I recently had the chance to talk about and promote some work we’ve done to varied individuals over the course of several days.  With lots of practice and preparation in hand, I was ready to deliver the message and show all these people the great work we had done.  To my surprise though, not one of them really understood my original message!

Some explanation is necessary.  See, I’ve recently become a relatively competent communicator (both literally and title wise from Toastmasters), so I was more than prepared to deliver the story about our work to these people.  My regular preparation for this kind of situation is to remember all the points I wanted to hit and practice, practice, practice.  Unfortunately, my Toastmaster experience hadn’t taught me one of the most crucial points in this type of situation — adaptability.

Giving a speech is hard in one sense.  There are so many different points to consider: structure, message, vocal variety, body language, audience and the list goes on.  However, it is also easy in another sense because the audience is relatively static (you know beforehand what to expect).  In this situation, this was definitely not the case with the audience (and their background knowledge and perspective) changing every time you talk to someone new.  This completely threw me off initially.

At first, I would just give the standard “speech” that I had prepared and practiced for.  It sounded great.  It hit all the points on this list: good message, good vocal variety, good body language… except for one thing: the audience.  Here I was woefully unprepared.  I had assumed incorrectly (as most academics do) that the people I would be talking to would have somewhat of a similar background as I do — at least at a high level.  In fact, this was true to some extent.  However, the big problem was that the way they viewed the problem and solution was completely different.  This caused my prepared message to veer off wildly from its original purpose.

Thankfully, some of the more experienced peers I was with gave me some pointers after my initial frustration.  The solution was so simple that I missed it: ask questions.  A few questions up front, as well as sprinkled throughout the presentation, would direct the presentation so that the message would be received loud and clear (clear being the most important part).  Although, I was still struggling to figure out what the right questions to ask were, I was definitely having much more success than my first few attempts.  I guess that old saying is right: if at first you don’t succeed, ask some questions.