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Boxed In

Picture this: you're facing a room full of strangers, telling them about something you understand inside out, when suddenly you see blank looks on too many faces, and wonder if you started speaking a foreign language. Or, just after you have confidently delivered your speech, you find out from the questions asked that people did not get what you were saying, not one bit. Sound familiar? It happens to most of us somewhere along the line.

When we really know our stuff we run that risk even more. Which is why being an expert in your field does not necessarily mean you're the best person to speak about your topic. Remember those speeches you've heard from esteemed experts or cutting-edge innovators who lost you after "good morning?" As listeners, such an experience represents a lost opportunity for learning at best, and a complete waste of time at worst. Yet when the tables are turned and we are the ones speaking, how do we regard these speech fails? All too often we blame our audience for not being smart or attentive enough to cherish the pearls of wisdom we are throwing before them. That is the completely wrong approach.

Wherever you are speaking--a classroom, an auditorium, or a meeting room-- your primary objective is to connect. Always. The verb may vary: share, teach, elucidate--even, perhaps, persuade. But remember you cannot convince anyone of anything until you have made a deep, real connection first! And that means taking a step back. Getting out of the weeds. You may be immersed in your topic and quite excited about what you have to share, but unless you are speaking a language your audience understands you won't connect.

We are facing some pretty huge problems these days, many of them compounded by the fact that not only do people not understand, they have given up trying to understand. The big, complicated concepts that drive science, economics, and politics shaping our daily lives will certainly affect the future of our communities, our country, and our planet. But many don't have the interest or desire to begin to understand them. There are many reasons for this, but one thing I have seen over and over is the inability of experts to effectively explain these concepts to non-experts. If people don't understand the larger relationships between various forms of energy usage and climate change, for example, maybe it's because no one has taken time to explain it in way they understand. Life moves pretty fast these days (thanks, Ferris!) and if you don't make an effort to connect, people feel disrespected. Then it's Bye Felicia.

And there you are, one step closer to having your great solution to the world's problems shot down by ignorant funders, defeated by a misinformed electorate, or otherwise sabotaged by people you might see as "just plain dumb." But you have to take responsibility as a speaker. No one can read your mind, and if you need to connect the dots for them, that is what you do. Step outside yourself and see what might be complicated or hard to comprehend. Ask someone to help. Someone who is not an expert in the way you are. Then break it down. And practice. Putting a reminder in the notes section of your PowerPoint is not enough. You need to make a plan and "bake it into" your presentation. If you wait for Q & A at the end to gauge audience understanding, you run the risk of sending too many listeners to their happy place along the way. And that's not a risk any of us can afford.

So step outside of the box you've put yourself in. The one where you're comfortable talking to people who already understand what you mean. And try to connect with others out there in the wide, wide world.

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