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Would you speak to your mother like that?

Posted by Devin Cole  October 28, 2011 11:29 AM

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Shapira.Allison.BW.jpgWhen you give a speech, what language do you speak? I’m not talking about speaking English versus Spanish, Hebrew, or Arabic. I’m talking about the way you use language in your speech.

Do you speak the language of business, or engineering, or law? Would someone without a degree in those fields be able to understand you?

One of the things I love about Boston is the exciting innovation going on in the field of clean energy, both at the state and startup level. I attend a lot of clean energy conferences and hear a lot of pitches, and sometimes I coach the presenters in advance.

I’m at a slight disadvantage in this field, however: I’m an opera singer, not an engineer. And many times these presentations are intended for a technical audience.

But my disadvantage is the presenter’s challenge. As a public speaker, how do you speak to me in such a way that I can understand your product, service, or idea, no matter how complex your technology? I’m not the only one in the audience without a PhD in engineering – and many of us without PhDs are still those who can fund, advance, or promote your new company, if you help us understand what you do.

This challenge is not unique to the field of clean energy; it exists in every industry. So how do you speak to everyone in the audience, regardless of their background?

These are just a few of the answers I’ve developed over the past 10 years, and they have helped clients who work in politics, nonprofit organizations, corporations, hospitals, and startups:

Instead of using jargon, try to explain your ideas simply and concisely. Those who work in sales know to focus on the benefits of a product instead of the features, answering the age-old customer question, “What’s in it for me?” Use stories and examples along with facts so that we can see the impact your work has had on others.

There is an added benefit to using examples: they help you show interest and enthusiasm since your voice changes when you tell a story. If you are discussing a complex technical innovation, use a simple, unexpected analogy so that those of us in the audience who don’t understand the technology can still relate. Of course, you can and should discuss the complexities and competitive advantage of your technology, but consider incorporating the above suggestions to diversify the presentation.

Sometimes speakers feel the need to use technical or other jargon in order to send a message to the audience that they know what they’re talking about. But if you really know what you’re talking about, the audience can tell no matter how simply you describe it. And if you don’t know what you’re talking about, then hiding behind jargon won’t help.

A well-known Mark Twain quote says, “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Translating from jargon back to English takes time, but it’s ultimately worth the effort. Instead of hoping for an audience that speaks business, or engineering, or law, speak in a way that everyone can understand. Explain your ideas simply, passionately, and clearly, and you will have touched every single person in the room.

Allison M. Shapira teaches public speaking in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Communication Program and to entrepreneurs, diplomats, politicians, and nonprofit leaders from around the world. She is also a Boston World Partnerships Connector.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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