreeze writer — Vaishali Somasundaram
I was recently asked to speak to an audience of new employees who had just joined the organization. It was a mixed crowd: there were technical and non-technical people. As writers, we all have been taught to communicate keeping the target audience in mind. Yes. Target audience! Gosh! That's when it dawned on me that actually I had two challenges in front of me:
While preparing for my presentation, I wondered how best to make it interesting as I, for sure, did not want them to tune out of my presentation or worse still, walk out of the room on the pretext of bio-breaks, so often, that it almost as if looks like they are suffering from incontinence.
The more I thought of it, the more ideas came to my mind and the more confused I got. I then called my 9-year-old child and asked her, "If someone was explaining something new, how would you like to hear it?" Pat came the reply, "Like a story, mom!"
Ah ha! There was a clue. There is a saying that comes to my mind when I think of stories, "All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by ... religion, whatever else it has done, has provided one of the main ways of meeting this abiding need."
I then thought about the many ways to add a story in my discourse:
All of the above was what my instinct told me, and I went with it. My presentation went off very well and I got a lot of applause and review from my non-technical, non-English speaking audience. I exited from the podium, feeling happy that I had touched a chord.
Globalization has taken me around the globe in the last decade or two, for which I am very fortunate. My writing has taken different flavors, colors, and textures and has adapted itself to many a region's palate. I have learnt along the way that what works for one culture, need not necessarily work for another. However, what I have learnt for sure is to follow some simple tips and tricks that almost do work, no matter who your audience is or what language they speak:
Do your homework
No matter what your topic is or who your audience is, do the required research on both. Ask the person who is organizing the meeting some probing questions, such as:
Don't make assumptions
Some small things that we take for granted at a presentation are the ones that sometimes rattle us at the last minute. Again, ask the organizer some important questions that would help you keep a calm demeanor especially at the beginning of the meeting. This is very important, as it sets the tone for the rest of the presentation.
Ensure that you arrive half an hour earlier than your start time, giving you enough time to handle last-minute situations that may arise. It will also help you familiarize yourself with the surroundings and equipment that you would use.
Speak to your audience
One of the other advantages of arriving early for a meeting, is you get an opportunity to network with others who also arrive early. Take the first step and introduce yourself to the early birds. Don't talk shop and don't let them know how much you know the subject, but, instead, talk about things that concern them. Ask them about their expertise or skill, or interests.
While presenting make eye contact with the people with whom you have established contact prior to the presentation. You will get nods. These nods will serve as an impetus for the rest of your presentation!
Start with a local language greeting
One of the things that I have seen really works is when we start speaking in the local language in a foreign country. The locals feel very happy that you have made the effort to speak in their dialect and feel the need to make you feel comfortable.
Come prepared with a quote or greeting in the local language. For instance, when presenting in Thailand, once, I started my presentation saying, "Sawatdee Kha," means "Hello" in Thai. I then spoke a few sentences in Thai, which translated to introduce the presentation.
Now, my accent may not have been correct, as I do not yet know how to read Thai, but it was well appreciated by my audience, as I could see some smiles on their faces along with some nods.
You will find that very often that other immigrants that correct your language, more than the locals do. Don't bother! My take on any language is, speak away as long as you are not serving as an interpreter of the language for any UN peace treaty organization!
Use simple analogies to explain complex concepts
If your presentation has any complex concepts that you need to explain to the audience, then ensure that you explain using simple analogies. For instance, I had to explain about the difference between processes and procedures.
Now, theoretically, processes are that tell the user, "What to do." Procedures are those that tell the user, "How to do it." Let's draw an analogy of building a chair to understand the difference between a process and a procedure.
Now to build a chair you would:
This is a process. It tells you what to do to build a chair. It does not tell you how to do it. The following is a simple procedure to build a chair:
After the analogy, ensure you repeat the concept again to ensure that the concept, and not the analogy, is retained in their mind.
Use simple language
It maybe technical content that you are presenting, but nothing that cannot be explained in simple and clear language. Don't use jargon and high-flown language to explain simple concepts. The reason why web sites such as www.howstuffworks.com or www.wikipedia.com are so popular are because no matter what they are talking about, it is in a language that is easily understood by a common person.
This is not the venue to create an impression about your language skills. Your goal is to ensure that audience leaves the hall thinking they have understood what you spoke, and not leave feeling that they have just attended a spelling bee contest.
"A picture is worth a thousand words," as the saying goes. Use pictures that illustrate the ideas or thoughts in the presentation. This always boards well, and breaks the humdrum of boring slides. Apart from the obvious reasons, it also helps myopic people backbenchers in the audience.
Provide hard copies
It is always nice to go back to a presentation and see what we have learnt later. Give hard copies of the presentation to the audience, if possible, or provide the links to the presentation on the company Intranet.
Finish with a joke/story
Always finish a presentation with a joke or a story. This leaves a nice feeling with the audience (and wakes them up if they have fallen asleep!)
I, of course, have not touched upon tips that are a given whether you are writing or making a presentation for a speech. Spell check and grammar check! That's what you have all those tools for! Use them! Writing devoid of grammar and spelling mistakes is a given.
These tips that I learnt over the years have served me well. I hope that they help you too.
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